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.

This phenomenon, in greater or lesser degree, is sufficiently common to be called "normal." I have called it a depression; I do not insist on this as a clinical diagnosis. It has been described by some as an identity crisis, by others as adolescent turmoil. Behind it there are, of course, feelings of inadequacy, selfabsorption, worry, and accompanying anxiety. The significant facts are the lowered selfesteem and the diminution in zest, energy, and capacity to function in a creative way. The depression seems to be a kind of declaration of dependence, of helplessness, and a muted cry for help as well. And it occurs at some time and in varying intensity in practically every girl during her career at college.

Now, the student who experiences this need not be severely neurotic, nor are these manifestations necessarily evidence of any profound or abnormal emotional disturbance. They may simply represent in a freshman, for example the first response of a sensitive, naive adolescent to a new, frighteningly complicated, and sophisticated environment. After all, some of these girls are only sixteen or barely seventeen. They may have come from small towns, and they may be the first ones from their high schools to be accepted in one of the major women's colleges. All eyes are on them, and their parents are inordinately proud. The girls feel that they are in heaven at last. But they soon find the atmosphere rarefied and the air heady. They may never before have had to work hard, even in order to lead their classes. They are asked to write a paper not on the character of Silas Marner or on the most interesting experience they had during their summer vacations (in many high schools they are not given any written assignments), but, for example, on "The Relation of Leonardo's Writing to His Painting and to Fifteenthcentury Art in General." After chewing their pencils for a while and twirling a lock of hair, they finally brazen it out and go to the library. Even after they have mastered the indexing system, they are appalled by the number of cards under the heading "Leonardo," and they find nothing whatever on the assigned topic. Perhaps for the first time in their lives they are forced to read actively instead of passively and to do some quiet, hard thinking. This is not only a strange experience but almost akin to physical pain. And so there is a flight into solace: a little chat with the girl in the next room, who may have been to one of those progressive schools where this kind of assignment was familiar enough; or perhaps their neighbor attended a highpowered, exclusive boarding school and has gained so much poise and selfassurance that nothing appears to daunt her.

Or maybe our young freshman is the daughter of a trustee and her mother was the college heroine of her day not only Phi Beta Kappa, but the belle of the ball as well. This puts additional pressure on the student, who develops an egregious need to make good in spite of the awareness of her own ineptitude.

The reaction of depression is not confined to young freshmen, however, nor is it necessarily related to difficulties associated with study. The student may be in the graduate school, already past the first flush of youth, and perhaps a little triste or weary from the steady grind and worried by constant competition with a most gifted, accomplished, and brilliant galaxy of colleagues. At such times there may be a kind of tacit rebellion, an intellectual sitdown strike, so to speak, when the mind seems to refuse to do more work. Any one of many circumstances can bring this about impending orals, a thesis due or overdue, an unhappy love relationship, or disquieting news from home. Even conspicuous success can bring on this reaction in some individuals.

Of course, the commonsense attitude would be to quit for a while, to do something else, to have some fun and then come back with renewed vigor. But this seldom occurs to them, partly because they have already lost some resilience and resourcefulness. The thought of absenting themselves from work is far too perilous. Instead, these students prefer to whip the tired horse. They stay up later and get up earlier, and they worry about all the ground they still have to cover.

Sometimes fate takes over. They come down with the flu or "a virus," or they develop infectious mononucleosis. This seems a welcome and respectable respite, but it usually leaves them more exhausted than the illness itself could account for, and still unable to work.

Many other devices are automatically resorted to as defensive maneuvers against the underlying depression. Instead of doing extra work, the student may stay in bed in the mornings and sleep until noon, thereby missing her lectures or even hour exams. Her academic plight goes from bad to worse, her depression and feelings of guilt increase, and her selfesteem continues to plummet. She may adopt a kind of cynical, supersophisticated, and supercilious attitude toward the whole academic community and cease to be a functioning part of it.

These, together with the other defenses I shall mention, are maladaptive, in the sense that they are unrealistic and make matters worse rather than better.

Another common defense among young girls has to do with their eating habits. They try to allay their uneasiness and anxiety by eating too much. Some of them will stuff themselves with bread and butter at mealtime; others will fill up on ice cream and candy between meals; still others become night feeders and ransack the kitchen when they should be asleep. This extra feeding, which has little to do with hunger, may be episodic around examination time; it may be a reaction to having been jilted; or, again, it may have become a kind of chronic addiction. Of course, it feeds as well the lowered selfesteem, puts an end to dating, and becomes a new source of discouragement. This phenomenon is seen almost exclusively in girls, seldom in boys.

The relations between college boys and girls are a tender subject, seldom discussed between the generations. The contemporary sexual mores of young people are so different from those which governed their parents' or teachers' lives that a common meeting ground between them scarcely exists. (It is possible that the parents have forgotten some of the details of their own past experiences.) Girls seldom, if ever, discuss their sexual experiences with their parents, and when they do unless they are facing a crisis one cannot escape the impression that the parentchild relationship is a little unhealthy. To be sure, girls often come to college with standards handed to them by their mothers and tacitly upheld by their fathers. Letting a boy kiss you good night, for example, is all right, but preferably not on the first date. Here is where conflict often begins.

If the girl is standoffish and stiff, the chances are she will not see the boy again. But this is just what she wants to forestall unless he is a "jerk," and so, partly to secure her aim and partly because she is moved and flattered, she accepts his kisses, and soon after, if she has not already learned, she is taught to "kiss back."

From this point on, the boy takes over, unless he himself is very timid. He tries to impose his standards and rationalizations on her. He tries to convince her that it is both more honest and far healthier to have intercourse than to pet. He may be right. In any case, he is usually as idealistic as she is and not just out for fun or experience, but he is eager to prove himself. Since, by this time, she has been aroused the more so because the boy is usually serious and is, as the modern cliché has it, "emotionally involved," she may accede to his wishes, often; to be sure, with serious misgivings and with a feeling of guilt. ("My mother would die if she knew." The chances are that her mother wouldn't "die" at all; she might be quite understanding. It is fathers who need to be protected against the facts of life.)

The present arrangement in coeducational or quasicoeducational institutions facilitates these intimacies. Boys and girls are pretty constantly together in the classroom, in the library, at dances, at parties, at rehearsals. They drink their Martinis and gin and tonics together. They light each other's cigarettes. And they study together, often in the boy's room, and sometimes they end up in bed. Roommates are an inconvenience but seldom a real hindrance. Much that is unspoken is understood. The girl and boy become each other's property. At a dance they dance together all evening. To pursue another boy's date is to commit the unpardonable act of "birddogging." This is not acceptable behavior. Girls, as well, impose their proprietary rights on their dates. Promiscuity is not a manifestation of sexual freedom, but rather a symptom of a disordered personality.

The foregoing description is of one kind of behavior, but of one only. It is difficult to generalize here, and not too satisfactory to try to create stereotypes. None of them is fixed or unvarying. Behavior changes in response to outer impacts and inner needs and to those mores and conventions which the girl brings with her from school.

There are, of course, "popular" girls who have a different date every night and like to keep lots of boys on the string; idealistic, oldfashioned girls, perhaps with a religious upbringing, who want to keep themselves pure for the great love to come; shy, immature girls who do not date; and girls who manage to make themselves so unattractive by overeating or by their slovenly dress that they are seldom approached by boys. The boys themselves are often strikingly immature, adolescent, and dependent, and get much comfort and support from the steady affection of motherly young women.

One gets the impression that the relationship between the sexes is still in an experimental phase, that it is motivated partly by idealism, partly by a spirit of rebellion against parents or others in authority, partly by the desire of young people to find out about themselves, partly by loneliness, partly by a kind of new conventionality and a wish not to miss anything, but above all, for the girls, by the feeling of approbation which the steady attention of one boy gives them. When he does not call up for two days, the girl's world begins to totter. The demands are often unequal and at variance. By the time the girl has said "yes" to herself and has stilled her doubts and her feeling of guilt, the boy may be on the way out of the relationship. This leads to quarreling and a loss of dignity and selfesteem in the girl. She may feel bereft, or "all empty inside." When she is then asked to do a paper on "lambulos' Sunstate and Its Relation to the Pergamene Revolt under Aristonicos in 133 B.C." or on "Turkish Naval Power in the Sixteenth Century," she may well be dismayed as she stares, with a blank mind, at a blank piece of paper.

It seems to me that educators have at least the responsibility of looking facts in the face. If they relax parietal rules sufficiently to permit girls to go to boys' rooms and remain there until late, then they should realize what the consequences are likely to be. They should realize, too, that these pressures on girls, even the most resilient and well balanced of them, will at times interfere with their work. It is all very well to say that this is part of life and that they must learn to take things in their stride. We seem to forget that life is fuller and moves faster for them than it did for us at their age. They have more "experiences" in a week than most of us had in a year.

Dean Briggs of Harvard used to say that college is a place to make mistakes, but mistakes today are far costlier than they once were. The price of academic failure, or even mediocre performance, may be great. It means that further graduate study is probably barred or that good jobs are not easily come by. The price of mistakes in relations with the opposite sex can be high indeed, sometimes nearly ruinous.

Young girls, one must remember, are vulnerable, sensitive, idealistic, often introspective and emotional, inclined to think ill of themselves and to compare themselves, to their own disadvantage, with men, whose good opinion means so much to them. We should recognize them for what they are, as wonderful young women in their own right, and build up this positive picture.

I have been greatly impressed with their candor and frankness, with their willingness to avow their feelings and to cut through much conventional cant and nonsense. Many of them have a gift for understanding themselves and others and a need to talk out some of their perplexities and to find some ethical and aesthetic pattern for their lives. They are distressed by the formless chaos that surrounds them and sometimes recognize this for what it is, as evil. They know intuitively that the unexamined life is not worth living. They are, of course, concerned with themselves and revel in their own freedom, but they are willing to prepare themselves, emotionally, at least, for the eventual task of child rearing, which they appear to do with so much competence and even joy.

A college which disregards their essential nature is doing only part of its job. If it wants girls to get the best out of their courses of instruction, then provision must be made for some easement and for some time for discussion with intelligent and reasonably mature adults who are not too quick to give advice but are willing to listen. I recall a young girl saying to me once that she could do her work all right, but it didn't leave her time to grow up. Young people need time for this and time to talk and to give expression to some of their perplexities. I realize that we have not found the ideal way to success in this enterprise, that each college will have to follow the plan that fits its own tradition. The problems in exclusively female institutions are not essentially different from those in coeducational ones, since they are both dependent upon pressures and upon the natural vulnerability which the girl brings with her. Everyone concerned with young people must be concerned with this aspect of their development.

If not, what passes for education may be only a kind of "intellectual conditioning," without depth of meaning, or hope for the future.

I have no wish to end this article on a negative note, nor to leave the reader with the impression that nothing can be accomplished either by way of preventing these emotional disturbances in young college women or of dealing with them once they have arisen. Exactly the reverse is true. There is probably no segment of the population which appears to be more amenable to treatment than just this group of intelligent, sensitive, idealistic young women with their futures before them.

We have no sure formula to prevent the kind of depression I have described in this article. We do not know how to instill humor where none exists. But we can encourage selfacceptance and a sense of identity; and, unless the student has been too much damaged in childhood by a lack of trust, we can provide an atmosphere, even a rigorously competitive one, in which courage does not too quickly flag.

There is much to be said for confrontation with more mature persons, not only in the faculty but in the student body, too, where the inclusion of some older men and women, who are completing unfinished college work, can add to the meaningfulness of study. And the choice of new members of a faculty should be made with an eye to their concern for students as well as for their creative scholarship. When the two are combined, the stage is well set. There is a salutary effect also in good talk, not only of the bullsession kind, but talk with sophisticated, critical persons who are concerned with the human situation. Out of this can come compelling and charismatic ideas, which may last a lifetime. Nothing we can do for this generation or the next can be more important than to help these young women toward a clearer image of themselves. This will give them the self-esteem they need and the vigor to lead satisfying and creative lives.

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