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Talent, Opportunity, and Female Aspirations
by Faith Fairfield
The question of woman's capabilities seems never to be settled. She must ever be analyzed and explained—her intellect or logic or emotional stability endlessly measured against man's as a standard. And always she is told that the results prove her inferior, and prove also that this inferiority is due to some inborn lack which cannot be overcome or successfully ignored. Therefore woman is assured that she may never expect to rise to the same heights which are possible to man. The certainty of inferiority is never questioned, but the lacking quality varies as the reliability of the proof is discredited.
The progress of man has never been impeded by preconceived ideas regarding his abilities, his proper interests, and his appropriate activities. Woman has always been so hampered. For generations her existence was narrowly prescribed because she was considered an inferior creature lacking a soul and possessing but a rudimentary intellect. As time passed, the existence of the soul took on less vital concern in the affairs of daily life. Then only was it conceded that it might be possible for woman to possess one, as it seemed improbable that she could hereby materially disturb the existing social and economic conditions. Equal intellectual capacity, on the other hand, was acknowledged only after positive experimental proofs, the results of which could not be disputed. Through the ages woman has been biologically handicapped in exerting her intellectual powers and establishing her own equality. By minimizing this handicap through a civilization less wasteful of human life, woman is beginning to enjoy greater economic and social freedom, and thereby hopes to have an opportunity to test her powers. To discourage these aspirations, there seems to be a tendency among a few men of learning to search for new obstacles to her success. She is repeatedly reminded that the greatest scientists, musicians, and artists have never been numbered among her sex. Therefore she presumably must suffer from some deficiency which earlier investigations have failed to reveal. She is encouraged to believe that her humble place among the geniuses has no relation to repression, but is due to an unknown factor in her physiologic construction. She is reminded of the comparatively greater variability exhibited among males, as evidenced by the larger number of male geniuses—and also inmates of institutions for the feeble-minded. She is not told that the proof of this sex difference has never been established conclusively, and that some scientists believe the difference is in favor of the female. Possibly they reach this conclusion because they consider greater variability a doubtful advantage.
Through the ages there has always been one particular organ or part of the body held in reverence as controlling the highest emotions and actions of the individual. We know, for example, that at one time it was believed that the dead heroes might return to earth only if the sacrum, a bone at the lower end of the spine, were preserved intact. Incidentally this is a particularly fragile bone, crumbling rapidly after death, and making the safe return of the hero through its integrity most precarious. The attention has gone in turn to various other centres,—the heart, the liver, or the brain,—as the quality attributed to each organ was most cherished. When the soul was most highly reverenced, woman had none. As the intellect became more important, woman lacked. And now, as ductless glands are considered the factors influencing character and the quality of intellectual and emotional activity, most assuredly woman possesses inferior, inadequate secretions.
Internal secretions are sometimes spoken of as the romance of modern medicine. Like romance, consideration of the scope of their activity stimulates the imagination. Their physiology is still in a somewhat indefinite and unsettled state because of the difficulty of determining the exact function of each gland. Apparently they are closely interrelated, so that dysfunction of one results in changed activity of others. Animal experimentation does not differentiate the activity of each gland conclusively, because the removal of one produces a compensatory hyperactivity in certain others. However, experimentation does reveal definite characteristic changes following the removal of each gland or part of a gland. The scientist undertakes the interpretation of these results cautiously, with the understanding that he is venturing in a field in which there is as yet little actual proof, and realizing that his conclusions are hypotheses which later investigation may prove unwarranted and utterly false. Undoubtedly hormones are the factors determining metabolism rate and therefore energy; but because the functions are not clearly outlined they have served also as an alibi to the credulous for many disputed causes. By claiming their dysfunction, the scrupulous psychiatrist obtains the release of a condemned criminal, the quack collects his dishonest gains, the aged fools himself into a pseudo-youth; and now, because of sex-varying secretions, woman is offered a release from her newly discovered disorder, the inferiority complex. And why should not woman admit her inferiority frankly if it does indeed exist? If she lacks sufficient energy to accomplish great work, if her talents must ever be hormone-inhibited, let her face the matter squarely. As a student of history and of human nature, she obviously has a right, before she even consider the subject, to ask to have this physiologic deficiency proved to her with methods and results which she too may test and verify. No one disputes the comparative dearth through the ages, of women of great accomplishments. But why endlessly close one's eyes to present-day factors of environment and training which have an overwhelmingly inhibitory effect on feminine ambitions?
It is said that impressions obtained before the age of seven are sufficient to determine the course of action in adult life. If so, by the time she is seven it is definitely established that the little girl will never attempt to break through convention to make over society more to her liking. She will always endeavor to live up to man-made standards of her conduct, and will eventually become a well-disciplined housewife, subordinating her intellect and desire to those of her husband. However, the training of the little girl continues after the age of seven, impressing on her in numberless ways the greater importance of her father and brother to society than that of her mother and herself. She is too immature and inexperienced to realize that these distinctions are arbitrary and symbolic of a crude past, rather than actual premeditated discriminations. Naturally, then, she may develop an inferiority complex, and credit is due her if she can overcome this handicap of training and environment and accomplish what her abilities warrant without compensatory bravado or undue meekness.
Lack of energy to accomplish great things may well be due not to internal inertia but to lack of external incentive. One may consider himself fatigued by his labors merely because he does not like the type of work and wishes to stop. It is common experience, that labor is less fatiguing when one is pleased with his conditions of life. This pleasure may be associated with pride in the quality of the work accomplished, or merely with anticipation of emotional or intellectual satisfactions made possible by the products of labor. Often one tires because the reward does not seem to justify the price paid for it, in comparison with the reward someone else gains with equivalent or less labor. No one can deny that the man scientist's life, with his comfortable home and wife and family, is more to be desired than that of the woman scientist. His home life is a constant satisfaction and a spur to his ambitions. If the woman scientist marries, either her work or her home life must to some extent be subordinated, and either or both will suffer. Moreover, she will lack the economic urge of a dependent family whose social position is determined by the financial success of her endeavors. If she is single she may try to interest herself exclusively in her work. Experience has shown that devoting one's life to a particular cause with the exclusion of the satisfactions of all normal instincts and desires is unproductive of creative labor, and dangerous to the well-being and especially the mental health of the individual. The desire for a mate is normal. Because of the present social conditions, or, if one is ultramodern, because of the imperfections of science, making necessary the physiologic handicap of childbirth and infant care, the average woman must still choose between domesticity and a career. If she chooses the latter she may be forced to let it serve as mate, home, and offspring to her. She may decide to follow the conventional pattern of housewife, but devote part of her time and energy to outside work. If she does this the work will inevitably lack in quantity or quality, and cannot be expected to compete with that produced by uninterrupted labor. Moreover, her home may be in such a location that she cannot possibly continue her work. If her husband has the same profession it will probably be convenient for both to gratify their ambitions. But if he has a different occupation a location favorable to his advancement may actually prevent her from accomplishing any work outside her home. In exceptional cases a woman continues her work without interruption after marriage, her home life being as subordinated to her career as a man's would be. The work these women accomplish is often exceptionally valuable, perhaps because they are emotionally as well as intellectually satisfied. This solution of the modern social problem is undoubtedly not ideal, but is probably most efficacious in giving woman an opportunity to develop her possibilities.
The young woman who becomes fatigued after a few hours of practising may be reacting to a subconscious desire to stop playing because she does not believe a career can give her the fullest, most satisfactory life. Perhaps her abilities, in spite of years of practice, will never be sufficiently brilliant to grant her more than second-rate opportunities and insufficient salary to make her surroundings comfortable. Being dissatisfied with her life, she will remember that instead of striving for a career she might have married. Marriage is considered a desirable and at present an adequate career for women, and does not require any unusual abilities. Unfortunately, by the time the student of music can consider it, choice of mates will have become very limited, and it will be doubtful if she can find a congenial husband. Perhaps she makes a brilliant success of her music, and sometime during her career marries. An intellectual man may be married to a low-grade moron with the sanction of society, but the husband of a woman of unusual ability is considered an object for pity or merriment unless his accomplishments equal or excel hers.
The financial situation should also be considered. A man may wear ragged clothing and defy conventions in his living quarters and the type of his work to support himself through years of preparation. As a young lawyer or interne, he may take the opportunity to finance his office equipment and himself through the first few difficult years of his practice by marrying a wealthy girl. The distinction of his professional title and her father's money are considered an even barter. Society justifies a mating determined by financial advantages rather than by intellectual and temperamental compatibility, all other factors being equal. The woman student with equally slender means must live according to the more expensive standards of convention and has considerable difficulty finding appropriate work for her support. Her years of beginning practice are more difficult because she has to contend against a certain amount of sex prejudice still prevalent. She cannot expect a marriage which in return for her professional title will release her from financial worries and allow her complete freedom for her career. She is not to be blamed if she gives up her ambitions during her training and marries. Her defeat may not be due to lack of energy to accomplish the usual task of preparing for a profession, but to conflicting desires within her and a realization of the unequal competition before her if she continues studying.
The average college girl, in the same way, has less incentive to keep her interested in her work than the average college man. The latter anticipates a business or profession to which college is a stepping-stone. The average girl has no similar expectations, and must strive to make a success of her work inspired only by abstract reasons. A definitely increasing number of college girls, however, are planning to have some vocation. Of these, many will be able to continue their profession after marriage, without seriously subordinating it to their home lives. This means a fairer test of woman's intellectual possibilities if they must be again analyzed. At present the greater wonder is why the numberless external factors so materially affecting woman's ambitions and available activities are so studiously avoided, and the elusive hormone blamed for it all.
Volume 161, Nos. 5–6, pp. 585–594 and 750–759