Another contrast will help toward an understanding of the terms of the problem. English women are showing a marked superiority over American women in the college career. They are taking prizes and attaining marked intellectual distinction, not because their scholastic advantages are greater nor because of superior intellectual gifts, but because of better physique, more normal nervous systems, and consequently greater power of endurance.
These contrasts emphasize the proposition which I maintain, namely, that the first, the greatest physical need for women is a training to rest: not rest in the sense of doing nothing, not repose in the sense of inanity or inactivity, but a restful activity of mind and body, which means a vigorous, wholesome nervous system that will enable a woman to abandon herself to her study, her work, and her play with a freedom and ease which are too fast becoming, not a lost art, but lost nature. We have jumped at the conclusion that the style of training which is admirably suited to men must be equally adapted to women. However that may be in the future, there is a prior necessity with women. After their greatest physical need is supplied, they may—will, probably—reach the place where their power will be increased through vigorous exercise.
It is evident that the gymnasiums and various exercises established in schools and colleges for women have done little or nothing toward supplying this greatest need. The girls are always defeating the end of the exercise: first, by entering into every motion of the exercise itself with too much nervous strain; second, by following in their manner of study, in their general attitude of mind and habit of body, ways that must effectually tell against the physical power which might be developed by the exercise. Truly the first necessity now is to teach a girl to approach her work, physical or mental, in a normal, healthy way, — to accomplish what she has to do naturally, using only the force required to gain her point; not worrying all the time she studies for fear the lesson will not be learned; not feeling rushed from morning to night for fear her work will not be done; not going about with a burden of unnecessary anxiety, a morbid fear of her teachers, and a general attitude toward life which means strain, and constant strain. A glance forward intensifies the gravity of the case. Such habits once developed in a girl who is fitting herself to teach are strongly felt by her pupils when she takes the position of teacher. The nervous strain is reflected back and forth from teacher to pupil, and is thus forcing itself upon the notice of others, and proving day by day more clearly what is the greatest physical need.
Those who have observed this tendency are wont to say, “Give the girls plenty of exercise, plenty of fresh air, see that they sleep and eat well, and this greatest need will be supplied without thought.” If the unhealthy condition we have noted were just making its appearance, the remedy would be sufficient. As it is, such a remedy suffices in a few cases, in most cases partially, but in some not at all. The habit has stood now through too many generations to be overcome without a distinct recognition of the loss of power, and a strong realization of the need of regaining this power. Indeed, so great a hold on the community has this want of quiet and easy activity in study and in play that it is not rare to find young girls who believe the abnormal to be the natural life, and the other unnatural. As one girl told me once in perfect good faith, “I keep well on excitement, but it tires me terribly to carry a pitcher of water upstairs.” This I know is an extreme instance, and yet not so uncommon as I wish it were. To swing such a girl, or one approaching so abnormal a state, suddenly back into the normal would be most disastrous; she would not recognize the world or herself, and would really suffer intensely. She must be carried step by step. To restore her is like curing a drunkard.