Cultivating the Virtue of Immodesty

In June 2018, an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Women, Own Your ‘Dr.’ Titles” commented on the explosion of the #immodestwoman hashtag following Fern Riddell’s documentation of her experience of adding her title (“Dr.”) to her Twitter handle.[1] The hashtag itself was derived from one of Riddell’s Twitter critics who censured her for being “immodest.” Claiming the criticism as a badge of honor, a host of female Ph.D.’s began to add their titles to their Twitter handles and celebrate this addition under the banner #immodestwoman.

I would like to add my voice to this celebration. Having been raised in a relatively conservative, religious environment, I was taught from a young age about the importance of practicing the virtue of “modesty.” In most cases, this term was used as a synonym for “frumpy clothing for women.” Despite this connection between modesty and clothing, the recent #immodestwoman discussions suggest that modesty in the academic world is likewise disproportionately regarded as a virtue for women to pursue. Drawing on Valerie Saiving’s work on theological articulations of sin, I would argue that virtue should not be defined as abstention from pride but rather that immodesty should be upheld as a virtue for people of all genders.

In 1960, feminist theologian Valerie Saiving published an article exploring the possibility that sin might need to be defined differently for women.[2] She rightly observed the ways in which traditional Judeo-Christian conceptions of “sin” are premised on androcentric temptations to pride, and she posited that women are socialized differently enough so as to create the need for alternative definitions of sin.

Now, nearly fifty years after Saiving’s call for revisionist theology, the problem remains. To be sure, the #immodestwoman conversations have more to do with the conventions of modern American academia than they do with Judeo-Christian theology. Nonetheless, the sharp critique of female academics’ “immodesty” might be little more than a secular mask for the theological notion of “sin.” Modesty is virtuous; immodesty is sinful.

However, I want to develop Saiving’s line of argumentation here. If sin (and its corollary virtue) have been defined to fit more easily with male experiences than with female ones, then perhaps there is justification for the celebration of immodest women with terminal academic degrees. That is, perhaps the celebration of academic accomplishments should be upheld as virtuous among all academics such that women do not feel disproportionately “immodest” when they make choices about their preferred form of address.

It could be argued, of course, that much has changed since Saiving wrote in 1960. After all, Saiving was writing at the cusp of Second Wave Feminism, and by some counts, we are currently enmeshed somewhere in the Fourth Wave. Obviously, both society and academia are in a different place now than they were in 1960.[3]

Nonetheless, Saiving’s view that men are socialized to be prideful or immodest in a way that women are not can be supported by data surrounding the incidence of self-citation in publication. A study published in 2017 suggested that, in recent decades, men have engaged in self-citation 70% more than women. Although that number dips slightly (to 56%) if all data points from 1799 to 2011 are included, the conclusion is the same: male academics are far more likely to self-cite than are female academics.

The link between self-citation and immodesty is arguably a tenuous one. That is, not all men who cite their own work are necessarily immodest. However, the data are clear in suggesting that men are more likely than their female counterparts to hold themselves up as experts. Such a move seems at least as “immodest” as adding “Dr.” to a Twitter handle.

I am not suggesting that my colleagues should cease to engage in self-citation. Many of my colleagues who are experts in their fields also happen to be male. They should cite themselves. What I am suggesting is that such behavior should be celebrated, by men and women alike. While pride is demonized as a sin in both religious and academic settings, Saiving’s call for a redefinition of sin suggests that upholding immodesty as a virtue is a practice with much to recommend it.

The virtue of immodesty is one that many male scholars seem to have cultivated well. The statistics on male self-citation suggest as much. However, the same data suggest that female academics have perhaps succumbed to what Saiving would identify as the sin of negating the Self. The cultivation of the virtue of immodesty not only counteracts this sin of selflessness, but it also allows for the flourishing of personhood, agency, and autonomy among academics whose credentials have ever been called into question. Not to be confused with pride, such immodesty is the embracing of the Self for the sake of sustainability within the academy. Thus, the #immodestwoman hashtag and its celebration of women’s academic achievements might be exactly what is needed to cultivate the virtue of immodesty.

By Melanie A. Howard
Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Fresno Pacific University


[1] By early August 2018, the French news source 20 Minutes was reporting that the trend had taken root in France as well.

[2] Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” Journal of Religion 40, no. 2 (1960): 100-112.

[3] Despite these differences, as recently as 2012, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion devoted the majority of its spring issue to revisiting Saiving’s work because of its enduring impact on feminist theology and theological anthropology. Access to this roundtable of responses can be found through the JFSR website. Even more recently, in April 2017, Deidre Nicole Green also adopted Saiving’s work in order to discuss the “sin of selflessness” in conversation with Reinhold Niebuhr and Søren Kierkegaard (“A Self That is Not One: Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, and Saiving on the Sin of Selflessness, Journal of Religion 97, no. 2 [April 2017]: 151-180).

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3 Responses to Cultivating the Virtue of Immodesty

  1. Eric Bain-Selbo says:

    Thoughtful and timely. Thanks for the contribution.

  2. Fiona Tolhurst says:

    This article reminds all female academics to use their titles with as much freedom as male academics do. Given that medical doctors routinely put M.D. after their names, there is no reason for Ph.D.s not to put Ph.D. after theirs. I use my title when booking air travel, for I find that airline staff treat me with more respect at check-in when they see that I am “Dr. Tolhurst”.

    For me, using Dr. before one’s name or Ph.D. after one’s name–regardless of one’s gender–is a neutral act, for it is stating a fact about credentials.

    Maybe a woman’s using Dr. triggers the same sort of knee-jerk misogyny as does a woman’s using Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss.

  3. I agree with Fiona (while being unsure whether to say “Ms. Tolhurst”, “Prof. Tolhurst”, or any of several other titles.) It is very convenient if someone gives enough information to know how to refer to them, and enough to establish credentials that may be helpful in a discussion. I have sometimes felt the customary usage in some cultures is a bit overkill, as when I was a dinner guest of Prof. Dr. Frau Prof. Dr. Nikodym, For those to whom this is not obvious, this was correct usage as both she and her husband were Ph.D. – holding professors. The resulting discussion of her background was interesting and worthwhile and might not have happened otherwise. And in no context other than the present would I ever sign anything

    Prof. Col. Dr. Rev. Mr. Edward Ordman
    (Emeritus Professor, University of Memphis, TN
    Kentucky Colonel
    Ph.D., Princeton University
    Ordained by Universal Life Church
    Mr. – none of the previous ones provide information on gender.)

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