Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/March 1886/Health and Sex in Higher Education

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IT may not generally be known that the alumnæ of the more important centers of female higher education in this country have an organized intercollegiate association for the promotion of woman's education and the study of questions regarding her training. This association has justified its existence, if justification were necessary, by the inquiries which it has made regarding the health of those women who have pursued college courses. The importance of the results thus obtained has led to their incorporation in the "Current Report of the Massachusetts Labor Bureau." For the first time the discussion is taken from the a priori realm of theory on the one hand, and the haphazard estimate of physician and college instructor on the other. The returns have the value of all good statistics: they not only enable us to come to some conclusion upon the main point discussed, but they are so full and varied that they suggest and mark the way toward the discussion of a large number of other hardly less important questions. The figures, in short, call up as many problems as they settle, thus fulfilling the first requisite of fruitful research.

Pursuing this line, we shall first state the general character of the investigation followed and conclusions reached; and, secondly, isolate a few special problems for more detailed though brief treatment. The result may be summed up in the words of the report, as follows: "The female graduates of our colleges and universities do not seem to show, as the result of their college studies and duties, any marked difference in general health from the average health likely to be reported by an equal number of women engaged in other kinds of work. It is true that there has been, and it was to be expected that there would be, a certain deterioration in health on the part of some of the graduates. On the other hand, an almost identical improvement in health for a like number was reported, showing very plainly that we must look elsewhere for the causes of the greater part of this decline in health during college-life. If we attempt to trace the cause, we find that this deterioration is largely due, not to the requirements of college-life particularly, but to predisposing causes natural to the graduates themselves, born in them, as it were, and for which college-life or study should not be made responsible."

Through some oversight the statement is made that the returns include statistics from every higher institution in the United States open to women; while, as a matter of fact, it includes a not comparatively large number. The institutions represented, however, are typical. The data are contained in the following table:

Name of College. Sex distinction. Date of
number of
to 1882
of returns
age of
Boston University Co-educational. 1873 47 29 61·70
Cornell University Co-educational. 1868 80 36 45·00
Kansas, University of Co-educational. 1866 36 20 55·56
Mass. Institute of Technology. Co-educational. 1865 5 3 60·00
Michigan, University of Co-educational. 1841 87 46 52·87
Oberlin College Co-educational. 1833 104 39 37·50
Smith College Females only. 1875 90 43 47·78
Syracuse University Co-educational. 1871 65 17 26·15
Vassar College Females only. 1865 540 344 63·70
Wellesley College Females only. 1875 110 71 64·55
Wesleyan University Co-educational. 1831 15 6 40·00
Wisconsin, University of Co-educational. 1849 111 51 49·95
 All colleges . . . . . 1,290 705 54·65

For purposes of comparison, the value of the statistics is vitiated by the fact that the date of the admission of women is not given, and this, in the cases of the co-educational college, does not agree with the date of organization. Other facts, which we omit, go to show that the average date of admission, Oberlin being Excluded, may be safely put at about 1870.

The questions involved in the inquiry were exceedingly comprehensive, and may conveniently be considered under three heads, of which the first takes up the conditions of childhood, comprehending date of birth, nationality of parents, surroundings in childhood, amount of exercise received between the ages of eight and fourteen, the age at which study began, the age at entering college, and the age at graduation. The second section relates to individual health, and comprehends physical condition; nervousness; the age at beginning of the menstrual period; the conditions attending the menstrual periods; the number of graduates reporting disorders; the number of disorders; the number reporting each disorder, and the causes of disorders.

From the broad data thus obtained, the third section, a series of comparison tables, is gathered. Of these one of the most important compares the present health of graduates with the age at beginning study, the age at entering college, the time entering college after the menstrual period commenced, the amount of out-of-door exercise, and hereditary conditions. Another compares the health during college-life with the age at entering, the amount of study performed, the amount of worry about private and college affairs, etc. The first set is thus seen to be occupied with giving a picture of health through life, while the second endeavors to ascertain the changes introduced by college-life, and their causes.

The general features of the tables may be stated as follows:

Colleges. Average Age.
At begin-
ning study.
At begln-
ning of men-
strual period.
At entering
At gradu-
ating from
At present
Boston 5·25 13·89 19·61 23·36 26·72
Cornell 5·31 19·94 19·43 23·09 26·66
Kansas 5·25 13·65 16·32 21·75 26·35
Mass. Inst. of Tech. 6·00 13·67 21·00 24·00 25·67
Michigan 5·38 13·49 19·26 23·22 29·00
Oberlin 4·95 13·58 19·69 24·10 41·74
Smith 5·64 13·48 19·19 22·69 25·02
Syracuse 5·69 13·76 19·65 23·47 28·24
Vassar 5·91 13·61 17·81 21·96 28·95
Wellesley 5·51 13·56 18·34 22·24 24·90
Wesleyan 4·50 13·60 20·00 24·00 29·00
Wisconsin 5·49 13·57 17·98 21·69 27·24
 All colleges 5·64 13·62 18·35 22·39 28·58

The influence upon health may be summed up very generally as follows: The maximum per cent of good health, 78·1, is reported at the time of entering college; during college-life this falls off to 74·9 per cent, to be followed by a rise to 77·9 per cent since graduation; fair health shows a gain from 2 to 8 per cent during college-life, followed by a decrease to 5 per cent since that time; while there was an actual decrease of 2 per cent during college-life of those having poor health, the figures being respectively 19·8 and 17·3 per cent, no appreciable change being shown for the years since graduation.

From the comparison tables it is further shown that 138, or 19·6 per cent, report a deterioration in health during college-life; 418, 59·3 per cent, no change; 149, 21·1 per cent, show an improvement. This result may be compared with the returns of the inquiries instituted by the Massachusetts Board among the working-girls of Boston, as follows: Of the 705 female college graduates, 138, or 19·58 per cent, show a deterioration in health during college-life, and of the 1,032 working-girls, 166, or 16·09 per cent, show a deterioration in health, during working-time, these figures indicating a greater loss of health, of 3·49 per cent, reported by the college graduates. For the 166 working-girls, whose health deteriorated, four had quite good health at the time of the investigation, 128 were in fair health, and 34 in poor health. Of the 138 college graduates whose health deteriorated, however, 42 report a decline in health from excellent to good, or a slight change only. Making allowances for this, there is a greater loss of health of 2·47 per cent reported by the working-girls of Boston.

Of the 705 reporting, 417, or 59 per cent, mention some disorder, and the total number of disorders reported is 865. The returns regarding the causation of disease, while not technical nor detailed enough for scientific value, are suggestive.

Of the 417 reporting disorders, 276 give the cause or causes of disorders, and for 111 no cause is reported. One hundred and thirty-five consider constitutional weakness to have been the cause of disorder; 81, bad sanitary conditions; 81, intellectual overwork; 73, emotional strain; and 47, physical accidents.

The average amount of exercise reported, considering the aversion of American women, especially the educated, to bodily exertion, may be considered fairly encouraging. The average distance walked per day is given at 2·5 miles, and the time spent in other exercise as 1·2 hour. Returns regarding the amount of college-study done by college-women would gain in interest if they could be put side by side with corresponding returns from their male companions: 4, or 0·57 per cent, studied but little while at college; 438, or 62·13 per cent, studied moderately; 64, or 9·08 per cent, between moderately and severely, and 199, or 28·22 per cent, severely.

Either the lazy students failed to report, or college-women have much to learn from the average male undergraduate about the science of laziness. The lonely four, who have the courage of their disposition, all come from one college, which it would be ungallant to specify. Statistics concerning worry show that the art of taking things easy is not yet mastered by our ambitious young women: 172, or 24·40 per cent, worried over their studies; 89, or 12·62 per cent, over personal affairs; 131, or 18·58 per cent, worried over both studies and affairs; while 313, or 44·40 per cent, worried over neither studies nor affairs.

These returns for the most part tell their own tale and point their own moral. They certainly bear out the conclusion drawn regarding the uninjurious effect of collegiate study. Their great defect is in their failure to show more definitely the conditions and surroundings of college-life. The physical, social, and moral environment should be carefully studied. It has long been a commonplace of vital science that intellectual pursuits for men per se are healthy. The question which needs solution is. What conditions prevent their being equally healthy for women, the exact part played by each factor, and how far it is removable? What parents as well as professional educators and college administrators wish to know is, what colleges have gymnasiums, and whether the exercise is compulsory; how many institutions have matrons, and how far their influence extends; how many have resident physicians. Do the young women live herded in halls, sheltered in cottages, or at home and at boarding-houses as convenience dictates? The number of hours of sleep taken should be exactly stated. The number of hours of study should be given, instead of the vague terms "moderate," etc. Instead of indefinite inquiries as to whether the student went into society much or little, exact inquiries into the various modes of spending the hours of social recreation should be made. These and many similar points, which would suggest themselves at once, may be considered trivial; but, if we accept the general conclusion of the report that the pursuit of collegiate education is not in itself harmful, the importance of studying the entire environment, physical and social, of the young student at once appears. Here, in fact, the problem of her education centers.

Turning from the general conclusion to the consideration of certain specific problems, we educe the following data for discussion:

By all odds the most important fact regarding the higher education of woman is, that we are educating wives and mothers. Few probably will regret this, but those few must still admit the fact in a society constituted like ours. This, then, is the heart of the situation, and, in view of it, the following statistics are suggestive:

Omitting Oberlin College, for reasons already given, 26 per cent of the graduates who report are married, the other 74 per cent single. The average number of years since graduation is, however, over six, and average age over twenty-seven. Of the married, 37 per cent are without children, although the average number of years married is 6·2. The one hundred and nine having children report 205. Of these, 12 per cent have died, and, of these deaths, 25 per cent are due to causes connected with bearing. If we include all married couples, there is but 1·2 child to every five years of married life; and, even if we exclude those not having borne any, there are, among the remainder, two children to seven years of married life. We leave these figures, as the others, to speak for themselves.

That three hundred report their post-graduate occupations as teaching, and that one hundred and sixteen are following a professional life, shows a fact too easily lost sight of. Collegiate courses for woman have not solved the problem of her education, but, at most, of her technical training. It can hardly be thought desirable that 60 per cent of all the young women of our country, who ought to have collegiate training, should have it only as a preparation for one of the professions or for teaching. The question of women's education, in any worthy sense of the term education, has yet to be faced. The remarkable fact that the courses for female education, as well in purely female institutions as in co-educational, run parallel with and are modeled after the curriculum of male colleges, is to be accounted for only on the ground that upon the whole their training is designed for those who have to compete with men in the professional walks of life.

If we confine ourselves to the health of women, we shall find that the figures hardly justify us in assuming a purely optimistic attitude. The following figures speak for themselves: Of those who entered college one or two years after the commencement of the menstrual period, 20·5 per cent had poor health during college-life; of those who entered three to five years after, but 17·7 per cent; and more than five years, 15·4 per cent. If we compare the ages at entering college with the relative improvement or deterioration in health, we reach the same result. Of those who entered college at sixteen years or under, 28 per cent fell off in health, while 17 per cent gained. The figures for those of twenty and over show an almost exact reversal of these percentages, being 18 per cent loss and 28·5 per cent gain. The problem of age is thus seen to be an exceedingly important one.

The fact that, of the disorders reported, 7 per cent are brain troubles, 26 per cent of reproductive organs, and 33 per cent nervousness (also 15 per cent of neuralgia), shows that the problem of health has yet to find its adequate solution. The following percentages tell the same story: During the period of development, 53 per cent were troubled during the menstrual period (with simple irregularities, uterine or reflex pain, one or all). During college-life the per cent was 66; since graduation, 64. If we isolate simple irregularities, the result is more significant still; for these show a constant decrease, while the organic troubles show as marked an increase, the figures being, respectively, for irregularities, 16 per cent, 9 per cent, 7 per cent; for uterine and reflex pain, 24 per cent, 30 per cent, 36 per cent, for the three periods of development, college, and graduate life. Such percentages show along what line effort should be directed.

Leaving this question, we turn to the phenomena of college-life, so far as regards exercise, stud}^, and worry, in their effects upon health. The tables here cease to have reference, in their bearing, to women alone, and point a moral for all educators to heed. The importance of exercise is shown by the fact that those reporting over two hours per day return 84 per cent in good or fair health, while those below two hours can show but 75 per cent. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, upon the whole, the tables show that worry is the most potent of all predisposing causes of disease. Those who had no worries of account report 92 per cent in fair or good health; those worrying over both personal affairs and studies state that but 68 per cent of their number were in the same condition. Worry over personal matters seems to be more harmful to health than overstudies, 75 and 80 per cent being the proportion of good health respectively. This showing goes far in substantiating the opinion of those who hold that study per se is never a cause of failure of health. However, of those who studied severely, 21 per cent report poor health, against 15 per cent of those studying moderately. Again, of the latter, 54 per cent report disorders as against 70 per cent of those who studied more; the figures for nervousness also are 15 and 26 per cent respectively. It is fair to suppose, however, that the largest per cent of those worrying over their studies was found among those studying severely.

In the tables, the distinction is made between those reporting from female colleges only and those of the co-educational. It is an easy matter, however, to separate them, which I have done, with the following results: Of the whole number (705), 458 are from female colleges; 247 co-educational. For graduate life, the figures for health are exactly the same for both: 83 per cent in good health, and 17 per cent in poor. During college-life 10 per cent of the co-educationalists report poor health, as against 18 per cent of those from female colleges; but this is more than accounted for by the fact that 22 per cent of the latter were in poor health before entering, showing a real gain during college-life of 4 per cent in average health, while the reports of co-educational colleges show a gain of but one per cent. It must be noticed, however, that the female colleges show a falling off of 4·8 percent from good, to fair health, while the co-educational show a similar loss of but 0·3 per cent. The average number of disorders reported is much the same for each class: 1'19 for graduates of female colleges; 1·24 for the other class. The figures as given show that either more care is taken of personal health in the female colleges than in the co-educational, or that more supervision is exercised; for 55 per cent of the former report abstinence from study and exercise during the menstrual period, and only 25 per cent of the latter. The figures for disorders show no corresponding gain, however, the advantage here being on the side of the co-educational institutions, as the latter report 33 per cent of disorders of brain, nerves, and reproductive organs, against 41 per cent in the female colleges. The figures for worry are about the same in each class: 33 per cent report severe study in the co-educational colleges, as against 26 per cent in the other; the advantage in exercise is, however, somewhat on the side of the co-educational college. The figures in the causation of disorders show the same percentages arising from intellectual overwork and physical accident. The female colleges, however, report proportionately over one third more breaking down from emotional strain, while the co-educational colleges balance the account with one fourth more failing in health by reason of bad sanitary conditions.

Of the life since graduation, not much can be said: 23 per cent of the graduates of the female colleges have married; 28 per cent of the co-educational, the average age of each being the same. Competition with men seems to have led a less number of graduates of co-educational colleges to enter the professions; at all events they report but 12 per cent in the professions, while the female colleges report 21 per cent. A somewhat larger number follow teaching, however, the figures here being 48 per cent and 42 per cent respectively.

It would certainly be too much to say from these figures that the personal care and advice from others given in female colleges are greater, while the social surroundings in the co-educational colleges are healthier, because perhaps more natural; but they suggest the advisability of questions directed to these points. The female colleges seem to have the advantage in purely sanitary conditions (except amount of exercise), as witnessed by the smaller percentage reporting bad sanitation as cause of disease; by the advantage of more than two to one of abstinence from study at critical periods, and in moderation of study; while the advantage of health remains on the side of the coeducational during college-life. That the balance shifts after graduation would point in the line of the generalization already suggested; as with the cessation of college-life would cease the abnormal cloistering of the young women, while bad sanitary conditions would show comparatively permanent results. That proportionately one third more in the female colleges report emotional strain as cause of disorders, other causes showing much the same average, point in the same direction. At any rate, it is worth inquiry whether it is not possible to unite the presumed advantage of the female colleges in wise advice and proper attention to health with the freer and more natural social relations of the co-educational institutions.

It is hoped that enough has been said to show the importance of the investigations already made, and to justify the supposition that further more detailed and extended inquiries would increase their value. No educator at all acquainted with the present status of affairs will carp at the results already reached, nor will he find much but cause for thankfulness upon a survey of the field; but his outlook must be directed toward the future, not the past. Nothing could well be more fatal to the cause of woman's education than to suppose that the question is already settled. The commencement has indeed been made, but only the commencement. Mere multiplication of institutions and influences of the existing type, however valuable, as affording opportunities to individual young women, will do little toward determining the larger aspects of the case. Were the number of purely women's colleges largely increased, and were all the important boys' colleges to open their doors to girls, only the necessary basis for the solution of the problem would be obtained.

Such inquiries as we have briefly summarized can do more than aught else to furnish necessary data for a wise and comparatively permanent solution. Discussion on partisan lines is absolutely valueless, and a priori discussion will effect nothing. The unbiased study by educational experts of the fruits actually borne by experience is invaluable, and the generalizations based upon such data will show the lines upon which reform must work itself out. This is not the place to formulate the exact nature of such inquiries, but they should cover at least three heads:

I. Health.—The present report offers a valuable model to follow. More attention should be given to the social and moral environment of college-life, however, even in this point; and the discussion should more definitely concern the specifically female functions.

II. Life since Graduation.—The brief notes respecting marriages and occupations in the report discussed are all we have on this head. It should be treated with a view to determining as accurately as may be the position which the college-educated woman holds and desires to hold in the body social and politic. When we recollect the difficulty in adjusting young men's collegiate education to their life after graduation, in spite of the accumulation of infinite experience, the value of such a report in determining the lines which woman's college education should follow, in the dearth of information upon the topic, is at once seen.

III. Specific Data for Future Movements.—These should be based upon confidential revelations made by the graduates themselves, together with the testimony of college officers and physicians. It should not be limited narrowly. They should go far beyond the question of bodily health. The statement of what each had found the greatest aid and the greatest hindrance in her collegiate training would be of much value. Experience alone can decide the exact form which these inquiries should take, but their importance can hardly be over-estimated in the moral and social aspects of the case.

Education must follow the example of the special sciences. It must organize. There is organization, and to spare, in the schools themselves; what we want is organized recognition of the problems of education; organized study for the discovery of methods of solution; organized application of these methods in the details of school-life. Co-operation in research and application is the key to the problem.

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