A Call to Womanhood: A Modest Proposal

Ninon could rock a curl like it was nobody's business.

Modesty.

I thought I would write one essay on it and move on. Something that captured my thoughts just so. But then I sat in front of a blank page for an hour and then a day and then a week. This topic is bigger than a few paragraphs and a one sided conversation. Its cultural ramifications can be traced as far back as those first fig leaves laid across that first man and woman. When approached correctly it can be a thing of beauty, when misunderstood and misapplied it is a byword of oppression and misogyny.

So over the course of A Call to Womanhood this subject that is often murky, and always deep, will be visited again and again. Today is just a halting beginning. A little something to wet the palate in preparation for the immense feast of a discussion to come. I hope you join in on the conversation. I think it is an important one.

Ninon de L’Enclos  rocketed into the world in 1620 and stayed for eighty five long and vibrant years. A French feminist to her ruffled core, L’Enclos was a study in both contrast and consistency.

She was well educated and renowned for her beauty. An independent woman, L’Enclos spent years as a courtesan to famous men but never depended on a single one for her bread. For her, their life long devotion was the only proper trade for what she had to give. Each and every one gave it willingly, even after she had cast them aside as lovers. She wrote and held salons and preached against those that preached. She railed against a god she did not believe in and thought women were innately powerful.

When I read her writing there is one nod of agreement for every three vehement shakes of dissent. With my God and my concepts of virtue, I do not know if she would have liked me. A shame, because I like her.

Tremendously.

Ninon could turn a phrase more quickly than she could turn a man’s head. It has been over three hundred years since her death and her words about women continue to find their way into our discourse on womanhood. (I suppose it is this attribute of relevance that makes people breathe out the words, “a woman before her time” when describing L’Enclose. I bristle a bit at the turn of phrase. A woman doing what she wants, saying what she wants, living as she wants is not a woman living before her time. It is a woman that realizes she does not have to wait for time to catch up to reality. It is simply a woman being a woman.)

Ninon lived a long life and said many memorable things, some of which even bear repeating. Somewhere between the writing and politics and pleasure seeking, she found the time to proclaim,

“It is strange that modesty is the rule for women when what they most value in men is boldness.”

Madame L’Enclose was discussing modesty as a rounded idea – modesty of thought, action, address and dreams. She and I meet on equal ground there. Women are built for action and achievement just as surely as men are. (Ladies, go out and get it.) But in the context of her life and beliefs, her words also apply to physical modesty and there I cannot follow her.

There is a physical modesty that is not found in stereotypes or the well-lit dioramas of angry men and women.

It is a modesty that is measured in intent, rather than inches. A modesty that is a declaration of a sense of self, rather than a reaction to the eyes of others. A modesty empty of shame and full of dignity. A modesty that forgets itself and passes no judgment on others. A modesty that acknowledges it has nothing to hide, but also knows there is nothing it must give away.

That modesty, found in women varied in background and ideology, is a declaration of worth. It is banner held high on a battlefield full of fallen sisters that have been told they are not pure enough, not free enough, not loved enough, not woman enough. That modesty is its own form of revolutionary boldness.

And ladies, we were made for boldness.

The next installment of A Call to Womanhood will appear next Wednesday.