Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/February 1880/Hygiene in the Higher Education of Women

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
620431Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 February 1880 — Hygiene in the Higher Education of Women1880John Hughes Bennett



AMONG the large and increasing flocks of patients who crowd the outdoor departments of our metropolitan hospitals, there is a class of persons who of late years have rendered themselves conspicuous by demanding medical assistance. These are women who have to gain their livelihood by the exertion of their intellectual faculties, and who follow callings which require the constant exercise of their mental powers. An example of this is the so-called pupil-teacher, whose career we shall endeavor briefly to sketch. A young school-girl of about thirteen years of age is remarked to be unusually intelligent. It is suggested to her parents that she should become a teacher. They consenting, the child is at once placed under training. According to information derived from these pupils, the routine of life for the next six or seven years is as follows: They have—1. To continue their education, by receiving from others several hours of special instruction every day, and a considerable proportion of their evenings is spent in preparing themselves for this; 2. They themselves have to teach the younger children in the school for from five to six hours daily; 3. They have to pass a Government examination at the end of each year, which entails further special private study. This course of instruction continues for five years; and, being satisfactorily concluded, the pupil becomes an assistant teacher. During the next two years she either resides in a college and there undergoes a special and systematic course of study, or, if her means preclude, she continues the system already described at school, and further prepares herself for a final examination; after which, if she acquit herself in an efficient manner, she becomes a full teacher, and as such is certified by Government.

Such a career may be said to represent the intellectual life of an ordinary student, in which there are considerable mental strain, a constant exertion to acquire and retain knowledge, anxiety as to results, and possibly worry and irritation in details. In consequence, there are diminished exercise, loss of fresh air, and generally deficient hygienic surroundings. We have said that numbers of such young women are constantly applying to the hospitals for medical assistance. They complain of physical debility, anæmia, dyspepsia, and loss of appetite; their functions are disordered and irregular, and they present the usual conditions of bodily weakness and depression. Their nervous system and mental faculties are also affected. They are irritable, nervous, depressed, and melancholic; they do not sleep at night, partially lose their memories, they suffer from violent headaches, and can not settle to work; they have all kinds of nervous and subjective pains, hysterical symptoms, and, in short, all the phenomena of nervous and mental as well as of physical exhaustion and debility. If our patients be asked the cause of these ailments, they will with one accord say that it is the hard and constant brain-work, combined with worry and perpetual anxiety.

From teachers let us turn aside for a moment to women who follow other intellectual employments. If we examine the matter we shall find, a certain number of exceptions always being allowed, that as a rule when females are subjected to severe and prolonged mental exertion, more especially if it is associated with anxiety and physical fatigue, they break down under the ordeal. How many excellent and clever women have we known who, either from necessity or from love of study, have eagerly embraced and distinguished themselves in literary, scientific, and educational pursuits! Burning the midnight oil, contending, it may be, with difficulties, harassed with doubt and anxiety, debilitated from want of rest and bodily fatigue, they struggle on, their circumstances or their enthusiasm impelling them, but at last they, like the pupil-teachers, give way and succumb from sheer exhaustion. The objects of this paper are to endeavor to explain why this deterioration of health should so frequently take place in women when subjected to bodily and mental strain, in distinction from men, in whom, under the same circumstances, it is comparatively unusual; and, with the view of elucidating this, to discuss the physical and intellectual capacities of the sexes, and to ascertain whether, in these respects, the male and female are upon an equal footing. That these propositions may be rendered intelligible, some preliminary observations are necessary.

The Physical Conformation of Woman.—It will be generally conceded that woman is physically weaker and less powerfully built than man. With few exceptions, this distinction between the sexes is universal throughout the entire animal kingdom. From the lowest to the highest species, the general structure of the male differs from that of the female in the size and strength of his bones and muscles, the form of his head, thorax, and limbs, and in the possession of special weapons of offense and defense. In the human being, although this to a certain extent is modified by circumstances, the same general law holds good. Owing to his conformation, the man is capable of performing and of enduring more physical labor and fatigue, and hence on him, from time immemorial, has fallen the share of manual toil, and of supporting and protecting the other and weaker sex. It is true we sometimes meet with—

"Daughters of the plow, stronger than men,
Huge women blowzed with health, and wind, and rain,
And labor."

Such, all will admit, are exceptions, and by no means represent the standard woman.

The generative organs form a most important distinction between the sexes, and must, to a great extent, modify the habits and career of the female. In the natural course of events, many years of the most vigorous and active period of a woman's life are spent in germinating and suckling her offspring, during which time she is physically capable of little else. If she has not children, frequently recurring periodic processes take place, which, under the best circumstances, render her specially liable to derangement of her general health, and under adverse conditions she is almost certain to fall a victim. This was demonstrated in the days of slavery, when the owners, either not knowing or caring about these physiological laws, forced their women to labor continuously in the fields, in consequence of which thousands of them died of those numerous ills to which female flesh is heir. We can not here enter at length into this very important subject, but merely indicate that the whole sexual system of woman has a profound influence on her physical nature, which does not exist to the same extent in man, and, although for conventional reasons such questions are usually suppressed in public controversies on the advancement of her sex, there can be no doubt that they should not be forgotten, having, as they do, a most important and practical influence on the subject.

From these considerations the conclusion may be drawn that woman is structurally less powerful and vigorous than man, that she is less capable of performing acts of physical exertion, of enduring fatigue and exposure, and of combating against adverse circumstances. That, moreover, the natural functions of her sex, when they do not actually incapacitate her from action, render her specially liable, under disturbing conditions, to deterioration of general health.

The Nervous Conformation of Woman.—The whole nervous system, in common with the other structures of the body, is smaller and less voluminous in the female than in the male. Its function is characterized by comparative weakness, as evidenced by great susceptibility and instability, and also by promptness in responding to all kinds of stimuli. In women there is less nervous capacity and vigor, diminished power of control, and a greater readiness to break down under physical and mental strain. It is notorious that the conditions termed nervous and hysterical are almost entirely confined to the female sex, in which they are extremely common. Every physician at a hospital who treats out-door patients knows that for every hundred men he prescribes for he is called upon to treat at least five hundred women. On the other hand, the male wards are always full, while many of the female beds may be vacant. This simply indicates that serious disease is most common in men, while trifling nervous ailments are almost universal in women. Most women are naturally so predisposed that, when subjected to fright, grief, anxiety, pain, and other such circumstances, they feel (in addition to the direct distressing effects) various remote subjective phenomena in the form of suffocations, spasms, bodily pains, fainting, convulsions, and a general liability to violent and explosive emotional demonstrations. If the causes are permanent their effects may become so, and deteriorate the general health, and there are thousands of women who are hopeless invalids, often for life, from conditions acting on their susceptible and mobile nervous systems, which in the other sex would have produced no appreciable results. There are, of course, in this as in other things, numerous exceptions to the general rule, many women having their natures much modified and approaching the male type, and in the same way there are some men who are of a nervous and hysterical temperament. We may, then, assert as a fact that the nervous system of the average woman is more susceptible and impressionable than that of the average man, that it is in consequence more readily unhinged by mental and physical distress or fatigue, and that when thus disordered it reacts upon the system, so as to cause permanent disease.

The Intellectual Conformation of Woman.—The cranium of woman is smaller than that of man. The weight of the average female brain has been estimated at from five to six ounces less than that of the average male brain, and a general inferiority in size exists at every period of life, from the new-born infant to old age. Not only has this comparative decrease in size been determined, but it has been ascertained that the female brain is relatively smaller than that of the male, as compared to the weight of her body, and researches on this subject have shown that, while the encephalon of the female is ten per cent, less in weight than that of the male, her total bodily weight is only eight per cent. less. The brains of different races vary greatly in size, but whether it be in the most highly civilized nations, or in the lowest savages, the encephalon of the female is always comparatively and relatively smaller than that of the male. These facts show that the difference in size and weight is obviously a fundamental sexual distinction, and not one which can be explained on the hypothesis that the educational advantages enjoyed either by the individual man or by the male sex generally, operating through a long series of generations, have stimulated the growth of the brain in one sex more than in the other. All other circumstances being alike, the size of the brain appears to bear a general relation to the mental power of the individual. There are doubtless exceptions to this rule, but unquestionably the general axiom holds good in large averages; therefore, as the organ of intellect in the female is smaller and lighter than that in the male, we may fairly assume that it is less capable of such high and extended mental powers. It is justly stated that quality as well as quantity should be considered, but of this we can only judge by results, in which case it must also be conceded that women are at a disadvantage. This assumption, if it can not be anatomically demonstrated, is amply proved by facts. From the beginning of the world, as man has been characterized by his physical force as compared to woman, so has he been remarkable for his superiority of intellectual power. At every age, in every country and climate, and under every circumstance, we find that in the highest qualities of mind, of reason, judgment, genius, inventive power, capacity for acquiring and utilizing knowledge, man stands preeminent. It is true that there have been some noble and illustrious women who have proved themselves of the highest mental capacity, and who have risen to the first rank in various departments of intellectual culture, but it must be admitted that these are rare exceptions, and that even they in every particular have been enormously outnumbered and surpassed by men. It may then be reasoned that the female has hitherto not had the opportunities or education necessary to fit her to place herself on an equality with the other sex. This argument of itself proves that she has not been born with the mental force to assert her pretensions, for it can not be maintained that physical strength alone could have forced her into a secondary intellectual position. Besides, it is not so: for in literature, poetry, music, art, and in numerous other branches of study in which she has had as many if not more opportunities of perfecting herself than man, she has rarely proved his equal and never his superior.

The intellectual powers of woman not only differ in degree from those of man but also in character. Her mind participates with her physical constitution in being endowed with great sensibility, and hence her acuteness, perception, and tact. She seizes with rapidity objects which come before her, and observes by instinct an infinity of shades of meaning in details which might escape the most observant of men. She often arrives at conclusions with great celerity and adroitness, but then her results are as frequently wrong as right. Her perception is fine and penetrating rather than extended or profound. She readily occupies herself with small impressions and details, but is arrested there, being less capable of grasping general principles. Although her mind may thus embrace a variety of particulars, it is to little practical purpose, from an intellectual point of view, as she can not fix her attention on any idea or train of ideas for any length of time, and reason out a logical conclusion. Woman dislikes and avoids that hard work which requires long and profound meditation, her character being adverse to the study of abstract science. Her thoughts wander, she becomes impatient, and her too mobile imagination is unable to rivet the attention on the dry details of a practical subject. She enters with enthusiasm and often with unnecessary vigor at first into any new project, philanthropic, educational, or otherwise, but rarely carries it steadily out to a successful termination. Her opinions are formed by her feelings rather than by the operations of reason. Her forte is that species of knowledge which requires more tact than science, more vivacity than force, more imagination than judgment. Her chief moral philosophy is directed to the study of individuals and society, and the sagacity of a woman in acquiring traits of character and penetrating true motive is what the logic of a man rarely acquires. Wise women—the so-called blue-stocking—as a rule know nothing profoundly. Their natural acuteness of perception enables them to seize a number of details and isolated particulars, they fancy they understand them thoroughly, they confound theory with fact, the real difficulties they do not surmount, they can not fix the attention long and deeply, or persevere in overcoming obstructions, and they feel no pleasure in habits of profound meditation. They therefore remain with their acquired superficial knowledge, pass rapidly from one thing to another, and there only rest in their minds certain crude and incomplete notions, with which they are quite satisfied, and of which they make the most, but which in consequence lead to false and illogical conclusions.

These observations are not for the purpose of merely lauding one sex at the expense of the other, but for a definite practical object, as will subsequently be seen. They serve to indicate that the average woman has been by nature endowed with a brain and nervous system of inferior anatomical construction to that of man, and that in consequence her intellectual powers differ from his, both in degree and in character.

The Disposition of Woman.—Voltaire has said, "le physique gouverne toujours le morale," which is strikingly illustrated by the present inquiry. In the lower animals there is a marked difference in the disposition and character of the sexes. The males are of a combative nature, and have a great tendency to fight. They are bolder, fiercer, and more untamable. The females have more highly exalted perceptive faculties, they are cautious, artful, and cunning, as is abundantly seen in the ingenious methods they adopt in the hiding and protecting of their young. These properties serve them to some extent in lieu of physical force, and they are altogether more gentle and more tractable in their nature. The same, in a different degree, is obvious in the human female. Every mother knows that a male infant is more troublesome to rear than a female. As children grow older the difference becomes more marked. The girl is less boisterous, willful, and imperious than the boy. She is more delicate, impressionable, and artful, pleased with attention, solicits admiration, and is readily moved to tears at suggestion of sorrow or pain. He courts danger, is bored with solicitude, and, more blunted or careless, laughs at what she weeps at. She, with her doll, already anticipates the gentle duties of maternity. He, with his sword and trumpet, mimics the glory of war. On the disposition of the fully-developed woman poets have written volumes. We, however, have to take a more matter-of-fact view of her than they have done. When Hamlet said, "Frailty, thy name is woman," he was scientifically correct, in more senses than he intended. Her natural muscular feebleness and delicacy of constitution render violent exercise and labor distasteful to her, and her inferiority of intellectual power makes severe and constant mental exertion a task. While the man, full of bodily and mental vigor, goes forth seeking and braving danger and labor, proud in the responsibility of those dependent on him, the woman fulfills a welcome task at home in the less active duties of matrimony, and of domestic and social observances, equally happy in the possession of a strong arm and head to protect and support her. Such an existence, however, fosters a great susceptibility of character in addition to her natural conformation. Hers is often a mixture of extreme happiness or of profound misery. She feels pain, grief, and anxiety acutely. To these she readily gives way, and as rapidly revives from their effects. Sensations of all kinds act on her powerfully. These she can not control, but exaggerates into extremes, and manifests by violent demonstrations. If she feels acutely it is not for long, her sentiments at the time being easily replaced by new ones, and her mental distress, if rapidly induced, is more poignant than deep. Woman is essentially impulsive and emotional; her sensitive and changeable nature is necessary for the part she has to play in life. She feels more than she thinks. A man forces his way by power of body and intelligence. She acts on him by tact and by all those weaknesses in which with him lies her chief power. Her flexibility of character gives rise to caprice which consists of a brusque passage from one sentiment to another totally opposed. Her habitual feebleness and deficient vigor inspire her with less confidence; and, as a woman can not therefore act directly, she employs indirect measures to effect her ends. Hence the natural desire to please inherent in the sex, the artfulness, the dissimulations, the little managements and intrigues, the graces, the coquetry, and other seductive ways, which, to a certain extent, have always been ceded to by intellectual and physical force. For the same reasons, and from the same cause, her weaknesses and vices are greater, and no man can compete with a really bad woman in petty jealousies, spiteful actions, revenge, and even in the ingenuity and vindictiveness of crime. It is this affectability which, if it be a cause of her frailties, is equally efficacious in giving luster to her virtues. It is this which constitutes the chief charm of the mother, who instinctively detects the slightest desire or change in her offspring and impulsively acts for its benefit; of the wife, who sympathizes with and encourages her husband, fagged and anxious for the common weal; and of the nurse, who takes in at a glance all the details and wants of the patient and ministers to his requirements with pity and devotion. It is this which gives rise to that compassion, sympathy, piety, and affectionate disposition which are the chief characteristics of a woman. It is the feeling of powerlessness which makes her identify herself with the unfortunate and unhappy, which natural pity is the base of all social virtues.

The Effects of Social Life and Education on Woman.—There can be little doubt that social manners, education, and an infinity of circumstances may affect the qualities woman derives from her material organization, and even efface the original character which nature has given her. In the simplest condition, the man labors with his hands and with his wits for mutual support and protection; the woman rears her children, tends the sick, and conducts domestic affairs. Such, if the most primitive, is probably the healthiest and happiest condition for the female. Her sympathetic and susceptible nature has here every scope for action without being shaken by rude and oft repeated shocks. In civilized life, especially among the upper classes, everything seems combined to foster and increase the natural affectability of woman's nature, and society renders her, already unfortunate by organization, the victim of the most painful and varied series of moral and corporeal affections. Medical philosophers have declaimed, and will long continue to do so, in vain, against the whole system of the education and bringing up of women, which is directed solely to the purpose of making them personally attractive, and subsequently securing for them brilliant settlements for life, at the expense of their health. Much might be written on this subject; suffice it at present to state that the useless and insipid lives that most young ladies lead, the total want of an intelligent interest and occupation, and the unnatural and artificial existence pursued, are highly calculated to injuriously enhance that natural affectability with which she has been endowed. The system of fashionable boarding-schools, whose anxiety to render their pupils accomplished and fascinating at all costs results in a forced and at the same time imperfect training, combined with luxurious living, absence of exercise, and other healthy circumstances, tends to increase the irritability of the nervous system and to foster a precocious evolution of character. As this is increased, tone and energy are diminished. The girl returns from school a wayward, capricious, and hysterical young lady, weak and unstable in mind, habits, and pursuits. She enters into society, and there her whole mode of life further contributes to her unfortunate condition. The competitions, disappointed affection and vanity, the artificial excitements of balls, public entertainments, late hours, and all the frivolities and pleasures of fashion, tend in the same direction. The cultivation of music, poetry, novels, and other inflammatory literature nourish illusions contrary to the actual state of society. Her very dress seems made on purpose to interfere with the healthy function of her most vital organs, and to prevent the free play of muscular action essential to a sound constitution. Girls subjected to such a régime, when their minds and bodies should be guided in a totally opposite direction, have one order of faculties alone exercised, and these, predominating over the reasoning powers, cause a host of nervous, vaporous, hysterical, and hypochondriacal disorders. Thus women from their earliest days are constantly subjected to the yoke of prejudices, are under the necessity of a perpetual state of acting and deception, of dissembling their desires and real inclinations for the sake of propriety, of keeping to themselves the most powerful passions and the strongest propensities, and of feigning a calmness and indifference when they are devoured by a burning fire.

As to education, we have already pointed out the general unsatisfactory nature of the intellectual studies of most women. That idleness and the absence of suitable and substantial occupation for the mind which so commonly exists in the higher ranks of society are the sources of great evils no one will deny. For the frivolous and luxurious so-called duties of fashionable life, although exhausting and fatiguing, can not be said to constitute that healthy exercise of mind or body which is desirable for young women to stave off disease and maintain sound health. Study and occupation, at the same time positive, useful, and attractive, are the best correctives of an imagination ardent and disordered, of a nervous system susceptible and hypersensitive. These considerations being made patent, many women, with the impulse characteristic of their sex, have rushed to the opposite extreme. They wish females to receive the same education as males, and to compete with them in the intellectual struggle for existence. We have, however, seen that both the woman's body and mind are inferior in vigor and power to those of the man, and accordingly, if pitted against one another in a physical or mental race, she, to use a sporting phrase, would be heavily handicapped. She will not, as a rule, reach his standard, and, if she endeavors to do so, it will be at the expense of her health. The brain and nervous system, like other organs, if overworked, become the centers of activity, and are fatigued; this increases existing susceptibility, and hence arise symptoms of nervousness, hysteria, hypochondriasis, and insanity. These acting on the body produce emaciation and other diseases, the offspring of an exhausted constitution.

The conclusion, then, to be drawn from this section is that, in addition to the natural affectability of her character, this condition in woman is fostered and augmented by the artificial exigencies of civilized life; that, whereas idleness and want of occupation are the greatest sources of many diseases peculiar to the sex, the opposite extreme of mental strain is equally prejudicial.

We have endeavored, in the brief space allotted us, to point out the physical and intellectual capacities of woman, and in consequence the disposition and instincts which nature has implanted in her. This fundamental difference between the sexes, we have seen, is not due to education or special cultivation, but to a primary development of the system, each having those peculiarities best fitted for the part it has been born to fulfill. There can therefore be little doubt that the most natural and healthy condition for a woman is a properly assorted marriage, in which she has children, with whom she has useful and congenial occupation, and by whom all her sympathies and best instincts are developed. In modern times great and laudable efforts are being made to effect an improvement in the higher education of women, and, as there are many who either from choice or circumstances can not occupy that position which it is the pride of most to possess, a movement has been made whereby they may earn an independent livelihood by the exercise of their mental faculties. We are informed by energetic and doubtless well-meaning speakers from the platform, that women have hitherto been under subjection, that they should emancipate themselves, that their intellect is as good as if not better than that of men, and that they are as capable as men are of the highest mental culture, and of profiting and distinguishing themselves thereby. It is unquestionable that suitable occupation and education are of the highest importance to the well-being of women, and that all due encouragement should be given to those who endeavor to provide for them an intelligent interest in life. But in avoiding Scylla care must be taken not to drift into Charybdis. To say that the majority of women are fit to cope successfully with men in the intellectual world would, we believe, for the preceding reasons, be a most injurious doctrine, and lead to disastrous results. Our text, the pupil teacher, is an example. A young girl, between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, the most anxious and important period in her whole life, when her mental and physical constitution is undergoing development, is put under a severe intellectual strain. She is irritated and worried all day by teaching children, she is fatigued by hard study, and is rendered constantly anxious by the frequently recurring examinations on which her reputation, and it may be her living, depends. Such a career does not as a rule break down the young man, but in a large number of cases it completely unhinges the woman. She, in fact, is compelled to perform the work of a man without having his organic basis to depend on, and hence, as a consequence, her entire system suffers. So it is with women who follow other pursuits requiring severe mental application; they age before their time, and finally succumb. It is true that men occasionally give way under the same ordeal, but these are comparatively the exception, and this is as often brought about by the assistance of other circumstances as by work alone. It is also a fact that there are some women who, overcoming all difficulties, have fully acquitted themselves of the highest mental exertions without injury, thus proving themselves to be of masculine capacity. Whether for these the Church, the bar, and physic are to throw open their arms, I leave for others to decide; but that the majority of the sex would be benefited by a systematic encouragement to follow learned professions and other laborious callings, would be, we think, physiologically and practically an error.

How unmarried women who require to earn their living are to do so by the exercise of their intellectual faculties, is one of the great problems of the day, and by far too extensive a subject to discuss at present. Our aim has been to point out that in controversies on the question the medical aspect of the case is frequently lost sight of, and it is forgotten that, in the competition for life, woman is the weaker vessel, and liable to be broken when too roughly handled. Sage philosophers may speculate what ages may effect by evolution, but, taking woman as we find her, we believe that her welfare is to be consulted, not by encouraging her to take an independent position in life and by fostering a contempt for marriage, which is now the professed tendency of the strong-minded young lady, but by educating her in such a judicious and sensible manner as will make her a good wife, mother, and useful member of society, which is unfortunately not the inclination of the present age. If this were more systematically carried out, there would be fewer single women under the necessity of working for their own living; the outcry in behalf of those unappropriated blessings would be modified, and on entering the marriage state, which is the happiest as well as the healthiest condition, they would place themselves in the position that it is intended by Nature they should occupy.

" . . . . Seeing either sex alone
Is half itself, and in true marriage lies
Nor equal, nor unequal; each fulfills
Defect in each, and always thought in thought,
Purpose in purpose, will in will, they grow,
The single pure and perfect animal,
The two-celled heart beating with one full stroke

Sanitary Record.