The Greatest Need of College Girls

“It is so generally felt that man is to admire, and woman to be admired. Thus a woman is born into and inherits a to-be-admired state of mind, and her freedom is delayed in proportion.”

The colleges for women in America have not as a rule been developed from lower forms of boarding-schools; they have been copies of the colleges for men. The demand for the higher education of women has been in part the result of dissatisfaction with the existing finishing-schools, so called; in part the result of an attempt to diminish the inequalities of condition between men and women. The chances for men in the intellectual sphere were seen to be vastly superior to those for women, and in a country where public education of the lower grades was free and equal for girls and boys, it was inevitable that a state of affairs could not be permanent which saw the academy doors close behind both boys and girls, and the college doors open only to boys.

In the experiments which have been made to satisfy this demand for the higher education of women, there have been and still are three general forms: the college in which the two sexes meet on equal terms, the annex in which the appliances of an existing college are used for a coördinate institution, and the college exclusively for women. In studying the essential conditions of collegiate life for women it is best to take this last form, since it permits the freest development, and offers the most open field for observation and experiment.

The college for women, then, in America has naturally been modeled as closely as possible upon the lines of existing colleges for men. It is the ambition of Vassar, of Smith, of Wellesley, to give as thorough an education to young women as the colleges whose curricula they substantially adopt give to young men. They would efface all intellectual distinctions of sex. In one particular only is there an obvious discrimination. The part which athletics plays in college life for men has no answering equivalent in college life for women. No one who has watched the gymnasium and the field in the one case would contend that there is a corresponding condition in the other. It is true that in well-equipped colleges for women the gymnasium is found, and that the higher forms of outdoor athletics are practiced; but it by no means follows that the difference is one only of degree, that in the development of these colleges there will be an approximation to the physical culture which exists in the colleges which they copy. The boldest advocate of an intellectual parity which should discover no distinction between the sexes in the class room would shrink from demanding or expecting a physical parity in the gymnasium or on the field.

Now in the education of the man athletics represents, not physical development integrally, but physical development as related to intellectual, moral, and religious development. That is to say, physical culture is a means to an end, not an end in itself; and the perversion of this doctrine, apparent as it is in the case of individual men, does not impair the fundamental truth. It is the constant study of college authorities to regulate athletics just as they regulate courses of study with reference to the symmetrical and sane development of manhood, and the practical problem is in the repressing, not the encouragement, of athletic zeal.

How is it in colleges for women? The situation is almost reversed. The constant study of the authorities is, not to regulate, but to enforce physical culture; not to encourage, but to repress intellectual excitability. This broad distinction marks a radical difference between the sexes, and any consideration of the true development of colleges for women must take it into account. However closely these colleges may copy their models in matters of scholarship and discipline, they are bound to recognize the divergence of nature in this particular of physical culture. They cannot blindly follow the lead of colleges for men, and think they have gained their end when they have set up a gymnasium, made exercise compulsory. and provided for boating, tennis, and grace hoops.

The muscular training of men is a primal physical need. In the order of time, of scale, and of logic, it is first. The success with which it is accomplished determines in a very considerable degree the success to be attained in mental and moral development. This may be asserted of the college as a whole, though there are marked examples of intellectual success secured in the face of immense physical disabilities.

It does not require acute perception to find the greatest physical need among women in our schools and colleges. A collective need is most often an exaggeration of the average individual short-coming. No one who has been an inmate of a large college for women will deny the general state of rush and hurry which prevails there. “No time” is the cry from morning until night. Worry and hurry mark the average condition of the schoolgirl. If she is not hurried or worried herself, through the happy possession of a phlegmatic temperament, she cannot entirely resist the pressure about her. The spirit of the place is too strong for an individual to be in it and not of it. The strain is evident in the faces of students and teachers. It is evident in the number who annually break down from overstudy. More pitiably evident is it in those who have not wholly broken down, but are near enough the verge of disaster to have forgotten what a normal state of mind and body is. We can only think, in the presence of such an one, what a magnificent specimen of womanhood that might have been, with a constitution that holds its own through such daily strain, and does not give in completely. This greatest physical need among studious women is so evident that those who will can see it. Those who will not see it are living in so abnormal a state themselves that they do not recognize the want because of their own necessity. Men and women can breathe bad air and not know it, but one coming directly from out-of-doors will be sickened at once.

To see the strain at its height, it must be watched during examinations. The average schoolgirl—or schoolwoman—would not feel that she had taken her examination properly unless she had taken it in a condition of worry, hurry, fright, and general excitement. Mark the contrast in this respect between colleges for men and those for women. Students in the former are not without their share of nervous strain, especially in examinations, but the strain is noticeably far less than among the women. The explanation of the difference is commonly found to lie in the physical exercise taken in football, rowing, and other out-of-door sports, which give men new life for study and restore the balance of the nervous system. But if girls should try this corrective to the same extent, they would devote such intense nervous energy to play, they would have so little real abandon, that the result would be in most cases a nervous strain and excitement, front which they must in turn recover before going on with study. The balance is to be restored by some other means.

Let us look a little deeper into the temperamental reason for this strain. A woman’s self-consciousness is her greatest enemy. Custom is partly to blame for this, because it is so generally felt that man is to admire, and woman to be admired. Thus a woman is born into and inherits a to-be-admired state of mind, and her freedom is delayed in proportion. Few realize the absolute nervous strain in self-consciousness; and if to self-consciousness we add a sensitive conscience, we have come near to a full explanation. Mr. Howells perhaps exaggerates when he tells us that a New England woman is not strong intellectually, but she has a conscience like the side of a house. He might be truthful and give her a larger allowance of brains, but he could not rightly reduce the dimensions of the conscience. Men have not so great a strain in self-consciousness, and the tyranny of a morbid conscience is less real to them. In the atmosphere of men’s colleges, either among the faculty or the students, there is not a tenth part of the unnecessary excitement that we find in women’s colleges. The faces of the students tell their own story. Nervous strain is far less evident.

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.

Let us suppose a school started in the United States having in its scheme a distinct intention of eliminating all hurry and worry, and training girls to a normal state of active repose. Suppose that to be the main idea of the school. To get rid of the “no time” fever, the teachers would need to accept the fundamental principle that it is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the training of power to think, which is the justification of school or college. A girl can at most gain in her school life but an iota of the knowledge which is possible to her, but she can attain the power of acquiring knowledge; and if this end, is kept in view on the part both of teachers and pupils, more regard will be paid to the order of studies and the method in each than to the quantity of facts gathered in any one study. With a subordination of the desire to amass knowledge, every course of study followed will help other courses taken at the same time, and others to come, and make it comparatively easy for the student to acquire more after the school years are over. A mind truly trained attracts and absorbs unconsciously, it digests and it produces, and the way is never stopped with useless facts. As the unity of intellectual work is recognized, the greatest physical need will be more readily met; for by an insistence upon that which is of first importance intellectually the cry of “no time” will subside. When a girl feels rushed she begins to lose mental power in proportion, however well she may seem to work at any one time.

This is the first change which our model school would effect, and its next most important reform would be so to arrange the daily work that there would be a marked rhythm in the alternation of studies. A body and mind, to be wholesome, must be trained to action and reaction, not action and inaction. There is often the most perfect rest in freeing one set of faculties entirely and working another. Indeed, action and reaction is the order of being, for in sleep, the most entire rest, the body is busy receiving supplies for new activity when it shall awake There must be vigorous exercises, plenty of food carefully chosen, long sleeping-times; a friendly attitude and perfect confidence between students and teachers must be cultivated, but without emotionalizing. Now, supposing so wholesome a state of things to be organized, the end is not yet. The hurry and worry will creep in and will be strongly felt, because of the girls’ mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, not to mention the inheritance which often comes from the paternal ancestry. There still remains for our school a distinct power to cultivate, a power to be gained through repose; not a forced, a studied, or a flabby repose, but a natural repose which is self-forgetful, and often delightfully active. “Freedom” is a better word than “repose.” Freedom includes repose; and for freedom, physical and mental, women should have special training now. If special training to that end is needed in our imaginary school, established with that purpose in view and with the spirit of true freedom animating its entire faculty, it certainly is sadly needed in the schools and colleges where power through repose is often as fatally lacking in teachers as in the girls under their charge.

The work must begin with physical training, including a training of the voice. If the course be followed carefully, it will soon affect the mental work, and special exercises to help the activity of mind will follow. But let us lay the foundation first, stand the girls on their feet, and demonstrate that a perfect physical balance means a better working head. As the physical work progresses, every lesson may contain the application of true freedom to study and recitation. Thus the mental and physical will each help the other, and the whole woman will feel that she is dropping chains. A freedom from the limitations of self will lead to a freedom from self-consciousness, which is possible only to a wholesome nervous system. A woman so trained will be beyond the apparent necessity of controlling herself, for she will have learned how to let nature control her.

I cannot content myself with a general assertion of the need of this training. I must attempt an outline, at least, of what it might be. Let us follow an imaginary class in physical training, the more truly to gain an idea of the practical working of our principle. All through the class work deep breathing should be practiced, not only for its quieting and restful effect, but for the new vigor that comes with it, and the steady, even development which deep breathing so greatly assists. The deep breathing also prevents an extreme relaxation, which is as harmful as extreme tension, and prevents too quick a reactionary effect when a tense body is at once relaxed. In beginning with the deep breaths, it will be found that few members of a large class can take a deep breath at all, and not one has an idea of what it is to breathe quietly. The soothing effect of a long quiet breath is never realized until one has been trained to inhale and exhale with the least possible effort. Even before this power has been gained, regular breathing will quiet a mild case of hysteria, as it will do away with stage fright. Members of the class must, to some degree, be trained separately for the deep breaths, in order that it may be clear to each what a deep quiet breath is; what it is to feel as if the breath took her, and not as if she took the breath. It is also requisite to avoid the curious strain which one often experiences under the impression that by holding herself as if in a vise while she inhales she is taking a quiet breath.

Quiet should be the first aim, in this class for physical culture, — a natural quiet, not a forced quiet. This can be gained collectively to a delightful degree, for one mind acts upon another, and, in a large class, the weaker brains feel the influence of the stronger. Each member of the class having a general idea of a deep breath, the quiet should be gained through the breathing exercises, which cannot be given here. Suffice it to say, the teacher should have always in mind, from the first, natural quiet as an end, and lead to that through long regular breaths—rhythmic breaths, from twenty-five to fifty—and other forms of exercise. The result of this training is strongly apparent in a single person, and still more when a class works together. The action upon the brain of deep breathing is well known. It is not only deep breathing, but deep breathing with the least possible effort, that does the good work. The class should take slow, regular exercises for the relaxation of the muscles and further quieting of the nerves, interspersed always with deep breathing. After the special deep-breathing and the relaxing exercises, the voice training should begin and continue as a part of the regular work. A want of natural equilibrium tells more in the sound of the voice and manner of speaking than in any other one physical action; and a woman should be trained to the true freedom of her voice with the rest of her body.

The exercises for suppleness of the joints and muscles would come next; these should include the direction of force, and often be very rapid, but must increase in rapidity only as they can be taken with perfect ease. The exercises must be taken with only the part of the body meant to be used, allowing no superficial “sympathy” in any other part. Then should follow motions for finer balance and for spring; and the class work might end with the quiet breathing and voice training. This course should be taken gradually, so that a clear idea of what they are aiming at will dawn upon the girls without too much hard thinking. Although the teacher must never once lose her central aim, it is better for the girls to follow the exercises more or less automatically. If they fail to come out of such a class not only with new vigor, but with a clearer idea each day of how to let nature’s laws work through them in study and in play, such failure will show a want of the true spirit in the teacher who leads them; or it may be that the air of the room has not been fit for breathing. Two elements are necessary in the teacher of such a class: that she should have the daily habit of obeying the laws she teaches; and that she should pretend in no way to stand as a perfect example of the laws, but should impress her pupils with the idea that they are all students together, and subject to the same laws. With this and a loving patience, a woman cannot fail to rouse other women to their best, unless her environment is entirely against her.

I have tried simply to follow the regular physical work in a class which trains a woman to vigor and restful activity through a process which trains her first to supply her greatest need, the power of rest. With this should come a training to meet sudden emergencies with a clear head; to drop the excitement of such emergencies when once the trouble is removed, and even before it has wholly disappeared; to have the power of ignoring nagging worries. Indeed, a great end is accomplished when a girl has acquired the ability to distinguish herself from her nervous system so far as to recognize when a worry is an effect of indigestion or some other physical derangement, and treat it as such; when she can bear it as a pain, if it must be, and will not increase it by admitting that it has any real foundation, and will drop it as soon as it can be dropped. Much useless suffering will be saved women who learn in school how to meet the various annoyances and cares that are sure to come in some form later. Many a woman is the slave of her nervous system because she does not know it; and a nervously magnified conscience will whip a woman into all sorts of absurd work which simply drains her beyond recovery, because she has not been taught how she may distinguish herself from a set of tired or disordered nerves. To all this may be added the help which will come from women to other women through realizing when they are not to be taken seriously, however it may be necessary to appear serious.

The popular mind seldom makes allowance for difference in temperament. Some time ago I watched two girls in a tennis match, one of whom was under the process of training to a better freedom; her movements were quick, graceful, and supple, but her excitable nervous system, inherited from intellectually active parents, still mastered her. Her expression was intense. Nearly all in the audience were her friends and admirers, eager to have her win. She was not only vividly alive to every personal wish for her, but acutely conscious of herself as the centre of attraction. The other player, the daughter of a country-man, was apparently stolid, with splendid muscular power. Her expression hardly changed. She did not know the audience nor realize their presence, apparently, although she must have been perfectly aware of their partiality for her opponent. She played directly, and her whole mind was upon every stroke of her racket. Of course she won the game. A bystander said to me, with a superior smile and not a little scorn, “You see this ‘relaxing’ does not always win.” My answer was, “It certainly does. Your country girl was the more ‘relaxed.’” The girl who lost had a most sensitive nervous organization, with a power far beyond the other, but one that must take longer to find its balance. The winner had her equilibrium on a much lower plane. Take Diana herself and put her in this country, surrounded with all its influences, and after five years she would lose the first tennis match against just such a phlegmatic temperament. With equal scorn our critic might say, “You see, my friends, a goddess does not always win.”

What then can we expect of our highly bred women who have generations of nervous strain back of them? Diana would win the second match, for she would at once see her mistake, and have her constitution to back her in correcting it. The compensation to the goddess would be great in an acute realization of what it is to allow a fine, wholesome nervous system to work according to its own laws. We need to train our girls first to the wholesomeness which must come through the power to rest, and then to the normal use of the real power as it grows upon them. They have much more to work against than Diana after her five years, and their appreciation would be keener in proportion.

In connection with the whole subject there is a fundamental principle to be carefully noted. To make the best of this training which is meant to help toward a natural way of doing whatever may be before us, the life itself must be regular and normal. It is a great mistake for a woman to train herself to do her work more easily in order to crowd more work or play into her life than she ought to carry. No woman has the natural spirit of repose who, finding she can attend to particulars with increasing facility, crowds her life in general. Much more can be accomplished, of course, by learning how to rest and how not to waste force; but that gives all the stronger reason for recognizing one’s limitations and being guided by them. In the one way, the limitations decrease; in the other, they increase to a startling extent. People wonder that a training for rest should result in fatigue, without noting the fact that the training itself has been presumed upon. So must the whole spirit of our schools be changed if they are to educate women to absolutely wholesome bodies and the best possible use of their minds. A young man rising from a severe fit of illness was told by his physician that it was useless for him to try to get through college; he had not the strength for the continued work. He obtained the physician’s consent to study two hours a day. By realizing the best use of those two hours, he passed through college, and graduated among the first of his class. But he rested entirely the remaining hours of the day. If, finding that he had gained such power of concentration, he had tried to use it every hour in the day without reaction, the result would have been disastrous.

This country seems now like a precocious child. Because it shows wonderful powers and intense activity, it is pushed to display itself more and more; and unless the child is quieted, and made to enjoy natural, childlike ways, there is danger that the man will fall far short of the brilliancy promised by the child. Surely the mothers of the country need the quiet most, and need it first.

In brief, in the men and women who are healthy workers and players there is a complete reaction from every action; they drop on the ground and give up to gravity when “time is called;” the others walk up and down, and worry over their past plays and wonder over those to come. These last can be led through physical training and moral suasion until they are in the same wholesome current. They can be, if they will be; if the training commences early enough, they must be. The greatest strength of a college will come when this active repose or restful activity can be so taken as a matter of course that it need never be thought of at all. Under these conditions men and women would be sensitive to the slightest disobedience of such natural laws and correct it at once, as they are now sensitive to more flagrant disobedience of other laws. Then would come a freedom of mind and body such as we see now only in the most healthy little children.

A woman’s education should prepare her to hold to the best of her ability whatever position life may offer. A training to help her to a wholesome use of a normal nervous system must be the foundation upon which she stands if she would perform in the best way the work which lies before her. No womanly woman wants to be a very good man, but a very true woman, and as such she not only holds her own place firmly, but helps man to hold his. A man’s life in the world is in this age full of temptation to nervous strain and worry. If he takes the overwrought state home only to find a similar state in his wife, increased by just so much as the natural intensity of the feminine nervous system exceeds that of the masculine, he does not go home to rest, but to more nervous strain; and the wearing effect upon one of the excited and tired nervous system of another who is nearly related is more fatiguing in a few hours than would be as many days of severe work.

In contrast to this place the ideal of repose that may be found in a woman, and the influence it may have upon a man, not only because of the restful atmosphere to which he returns, but the certainty throughout the day that there is the quiet strength at home, and that he will surely find it.

Because the nerves of the average woman are far more excitable than those of the average man, we could not only reach the man by means of the woman, but by training the mothers reach more surely the next generation, so that later this natural economy of our nervous force may come, in school and out, as a matter of course. And where could we better begin the training than in our schools and colleges for women?