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Smart is Out, Mediocre is In

“These clever girls,” a friend said to me the other day, “they’re taking it too far now. My son isn’t going to want such a clever one. It’s not going to be so easy for her to settle down, make a home…”

“My daughter is doing brilliantly at university,” said another. “But I don’t know what good it’s going to do. It wouldn’t hurt her to be a little less clever….at least in public.”

For the first time in Jewish history, mothers are encouraging their daughters to underachieve. They shouldn’t be too pretty, too smart or too competent for fear of scaring the boys away. It’s particularly nerve-wracking for Orthodox mothers who are concerned that their daughters are pricing themselves out of the marriage stakes with all their accomplishments. “With a PhD under her sheitel,” thinks the anxious mother to herself, “a man is going to worry that my daughter will never be happy changing nappies and making kugel.”

I have spotted a trend, and you are reading about it here first: smart is out, mediocre is in. Many religious women in their 40s who went to university and worked briefly in their profession relinquished their fledgling careers to raise their families. While some of them dabble in voluntary activity and others are underemployed in part-time jobs, most of them are frustrated and bored. They were given the world, but their passport to travel has expired.

Fearing that the same thing will happen to their daughters, they are not encouraging their daughters to pursue high-flying careers, rather, they are persuading them to think strategically about jobs that will allow them to combine a family and work that is interesting enough. To address this issue, one secondary school in North-West London has introduced beauty therapy training as an alternative to A levels (an academic high school diploma). One has to applaud initiatives for less academically able students, but have they no imagination? Is beauty therapy the best they can come up with? You can’t get more mediocre than that.

I have been struggling to understand this phenomenon, and have come to view this quest for mediocrity as another component of the “modesty continuum” that started with an obsession about hem lengths and collarbones. Much has been written about modest clothing and if you simply Google “modest clothing,” you’ll find a plethora of websites catering to Jews, Muslims, Plymouth Brethren, Latter Day Saints and other modest-conscious groups.

Young women on the modesty continuum understand the sartorial expectations of the religious community, even if they seek ways to subvert it. For example, the little black dress deserves a study of its own. When I was a child, black dresses were for fat old ladies. Now, they are the uniform of religious women. Young girls and teenagers are clad from top to toe in all shades of black during the week, on Shabbat and at weddings. Only the most naive would suggest that this rather drab clothing is a sign of self-effacing piety worthy of applause. Rather, the very knowing, slim-line silhouette of these attractive young women is alluring and these young women with their little black dress aspirations are very wittingly imitating the chic elegance of New York’s skinniest. On the modesty continuum, where contemporary rabbinic edicts are often based on a concept of ‘not imitating the surrounding non-Jewish culture,’ there should be public burnings of these little black dresses.

Mothers have recognised the difficulties in controlling their daughters’ dress code, hence the move to control their daughters’ expectations. It IS difficult to combine a career and motherhood, but striving for mediocrity is not a viable strategy. Subduing young women in the hope that potential husbands will find them more attractive is a damning indictment on religious men and cannot be the basis for a healthy partnership between the sexes in the modern Orthodox world.

The only solution in the short term for these clever women is exporting them to Mount Isa, a remote mining village in northern Australia where the mayor, John Molony, and the glut of bachelors will be there to welcome them. “If there are five blokes to every girl, we should find out where there are beauty-disadvantaged women,” he suggested to the Australian media, “and ask them to proceed to Mount Isa.” Asked to comment on how he defined beauty, the mayor explained, “There is such a thing as disposition, temperament, manners, general attractiveness, attitude and demeanour; all those things tend to make a person attractive.”

Yes, just the sort of qualities to be found on the modesty continuum.

–Modesty Blasé

Cross-posted to the Jerusalem Post blog.