Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/The Symmetrical Development of our Young Women
By C. E. BREWSTER.
WHILE reading an earnest paper upon Conversational Immoralities, by Mrs. Amelia Barr (North American Review, April, 1890), I came across the following sentences: "There are bad people in the world, but young girls should never be near enough to them to be aware of the fact"; and "Women of whose lives young girls should, at least, seem to be innocent, are topics of conversation."
Now, while I am in full sympathy with the general tenor of this article, deploring as deeply as the author the increasing flippancy of speech of both old and young on this, the gravest question of the day, the sentences noted above, together with some others scattered throughout the article, move me to offer to your candid consideration a few pertinent facts aiming to prove that, where the reverse principle obtains, the highest good inevitably results to all who come within the radius of the pure young woman's intelligent interest and sympathy.
After comparing, for years, the general influence of the purely innocent woman with that of the pure and morally intelligent young woman of our day, I am so thoroughly convinced of the more abiding influence of the latter class that my earnestness impels me to try to show you a little more clearly the moral standpoint and resultant work of this unobtrusive but most potent factor in the refinement of society. Undoubtedly in this work, as in every other field of life, numberless opportunities arise for the sensational and supersentimental to gain (in the guise of philanthropy) the notoriety dear to their hearts. Not infrequently the novelty of the work appeals to many a young woman who, through immaturity and excess of zeal, brings upon herself condemnation where she sought elevation, failure where she sought success. But shall we therefore be discouraged? Shall we change our point of view simply because the few imprudent fall short of the good which they hoped to gain, because the few sensational pervert and distort the cause which we are trying to uplift? Shall the good actually accomplished by the greater number be tabooed because of the failure of the few?
A system which aims to conceal vice, rather than to suppress it by full knowledge, in reality fosters its existence. High ideals invariably beget correspondingly high realizations. For example, in many European cities it is considered not merely a daring breach of etiquette, but a social challenge, for a young woman to walk the streets unaccompanied by a protecting person. As a consequence of this superficial convention, it becomes absolutely unsafe for respectable women to violate its code. Compare this with the state of things in our own country. Are our young women less pure or our young men less gallant where no such artificial system obtains? Is there not rather the greatest respect here for the young woman who treads fearlessly our streets, thinking no evil? But there are many bad people abroad. Shall the pure, therefore, be kept at home, their freedom fettered, their sphere of usefulness limited, because one third, perhaps, of those whom they pass go to and fro, abetting the indulgence of vulgarity and crime?
And if in the streets a pure woman commands respect because of her dignified bearing; if in the halls of higher education she walks apace with the thinkers of the day; if in the arts and sciences she is welcome as an able participant, why should she be barred from grappling with the greatest question of existence—the mystery of life and the abuses with which it is so thickly surrounded? Will she bring thither an insight less keen, a sympathy less spiritual, a judgment less temperate, a power less practical? And if she is to cope with tire subject at all, is there any time when she will be in fuller power, in greater subtilty of influence, than in her developing womanhood? That she can reform our sensual world I do not claim; but that she is an intermediary, singularly well fitted for this work, I most earnestly believe.
Do not misunderstand me. I would not urge her going with the doctor on his rounds, nor the policeman on his raids. I would not drag her unneedfully to the haunts of shamelessness and resulting torment, but I would urge that she learn the principles of this, as of all life's lessons, in her early youth; that she be gravely and reverently led on to perceive her own high usefulness in perpetuating right views of this matter, so that with full knowledge she may face the sad life around her; that the veil be gradually moved aside—not kept tightly drawn till rent asunder at a time when the awakening must inevitably result in a revulsion of affection, a cynicism of spirit, and a hardness of heart, whose exceeding bitterness only those who have suffered can know.
I claim that the idea of usefulness, the quickening to the highest form of womanhood, combined with the early revelation of God's plan, will go further to disarm sensual thoughts than any artificial innocence, however well guarded.
Does any one question the purity of our young women physicians or our trained nurses? Does their knowledge of disease and its causes take from them that nicety of feeling with which they entered the profession? In many instances a sweet seriousness of manner, a shade more of dignity, perhaps, replaces the thoughtless buoyancy of unknowing youth; but the fine edges of inherent modesty are never dulled by scientific study pursued in the interest of bettering humanity.
A broad knowledge of the temptation to break the seventh commandment, surrounding our youth—a knowledge of the awful mental and physical suffering induced even in childhood by the violation of this commandment—not only places our young women in a position to be of the greatest practical aid to their brothers, but also gives them a sympathetic approach to that broad charity which Christ himself showed to the woman taken in adultery—that sad, sweet story which has come down to us through the centuries, bringing comfort to the hopeless and fallen, stimulating the compassion of the fortunate and pitiless. How many of us, I wonder, after being touched by the "sweet reasonableness" of this lesson, in actuality say to the contrite: "Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more "!
Ultra-innocence condemns too severely or condones too readily. It is incapable of inquiring into the general causes which produce from time to time certain disastrous individual effects. As a case in point, I know of a young woman brought up in the conventional manner in utter ignorance of the magnitude and nearness of this form of sin. Left, later, with the responsibility of bringing up two fatherless boys, shrinking from touching on these matters, she relied upon the refinements of home to be a sufficient protection against wrong living. In her happy confidence she said, "I would rather cut my throat than speak to my boys of these matters, or show them that I could think them untrustworthy here." I saw her later, when those boys, sent early into the world, unfortified as to its temptations, had fallen into sins whose shame must follow them all the rest of their days. Had she known of the over-prominence of this sin, would she not have worked as well as trusted?
On the other hand, I know well a young girl left motherless, with the care of three younger brothers. Instead of dexterously parrying the questions natural to young children, she took them to her heart, unfolding to them gradually the mysteries of their being, watching carefully over their reading and associations, meeting their perplexities at every point, and warning them of the strain of temptation to which all men must be sooner or later exposed; as they grew older, enlisting their sympathies in the work of helping others, getting them to meet her naturally on her own high plane, and finally gaining their hearty co-operation in this work. Do you think she would have been able to do this had she in her earlier days, before this responsibility came to her, "dwelt outside the current in which such subjects are spoken of"? Do you think any other influence would have been as powerful in molding the lives of these young men?
It is very seldom, too, that young women can be kept in entire ignorance of the workings of this undercurrent. Nowadays the subject is much discussed; bits of information are dropped here and there by careless matrons; the sickening accounts of the infanticide of child-mothers (over the publication of the details of which accounts the daily press seems to claim an unquestioned prerogative)—all these things tend to depict, though in a fragmentary way, the workings of the other life. To assume, therefore, that our young women are ignorant of a state of things of whose existence they are perfectly well aware, is to put them at once upon the insecure basis of the dissembler. Is this simulated innocence of intrinsic value? Does it not rather dwarf growth and cripple usefulness? Unless early accustomed to viewing such matters from the truthful, helpful standpoint (and such standpoint does exist), our young girls become bitter and unsparing in judgment, sharers in that sweeping intolerance which half-knowledge always breeds.
Is there, I ask you in all fairness, any justice in exacting such a false social state? Here, as elsewhere, give our young women a chance to work. Do not bring them home with education "finished"—thoroughly equipped mentally, partially equipped physically, but utterly denuded of that intelligent moral accoutrement which is to make them well rounded in character, a power in their little world. Apply the strength now devoted to shielding their supposed ignorant innocence to the development of healthful views on a subject which must, sooner or later, confront every thinking woman. Many contend, I know, that our young girls are not strong enough to bear a comprehensive knowledge of this subject; that such knowledge, even though it may not rob them of their pure conceptions, at least causes them to become depressed and utterly cast down. But I think not, told with reverence, as a whole. They must face this knowledge eventually. Is it any less cruel to encourage the building up of disproportioned ideals which must ultimately be chipped away, piece by piece?
Let us grant, for the moment, that the conditions of society are now such that it is possible to keep young women completely ignorant of the moral laxity all around them. Let us admit, for the present, that it is possible for maturing persons to acquire broader views on all other topics and still retain their childishness of view in these matters. Do you think, therefore, that their influence, as is frequently claimed, will be stronger over the men with whom they come in contact? Do you think their misinformed minds can frame wise or trenchant judgments worthy of the respectful consideration of the men in their immediate circle? That perfect innocence disarms impurity, even among those who have fallen far below the ordinary standards of virtue, I gladly admit. None but brutish men can resist the exquisite, oftentimes unconscious pleadings of things intrinsically beautiful—whether in the form of a mother's love, a hero's exaltation of spirit, a maiden's sweetness, or
"The fair pure soul of a little child
Opened wide to the light of day."
Such things must touch, for the time being, the hearts of the hardened; but, alas! they are so seldom far-reaching in effect or enduring in result. In very rare instances, in the cloistered nun, possibly in a jealously guarded daughter, does complete innocence now exist. And an opening flower can not go back again to the constricting clasp of its budding life without violating the law of its natural development. Shall we surround it with artificial barriers, thereby restraining and delaying its blooming, or shall we encourage it to unfold and thrive in the air in which God has placed it? No young woman, properly impressed with the noble dignity of her calling, equipped with wholesome views of life and fearless in purpose, can fail to command the respect and admiration of all who cross her path. A licentious or loose-lipped man would cower before her earnest eyes as certainly as before the appealing innocence of a child-woman, nor ever attempt to break down the barriers with which nobility of purpose always encircles our most womanly young women.
I am glad to see that many are now awakening to the necessity of abandoning the limitations of an old method which, while throwing a halo of romance around the barbarous and superficial chivalry of our knightly ancestry, in reality fostered the growth of a system of license whose many ramifications are to-day undermining the very foundations of our social structure. The latest work of our greatest English novelist portrays, as only his master-hand can portray, the need of woman's thorough comprehension of and co-operation in the treatment of this gravest moral problem of the age.
Just how a young woman may work in this field I can indicate merely in a general outline, which the tact, native ability, and earnest judgment of those interested will fill out as circumstances permit. For the proper carrying out of this work, integrity of purpose is the primal requisite. Eliminate that, and I unhesitatingly concede to the mediæval, convention-ridden methods the undisputed right of way.
In many of our cities our college-bred and working young women are at the head of little bands whose foremost aim is to gather in the children from the streets; for in this, as in every reform, the root of the matter lies with the children. By the circulation of healthful books and papers, much is done to counteract the baleful influence of that vile printed matter which systematically inundates our public schools. Kindly, sympathetic talks are given, rarely bearing directly on these matters, but stimulating the indifferent to take advantage of all opportunities of self-improvement, and all making for the uplifting of a sin-burdened world. Care is taken, as these children grow older, to secure for them honest positions, to teach the unsuspecting to avoid those glittering pitfalls where the largeness of the salary offered is compensation in part only for service rendered—in reality is a premium upon loss of character and self-respect; to provide temporary homes for young women-immigrants landing helpless in strange cities, until suitable positions can be obtained for them; and, most important of all, care is taken to impregnate the working-girl element with the sense of responsibility devolving upon every woman as a person of influence, urging the dissemination of this thought throughout all their home work in some such ways as these. By urging the discipline of self-reliance and self-restraint, and the highest standard of purity, delicacy, and strength, equally on brothers and sisters; by discouraging the witnessing of certain popular but none the less indecent plays; by watching carefully over the reading of the younger members of the family, discountenancing the perusal of our so-called town papers by the boys as well as the girls (for no one can touch pitch and remain undefiled); by setting the example of avoiding the reading of details of popular divorce scandals; especially by guarding against that ubiquitous erotic literature which, masquerading in the attractive, fantastic garb of beautiful illustrations, claiming the prestige of realistic or classic origin, when divested of all its false trappings is, in all its hideousness, but a powerful excitant, stimulating the prurient imagination of the inexperienced, thereby starting many a child on the treacherous path down which it is so pitifully easy for the untaught to slip, and whose starting-point it is all but impossible to regain. This form of reading-matter is the most successful of all the recruiting officers from the vast army of the shameless.
To carry this work on helpfully and practically, to gain a positive algebraic sum from these many efforts, must not our young women "know of the existence" of fallen men and women? Could they increase their power, here or in their home-influence, by "seeming to be ignorant of the existence of such people"?
Ah! these young women are to be the mothers of our race: shall we not arm them with the knowledge wherewith to breast the future? Will not this knowledge in the average intelligent young woman, combined with the unsullied heart which is her birthright, make her a more worthy co-operator with her husband; a stronger spiritual sympathizer; one who will not flinch when confronted with the privilege of making noble women of her daughters, of saving her sons from falling victims to the sin which is dragging down to ruin so many of our finest young men?
"The height of the pinnacle" says Emerson, "depends upon the breadth of the base." Give, then, to our young women this broad basis of knowledge, as you wish the height attainable to be proportionate and exalted.