Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/October 1880/Education as an Aid to the Health of Women

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 17 October 1880  (1880) 
Education as an Aid to the Health of Women
By Elizabeth Cumings
EDUCATION AS AN AID TO THE HEALTH OF WOMEN.
By ELIZABETH CUMINGS.

"In education we should endeavor to make a man change from one habit to a better."—Theætetus (Plato).

THE relation between physical and psychical states is so intimate, and the effects of the latter so nearly simulate disease, that physicians are often led into grave errors in diagnosis and treatment. Nor is this the worst mischief; the secondary stage of psychical excitement may be actual disease, for the nerve-force expended is so much withdrawn from the processes of nutrition and assimilation, and continued morbid action of any of the functions has a tendency to establish organic change. How far education may act as a conserver of psychical, and secondarily of physical health, is therefore a legitimate object of inquiry.

Subject as the female organism is to a periodicity of alternate excitation and depression, the nervous system must respond in a degree to the increased or lowered tension of the veins and arteries. To this physiological cause of emotional excitability are added the effects of habitual in-door life, unhygienic dress, and avocations that are puerile, or that tax the physical strength to the utmost. Instead of correcting the natural tendency, the habits and pursuits of women superimpose upon it an acquired nervous sensibility and irritability, till lack of nerve equilibrium has come to be inherent in civilized women, and Sydenham, generalizing from this point, says, "All women are hysterical"—an assertion that thinking women, especially the mothers of girls, would do well to consider.

The social environment of women is, in its effect, somewhat like the drug mentioned by Dr. Clark in his volume on "Visions," that, taken into the system, paralyzes the nerves of motion, but leaves the nerves of sensation unaffected. An appearance of well-being and content is required of them, at the same time they are exposed, much more than men, to the hurts and wounds that touch what we call the feelings. Without the diversion of work that employs their intellectual faculties, they are constantly tempted to magnify the torments of wounded self-love and the petty griefs that a properly developed nature would not consider. Religion is their only solace, and that incites them to bear their troubles in the martyr spirit, that is, by sheer force of will, an effort that has a markedly anti-vital effect upon the organic functions, rather than with the "sweet reasonableness" which regards harassments as the common lot of all, and therefore determinately turns the attention away from them to higher things.

Though education must for ever work within limits, and can never go beyond the capacity of the individual nature, one can, by strict watchfulness over self, and exercising the will in the required direction, insensibly bring about such a habit of thought, feeling, and action, as he may wish to attain to, his ideal being only a foreshadowing of his own possibilities. To assist one to so train his mind and to furnish him with noble and suitable objects of study is one of the highest offices of a wise education; and that women especially need the help afforded by such training is evidenced by the long list of female patients, suffering from some form of neuropathic disease, that the busy physician carries on his books.

To the uninitiated, hysteria stands for simple foolishness; to the physician, it represents a hydra, hundred-headed, and the parent of yet more serious disorders. There is scarcely a type of disease that it will not simulate. It will even take on the forms of articular rheumatism and spinal disease, and will cause syncope apparently as profound as that induced by organic disease of the heart. It does not limit itself to one attack, for the tendency the automatic apparatus of the body has to repeat its acts will cause the second expression of excitement to be more easily induced, more ungovernable, and more prolonged than the first. And, the hysterical diathesis established, the patient may yield to such seizures till morbid processes set up in the brain and spinal cord. Its effects do not stop with the individual. Lack of voluntary direction of the thoughts and feelings, and yielding to melancholy and depressing passions in the mother, in her resulting in neuropathic states, may exhibit remote effects in her offspring as chorea, epilepsy, or an appetite for spirituous liquors. And it is not too much to say that these diseases and even insanity are often but differing results of a weakening of the nerves and nerve-centers, having ultimately in the mother a psychic cause. For the cure of hysteria and allied complaints physicians declare that skillful mental treatment is better than all the drugs in the pharmacopoeia. The recoveries that take place through sympathy, mesmerism, and miracle mongers, are easily explained when one discovers that diseases, whose remote causes are nervous, often yield instantaneously to appropriate psychical treatment. But better than any remedy is prevention, and, if the mind can exercise a curative influence over an unstrung nervous system, there is no doubt that, by means of proper physical, mental, and moral training, the predisposition to neuropathic complaints, which specialists declare universal in women, may be very nearly extinguished.

A family that came specially under my notice will illustrate the effect of the psychic states of the parent upon the offspring. The father, a full-blooded animal of a man, had a most brutal temper. The mother, a delicate woman of nervous temperament and submissive disposition, used up her nervous energy keeping her husband pleasant, or enduring his passion. Besides his ungovernable temper, the father had no vices; the mother came of a healthy but somewhat nervous family, who were remarkably religious.

There were five children, three of whom were sons. The eldest inherited his father's temper, was a libertine, and fond of drink. The second son died of delirium tremens; and the third, having squandered his strength and fortune upon women and drink, shot himself. The older daughter, a pale and slender woman of most saintly spirit, gave birth to two children; the first died in infancy; the second lived till the age of puberty, and then went into a rapid consumption. The younger daughter was, during middle life, subject to a periodic insanity, and one of her three children, after suffering from chorea for years, lapsed into idiocy.

Of the family of the oldest son I can only speak with certainty of two. One of his sons had epileptic fits, and one daughter had anger fits quite like her venerable grandfather, when she would swear with a volubility a trooper might envy. These explosions of temper usually ended in hysterical convulsions. Curious to know more, I inquired of a gentleman, an old acquaintance of the family, what sort of a mother old Mr. Blank had. "Oh, she was a nice old lady when I knew her, though she had spells, and, when she was younger, I've heard them say her spells were awful," was the reply. "What kind of spells?" I asked. "I don't know. When I knew her, anything that crossed her, or made her feel bad, would set her going. She seemed to faint, and would go from one fit to another, till sometimes it was hours afore she was herself. She said she felt as if she was choking, and the doctors gave her no end of 'fæta pills,' but she always had spells till she died." "Were you acquainted with Mrs. Blank's family?" I asked, still curious. "Oh, yes, knew them well," said the old man with an air of marked respect. "They were excellent people. The old lady, Mrs. Blank's mother, was very religious, and at camp-meetings was a master hand at having the power. Oh, she was good, and the right sort."

I do not say that if these mothers had not yielded their self-control, the one to hysterics, the other to religious enthusiasm, all the train of evils that appeared in the family I have described would not have happened; but I am sure I keep within the limits of probability if I assert that determined self-control and self-government on their part would have been markedly influential in producing a corresponding nerve-strength and self-control in their offspring.

The radical defect in the education of girls is, that knowledge, and that of a very superficial sort, instead of the cultivation of the faculties, is made its aim. Regarded by the large majority of educators in a partial light as a means organized for something outside of herself, the girl is simply taught to appear educated. The directing of her mind into a wholesome and self-controlled activity, which is the only means of perfecting the intellectual faculties, is not thought of. Her mind is made a scrap-bag into which are dropped the dabs of this and that which custom has decreed a young woman should know, and which she and her friends regard very much in the same light as the bows and feathers on her pretty bonnet.

Between the ages of twelve and twenty, the time of all others when her body and its healthful development ought to be carefully looked after, a girl ordinarily receives all the intellectual training she ever has. To do credit to the school and satisfy the mistaken pride of her friends, she is kept in a perpetual hurry, memorizing an incredible number of pages per day. Her chief recreation is a sedate walk, in which dress and behavior have to be considered more than the toning up of her flabby muscles and the oxygenizing of her thin blood. Her chief pleasures are evening entertainments, where her vanity is stimulated to the utmost, and late hours, unhygienic dress, and unwholesome food tax her vitality.

Society emphasizes the education of the boarding-school. To appear well is its sole demand upon young women. Earnestness, an interest in the projects which their founders believe will regenerate the world, all the ebullitions of force characterestic of the young mind that thinks, even an enthusiasm for study, are "bad form" for a young lady in society, and make her suspected of being, at least, "queer." Of course, I speak of ordinary society. There are cultivated congeries in every large city in which more is expected of a girl than mere prettiness. A bright girl who has finished her school-life scarcely knows what to do with herself. Her education was not a preparation for any special work, and, unless she was very fortunate, it did not lay the foundation of proper mental habits. The intellectual in her has been roused, but she has not been taught how to direct it. Some way this force will expend itself: if it can not find a legitimate outlet, it will stimulate the emotions, and find a disastrous activity in them, and too often the "sweet girl-graduate" becomes a sentimental creature, a prey of whims and caprices, capable of an intense but one-sided energy when her enthusiasm is roused, but incapable of any sustained, self-directed effort.

Women rarely find in marriage greater incentives to a real intellectual activity than they find in the boarding-school or in society. Whether the man whose name she takes will be as attractive in middle life as in his youth—whether she will be proud and glad that he is the father of her children—are matters about which the young girl is not taught to think. Domestic economy, as now carried on, is burdensome and full of distasteful and humdrum duties. Having no special aptitudes, not having enough control of her mind to elect to do anything, or to persist in it if she so elect, not knowing how to make the most of what is open to her, unhappiness, real or imaginary, preys upon the average woman to an extent not to be guessed at by a person whose mind is employed. It is the natural tendency for those powers which are constitutionally the strongest to overrule and weaken the others. If woman is, from physiological causes, more emotional than is good for her, and the habits of civilized life have increased this tendency, if emotional excitement weakens the control which the will ought to exercise over the powers of attention and reflection that stand at the head of intellection, it is the first business of the teacher to employ a girl's faculties as equally as possible—to restrain those which unduly predominate, and exercise the weaker powers.

A girl should be made to understand, from the first, that the education she receives at school is to do for her mind what the scales and exercises do for her fingers in her musical studies; that she is not to study simply to acquire facts, but to get control of her mind. Moreover, she should be taught that it is her duty to look forward to a lifelong intellectual activity, so that, when she comes to take full charge of herself, she will direct her mature powers toward some pursuit or line of study which will promote her present or future welfare, and insure to her wholesome mental habits. Especially should her willpower, the force which will, more than any other, make or mar her, receive the most careful training; so that, become adult, she will be able to use it physiologically, and determinately turn from the enemies, wounds, and serious sorrows, that otherwise might induce nervous disease, or drive her into a mad-house, to some one of the many subjects of interest in which the world abounds.

The first mistake in the education of girls, and the one fraught with the saddest results, is made when they are allowed to leave childhood too soon. To keep them little girls as long as possible, and make them, first of all, what George MacDonald calls "blessed little animals," is the first step in the right direction.

The second mistake is, permitting growing girls to sit in the house and study when their transparent cheeks tell of anaemia and lowered vitality. So long as there are branches of knowledge which are admirable training for the mind and can be pursued best out of doors, this mistake is inexcusable. It remains to be seen whether the old methods of education in use in boys' schools are the best for girls: they are best only if they are most physiological. Girls should be treated as they are, not as they might be under improved habits and conditions.

The third mistake is, making the school-life of girls final, when it ought to be a simple preparation for the intellectual life of the adult woman.

A fourth mistake is, withholding a knowledge of the laws to which woman is subject, in her physical and her mental life, her place in nature, and the potential character of her mental states and habits.