The Pressures on College Girls Today

The author of The Doctor's Job and of other books related to medicine and psychiatry, and editor in chief of Psychosomatic Medicine, Dr. Carl Binger is presently serving as psychiatric consultant to the Harvard University Health Services. His article which follows forms part of a new volume, Emotional Problems of the Student, edited by Graham B. Blame, Jr., and Charles C. McArthur, to be published by AppletonCenturyCrofts this month.

In our culture, women still seem to regard themselves as inferior. Perhaps it is a genuine feeling of their own, or perhaps it is imposed upon them by men. The new freedom has not done away with it not the vote, nor trousers, nor cigarettes, nor even standards of sexual behavior that are somewhat similar to men's standards. Indeed, all of these indexes of equality with men appear often as an uncertain effort to deny the confusion of roles in which modern society has placed women.

Although the formal college curriculum does not recognize a difference between male and female students, this does not mean that their needs are identical far from it. I know that to generalize here is risky business and that what I shall say may be only partially true. But it seems obvious enough that as a boy approaches graduation he will have his eye out for a job or a career, and a girl will have hers on marriage. This does not mean that college boys are indifferent to finding a wife or that girls are unconcerned about earning money soon after graduation. The many early collegiate marriages in which young wives today contribute to the family income if, indeed, they do not pay for most of their husbands' graduate tuition would belie any such notion.

Whether they are gainfully employed or not, however, or whether or not they have decided to go to graduate school and perhaps prepare themselves for one of the professions architecture, business, city planning, engineering, medicine, the ministry, law, scientific research, social work, teaching, or others (all are now open to women) they usually are interested, first and foremost, in finding a mate. They do not shout this from the housetops. They often spend a good deal of their time and energy in trying to conceal it from themselves and from others.

There are exceptions, of course, among them some few dedicated female scholars who put their work ahead of everything else often to be sure, at great cost. But this is not true of the run of the mill. For them, marriage is the paramount goal and the presiding wish. Sometimes they are willing to postpone it until they have achieved more proximal goals - this degree or that job, for example but it is pretty constantly in the back of their minds.

In some women's colleges as many as 50 per cent of the senior class continue their formal education in graduate school. Many of these young women prepare themselves for the professions or continue their studies for various motives other than a clear interest in scholarship: to postpone the evil day of going out into the world; to raise their market value in getting jobs; to remain in the relatively protected environment of an institution of learning; to continue to meet interesting people. "People," it should be said, is the current euphemism for men. (One must not call the devil by his name.) We know that the motive behind study may have a determining influence both on the quality of the work and on the enthusiasm with which it is undertaken. When motives are too mixed they may result in confusion, conflict, and dissatisfaction. Graduate work in itself, however, need no longer be a deterrent to marriage. Many young women combine the two ventures with surprising skill and apparent equanimity.

The median age of girls when they marry is now about twenty, and the preoccupation with marriage becomes fairly persistent when this age is past. One can observe this frequently among graduate students. Today a young lady of twenty-one who is still single is apt to think of herself as an old maid. She prefers, however, to see herself as well settled with the man of her choice, or of her dreams, who loves and cherishes her and by whom she will eventually have about four children. Once she has met him, she often appears to care little about how much money they will have, what side of the tracks he was born on, his social or ethnic background, or his religion. Love is what counts, or at least what seems to be love. And she thinks she wants a man whom she can look up to, who has been exposed to at least an equivalent formal education and is perhaps a little better in his studies than she is. This makes her feel more secure.

One hears a great deal about security. It has become the golden calf of today. When one stops to analyze what is meant by it, one soon learns that it has little to do with jobs, with income, or with social status, but is a subjective feeling derived usually from a certain sense of approbation and depending more on selfapprobation than on anything else. This is the rock on which many young college women founder. To have the affection and esteem of a young man whom they admire seems to many the safest bulwark against their selfdoubt and their feelings of insufficiency. But the young man is often very young, far less ready for a real, rewarding, and growing relationship than is the girl. And so the bulwark often turns out to be but a slender reed, at least from the point of view of her needs.

Naturally enough, this may lead to trouble. The single most frequently encountered emotional disturbance among these young women is depression. Sometimes it is so sweeping that little seems left of the normally functioning personality, and there may then be a real risk of suicide. Fortunately, this is relatively rare. What is common, however, in the college girl is a loss of zest, a feeling of apathy or fatigue, and an apparent need for extra hours of sleep, a very much lowered self-esteem, with sensitivity to other people's opinions and reactions, and, above all, an inability to get work done. To hand in written material on time means somehow to commit oneself, to expose oneself to comment and criticism before which failing spirits falter. Often the printed page seems to lack meaning; attention, concentration, and comprehension are at a low level. Instead, there is brooding, daydreaming, mounting dissatisfaction with self, and a feeling of guilt because of time and opportunities wasted guilt tinctured with anxiety: "What will happen to me?" "Will my scholarship be renewed?" "I mustn't let my parents down; sending me to college has been a great sacrifice for them." "1 can't understand it. At high school I was third in my class of 250 and was President of Student Council." And so it goes.

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