GIRLS are called incomprehensible. They have always been so since first men looked at them — looked at them out of men’s minds as part of man’s world. They will keep on being so, always, or until we stop looking at them with men’s eyes, speaking of them in men’s terms, and testing them by men’s needs. I collected for a year every general statement about girls that I heard spoken or saw in a book. I have the collection before me. They were jotted down in order, each one in cheerful disregard of its usual disagreement with the one that came before. But they can be sorted out into three separate paragraphs, each of which agrees within itself fairly well, though it cannot be said to have sequence, and the three do not make a harmonious whole.
One series says, ‘Girls are always giggling. They are vain, coquettish, and anxious to please; full of caprice, romantic, sentimental, clinging, yielding, easily influenced, and dependent; given to “crushes,” jealous, malicious, and “catty”; scheming, deceitful, and untruthful, dishonorable, and unreliable in promises, fickle, and inconstant.
Their central passion is for admiration and devotion from others. They are easily intoxicated by social intercourse, and they are intrinsically selfish.’
But others, quite as convinced, declare that ‘ Girls are motherly and unselfish. Their longing is to devote themselves to some one or other, asking only to love and be loved. They have a sensitive delicacy and purity which is ineffable, an almost angelic quality, an extraordinary bloom and glow of maidenhood. They are easy to manage because they are naturally good and wellbehaved. They give no trouble in school, they learn their lessons, stand high in their classes, and are excellent judges of character; they are full of social perception and of interest in forwarding the purpose of others.’
And then from a third angle come the serious assertions: ‘They are not gregarious, or social. Everything which happens wears to them a personal aspect. They cannot keep a secret; are illogical and inconsequent, incomprehensible and unaccountable; indirect in thought and action, jumping to conclusions in a thoroughly unintellectual way and giving no good reason, unbusinesslike and impractical, and without any interest in doing things really well.’
The first is social comment, the second is domestic comment, and the third is intellectual comment. Yet these three views, though not quite mutually contradictory, are diametrically opposed. We all know that each of these statements is frequently true; not only each may be true of some girl, but all may be true of the same girl. Girls, they say, are selfish and they are unselfish; intellectual and also unreasonable; social and yet purely personal.
By pursuing such a course of external observation, we shall wander on in a maze of conflicting impressions and shall never get a clue to real girl nature. The first fact is that we must go within to find the truth. A girl is an unfinished woman. From her cradle she is always a woman. Take the least girl-like, the most hoydenish and positive of your intimate acquaintance, and she is still a woman, as truly as the most gentle and vague of girls; she is like a woman as a boy never is. For a girl is what the world has needed and what life has created, working slowly from far-off times till now. Cherisher of wounded, wearied men, nourisher and guardian of helpless children from of old, she has become the little sister of all mankind, supremely interested in people. Persons, whether herself or someone else, are her great concern. This human need preoccupies her. Because of this preoccupation, she has no other overmastering tastes. Her desire is, not to excel, but to satisfy. No matter how selfish or how artistic or how athletic she may be, she measures her happiness, not by things achieved or by obstacles and enemies overcome, but by persons pleased.
She may think she wants to learn to sketch, but the voice of a dear friend will summon her from it. She learns her lessons well (if she does), not particularly because she has a consuming zeal to learn Latin, but because she likes to do what is expected and to come up to expectation. Her liking for Latin is mental; it is the agreeable pleasure of exercising a faculty; her concern for persons is of the heart. This is one part of the clue to her nature — the social part.
Commonly, when anyone says that a girl always takes everything personally and is interested always in persons, someone else says apologetically that this is caused by the restriction which has always been put upon her, and prophesies that girls will outgrow it in future generations. There is no reason for being apologetic. Her preoccupation with persons is her chief charm and her great usefulness. Fortunately, no amount of prophecy can change it. For, to the end of time, girls can inherit only as they have always inherited, through women who have been mothers and therefore have been preoccupied with persons. In every generation, a girl’s physical structure will foster this preoccupation and urge her to be what girls have always been — beloved sisters, incomparable friends, hostesses and entertainers, knitters of the human family into firm unity.
To serve this central purpose of her nature, she not only claims no all-dominant interests of her own, but she also has an intercommunicability, sympathetic, perceptive, and responsive. Her whole constitution fits itself to this. There is a quiet, continuous thrill, as it were, by which all her parts communicate continually and have an equal share in all her doings. This cogent germinative warmth is her characteristic power; it pervades her body and soul, and informs her every thought and action, from the most deliberate to the least considered — permeating her mind and penetrating through every infinitesimal nerve into the least-noticed as completely as into the most apparently dominant parts of her being. This germinative element is the second part of our clue — the emotional. A girl, through this, easily relates new knowledge to old; she is, as it were, interpermeated by all she learns and all she experiences; so that she is evidently and consciously affected by all that happens to her. This makes her seem all of a piece — either wholly tending to be delightful, or wholly selfish and unpleasant.
From this comes what appears to be early development. She seems ‘quite grown-up,’ sometimes, at thirteen or fourteen, because she so easily behaves as she is expected to behave and does not wait to accept the reason or adjust it to her nature. Her nature does the adjusting. Moreover, she easily understands social reasons (which are the cause of all her aspirations to good behavior), for she understands how other people feel. Any special other person she may not care to please, but it is always human nature toward which she reacts.
This interpermeability and this sympathetic acceptance of what arrives from without make her frequently appear to be a good scholar when she is merely a docile learner. She takes what comes, without selection or rejection on personal grounds — for she has practically no overmastering likes and dislikes in the mental or physical world. In the human world — yes; elsewhere — no. To explain to a normal conscientious girl the reasonableness of a certain course is almost always sufficient to make her follow it; at any rate, she feels no strong resistance, because she has no counter-impulses, no personal, strong, fixed loves and hates in the world of inert matter.
The imputation of untruthfulness against her is often just. Her ruling desire to keep things smooth for herself, or for another, to make things pleasant, to avoid hurt feelings, to please or be pleased, causes her to begin very early to use subterfuge. Yet, in that persistent question of hers, ‘What will other people think?’ (or ‘What, do I think of other people?’) lies the origin of all morality. A false statement, cleverly made to avoid unpleasantness, became a lie as soon as other people expressed dislike at being deceived, and not till then. An untruth is a natural weapon of defense. Everyone tells one when he is cornered. The only difference between the timid and the brave lie, the savage and the civilized evasion, resides in the moment when the speaker will consider himself cornered. All subordinates lie, except those who have just superiors. The superiors call it a lie — the subordinate calls it a shield. With good women it is a veil, to conceal what will hurt or embarrass a friend.
Again, girls appear unaccountably and incomprehensibly capricious only to those who do not understand their physical and nervous structure. The sympathetic action of their nerves is so swift and complete that changes in physical condition affect their whole thought and emotion. As for their coquettishness — watch a party of girls among themselves, or watch a girl talking in a railroad train when you cannot see her companion. All the smiles, nods, swift appeals for sympathy, charming, ineffable lines of beauty are the same for one interesting companion as for another. You can seldom tell, simply by watching her, whether she is talking to a boy or a girl. She will brighten at someone’s approach — someone who interests her. It may be her father, or her baby sister; often it is an old lady, when she believes the old lady is interested in her personally, or if she is herself interested in the old lady and cares about the old lady’s opinion of her.
Of course, her natural appetite to suit people is easily turned into love of admiration, if admiration is held up to her as the one desirable food. And her love of persons can easily be turned into an exclusive interest in boys, if the admiration of boys is talked of as especially desirable, or if no other adequate outlet for the exercise of her powers is afforded her. Then follow, inevitably, jealousy, sentimentality, malice, and scheming.
As for the many other adjectives that have been used to describe girls, they apply to individuals or to classes of girls, not to all girls, and they interpret more the mental state of the onlooker than the spirit of the girl. A girl’s girlishness, of course, manifests itself through her own personal traits. The same varieties of moral and intellectual traits possible in individuals produce endless varieties of girl. And they engender endless sorts of curious misconceptions about her and false ambitions for her. In general, one may truly say that the fewer a girl’s intellectual interests, the more conspicuous is her girlishness; for intellect is impersonal and tends to create more and more of impersonal thoughts and of delicate individual modes of expression. But this is not to say that a girl who has learned to think impersonally has likewise learned to feel impersonally. No training of any sort can estrange her spirit from the love of persons, or force her emotion into narrow channels.
One other characteristic she has, one other emphasis, which, rightly understood, gives the clue to most of whatever else is puzzling about her. It is mental. She has an amazing and unbelievable power to stop her comprehension at any given point. This is the psychological concomitant of her physical interpenetrability. Her nature tends to be diffuse, not intensive. She sheds illumination in all directions — not one fierce searchlight shaft of penetrative attention. She can suddenly draw a cloud across her understanding, and shut off from her mental sight conclusions too obvious to deny. Right in the known area of her own interest and knowledge there rises a vagueness. She can be cognizant of facts germane to her most intimate concerns and experiences, down to a certain depth or up to a certain bound or on to a certain barrier — beyond that she can be as honestly ignorant of it and oblivious to it as if it did not exist or as if she knew none of the surrounding or following facts which lead inevitably to it. This is not pretense, or insincerity, or wilful blindness. It is a physical and emotional necessity. It is a natural means of instinctive self-defense, and a blessed softener and beautifier and clarifier of her inner visions. She is, by her whole nature, close to life. So soon as she feels that a matter is too complex for words and logic, she swiftly turns from thought, and diffuses her intelligence to take refuge in her intuition; that is, she acts on instinct. Why not? ‘Intelligence and instinct are turned in opposite directions: the former toward inert matter, the latter toward life. Instinct is sympathy. It is to the very inwardness of life that intuition leads us.’ And so when, in matters which closely concern her own self, a girl seems to move in a silvery haze, let us not protest — or invade the holy of holies. She has her own courage — her own insights, her own wisdom. And our meddling efforts to rationalize and define will shatter a lovely thing without producing any good in its place.
This is not to say that girls must not be taught to think clearly and see straight. They must. Even to make their intuition more perfect, they need to think more perfectly. ‘Intuition is instinct that has become self-conscious — capable of reflecting upon its object.’ So, girls need intellect, but beware how you prescribe what they shall think about; beware how you enter the temple.
With this threefold clue to her real nature, one can see the real meaning of each of the three sets of comments, and pass a quizzical judgment on the clumsy objectiveness of them. The social commenter says, ‘ Girls are always giggling. They are vain, coquettish, and anxious to please; full of caprice, romantic, sentimental, clinging, yielding, easily influenced, and dependent; given to “crushes,” jealous, malicious, and “catty”; scheming, deceitful, and untruthful, dishonorable, and unreliable in promises, fickle and inconstant. Their central passion is for admiration and devotion from others. They are easily intoxicated by social intercourse and they are intrinsically selfish.’ And the man with the clue answers sagely and astutely, ‘Yes, because they are preëminently interested in persons.'
The domestic appreciator exclaims, ‘Girls are motherly, and unselfish. Their chief longing is to devote themselves to some one or other, asking only to love and to be loved. They have a sensitive delicacy and purity which is ineffable, an almost angelic quality; an extraordinary bloom and glow of maidenhood. They are easy to manage because they are naturally good and well-behaved. They give no trouble in school, they learn their lessons, stand high in their classes, and are excellent judges of character; they are full of social perception and of interest in forwarding the purposes of others.’ And we respond with ardor, ‘Yes, because they are preëminently interested in persons and their emotion spreads with a germinative warmth.
The intellectual critic protests, ‘They are not gregarious, or social. Everything which happens wears to them a personal aspect. They cannot keep a secret; are illogical and inconsequent, incomprehensible and unaccountable; indirect in thought and action, jumping to conclusions in a thoroughly unintellectual way and giving no reason, unbusinesslike and impractical, and without any interest in doing things really well.’ We seek to explain by saying, ‘Yes, often; because they are preeminently int erested in persons and their mental attention easily fuses into a general responsiveness to their surroundings.’ And their surroundings have often been absurdly restricted.
Time out of mind, girls have been just as simple as boys; but because they have been unable to explain themselves, and because they were so unlike those who passed judgment upon them, they have remained incomprehensible, but always charming. And lest the charm be lost (which never could be lost, enwoven as it was in the very stuff of which they were made), barriers and protections have been set about them to keep them separate.
But in our day, all special restrictions and restraints have been removed from girls. They now do all which their physical construction will justify. Little girls no longer wear thin slippers and long skirts, so that they must go to see a freshet in a child’s wagon as Lucy must in Rollo’s Vacation. But basketball and hockey, cross-country ‘hikes’ and bicycles have not altered their girlishness a whit. Relieve them as we may of artificial encumbrances and mistaken demands, they remain still the same little maidens. Occupation and preoccupation have changed for them. But their nature remains the same; and if we stop puzzling about them and see them from within instead of from without, we come to understand them and take all the old comfort in them. They are still the light of our eyes and the joy of our life, so winning, so ineffable, so dear, that we scarce dare trust ourselves to speak of it. We lightly smile about them, because we cannot explain them; and we cannot explain because their quality and value are too evasive and intimate for explanation.
Nevertheless, in spite of the oldtime fealty toward her and the newtime freedom for her, a girl was and is often restless and dissatisfied because the world’s expectation from her seems so nondescript and unsatisfactory. Just so, the air might complain that it had no settled place or purpose, and the sunshine might think itself formless and somewhat lacking in definite aim.
Though a girl’s life may thus seem uncertain and dispartite without, within it has a fine unity and vivid sensitive existence, incomparably interesting and magical. Never pity a girl for being a girl. She has joys of the spirit and vivid delicate adventures of the heart, which you can guess only if you can read the flutter of an eyelid, the delicate flush at the temples, and the tremor of a pulse.
I have yet to meet any girl whose dissatisfaction is anything but intellectual, and whose restlessness does not really arise from lack of productive occupation, not from dislike of being a girl. And I have yet to meet anyone who has ever been a girl and has passed the age of forty, who does not feel that her crowning satisfactions lie wherever her womanhood is most perfected. Productive occupation for a girl is whatever her mental and physical faculties fit her to do with satisfaction. Every girl should, of course, cultivate her talents and develop her special interests, intending always to put them to ultimate use in some specific paid occupation which will assure her of value in the world. She may not choose just yet what it shall be, but she must know it will be something.
Never fear for a girl, whatever work she undertakes, if you know her to have been bred in all high-mindedness, for she carries with her in every fibre a charm against disaster. On the other hand, if she has been bred to follow after pleasure and to desire admiration, she must be watched at every turn to prevent her making a fool of herself. But if she is right-minded and not vain, guard her and protect her afar off, not to save her from being led astray,— she is her own best protection against that, if she is indeed unselfish and highhearted,— but to save her from the suffering and confusion of body and spirit which will permeate her whole being, if her virgin reserve is by one jot or tittle invaded. She walks in beauty, free and unafraid, inviolable, remote, so long as she is guarded by an invisible ring of solicitude and protection all about her steps. And from that protection she will go forth safe, when she steps from girlhood to womanhood and carries her ripened and strengthened powers into the independent yet so human work of woman’s service to her kind.