Girls and Women Part 11



In these pages I have not catalogued the virtues which make up the character of a fine woman, but I think I have made it clear that every woman should be truthful and loving, courageous and modest. No two women are alike, and sometimes one virtue dominates and sometimes another. And we must always be on our guard against the faults of our qualities. A gentle woman is in danger of being cowardly, and a firm woman of being obstinate. There is one danger which seems to be peculiarly powerful with women; that of sacrificing too much to the people nearest them. A woman knows positively that more is required of her than it is fair she should give, and yet she gives it, and in most cases she feels a certain satisfaction of conscience in giving it. Her renunciation comes partly because she loves those for whom she makes the sacrifice, but partly also from cowardice. So far as it is simple renunciation, I have not much to say. If Jane Welsh had not sacrificed herself to Carlyle's unreasonable demands, it is certain that she might have contributed something of permanent value to literature, and if Carlyle's colossal egotism had thus been pruned, his own contribution probably would have been of higher quality; but as the question of sacrifice came up day by day, she could hardly measure results, and she did feel the necessity of struggling with her own selfishness. Life is so much more than literature that I cannot help thinking she did right, though Carlyle did wrong in allowing her to efface herself for him. But most women go farther than this. They allow themselves to be blinded by their wish to please those nearest them. They wish it were right to yield one point after another, and they finally do yield and hope they are not doing wrong, though if they did not firmly shut their eyes, they must see that they are. I think this is even more fatal to a noble character than deliberately to choose the wrong, because it confuses moral distinctions and makes one weak as well as wicked. I suppose more good women have failed in this way than in any other.

English novelists describe American girls as exquisitely beautiful, stylish, quick-witted, energetic, and good-tempered, while the mothers are portrayed as awkward, dowdy, stupid, and ill-educated, though honest and kind. We resent the distortion of this picture, for in America, as elsewhere, girls are largely what they are made by their mothers, yet we do have certain conditions which make sharp contrasts between mothers and daughters more common here than elsewhere.

This is especially so in the present generation, for the last fifty years have been a transition period in woman's education. Before that, there were no good schools for girls in America, though the country academies did what they could; and in a few of the large cities there was a small class of wealthy people who had private teachers for their girls in music, French, dancing, and perhaps literature.

Then came the establishment of high-class boarding schools for girls, so endowed that they were within the reach of people of moderate means. The eager, ambitious, half-educated mothers sent their bright daughters to these schools. The best class of girls from the country towns everywhere now met each other, and mingled, too, with many girls who had had the opportunities of city life. The teachers in these schools were women of high character and real refinement, and though they were not all accustomed to the usages of society, there were always some among them who were so, and who gave a certain finish to the solid work of the others. The advantages of these boarding-school girls were so far beyond those of the previous generation that the line between mothers and daughters became abnormally broad. The son had advantages at college which his father had not, but after all, he went to the same college, and the progress was natural.

Then the high schools were opened to girls, and thousands were able to get a fair education whose mothers had had no opportunities whatever.

And then about thirty years ago, colleges for women sprang up, and the young women of our day have the same advantages as the young men.

Mothers must always, of course, expect to be outstripped in some directions by their daughters. Indeed, they wish to have it so, for they wish to have their daughters stand on as high ground as possible; but when the process goes on as rapidly as it has done through the wonderful opening of the means of education in the last half century, it has a painful side. Especially is it so in this country, where there is such a spirit of equality that in spite of all the barriers of caste, the daughter of a wholly unrefined mother may occupy a high position. In England a clever daughter may have a stupid mother, but a refined daughter is not very likely to have a mother who is outwardly coarse, because class lines have been drawn so distinctly for many generations that mother and daughter have essentially the same kind of education and see essentially the same kind of people. In America this is the exception instead of the rule, though now that the highest education is open to all women, the chances are that the contrasts will be less sharp in future.

But at present the gulf between mother and daughter is often so wide that it requires more than tact to bridge it. A sense of duty will keep a daughter outwardly kind and respectful to her mother, but love is the mother's only real security; and a mother must be thoroughly good at heart and refined in feeling to hold the warm love of a daughter whose intellectual tastes and social standards she outrages every moment. On the other hand, if the daughter's education has not taught her that character is more than intellect, it is worse than useless.

"Intellect separates," said Dr. James Freeman Clarke, "but love unites."

Here lies the key to this problem.

I have said little of marriage, for the subject is difficult. A thoroughly high-minded woman will not be likely to marry unworthily, and she may be trusted to meet the problems that rise after marriage in a worthy manner. The special difficulties in each pathway will depend on temperament and circumstances, and no general rules can be laid down for meeting them.

I hold to the old-fashioned doctrine that a true marriage opens the way to the best and happiest life for both men and women. Anything less than a true marriage is intolerable and debasing.

But girls can hardly choose whether they will be married or not. They can say No to all offers, and some women do plan for opportunities to say Yes, yet most of us feel that there are few circumstances in which a girl of noble instincts could take the initiative.

Can parents do anything? Certainly not in the way of trying to win a particular lover; but they may so educate their daughter as to make her attractive to such a man as they would wish her to marry, provided that such an education does not sacrifice higher interests; and then they may give her the opportunity to see as many such men as possible in her own home, and in other places where the standards are as high as in her own home.

What are the qualities which most attract men? It is hard to say, because many of the women most loved in their own families and by other women are not interesting to even the best of men. Probably warm-heartedness and sweetness of character stand first in the list, and these are qualities worth cultivating for themselves. Vitality and high spirits count for much, also. Beauty I think comes next, even with men who do not care for mere beauty. I do not think we should be indignant at this. But can beauty be cultivated? Good health does something for the complexion. Care of the teeth adds another point of beauty. Even rough hair may be made beautiful by constant brushing. A good carriage and a gentle voice are points of beauty that depend partly on ourselves.

Taste may be used in dress without sacrificing simplicity. Scrupulous cleanliness adds a charm of its own. All these attractions may be cultivated without nourishing the noxious weed of vanity, which many mothers dread so much. And is it not natural that a man who can appreciate a good and intelligent woman should find her still more winning if she has a sweet, fresh face and a trim dress?

Next we must place domestic tastes. Of course a cook and seamstress and housekeeper can be hired, and it is quite true that the home instinct is not the highest in the universe; but it is a fine one, nevertheless, and at all events it does influence most men in marriage.

Intelligent men like intelligent wives, and value a certain brightness of mind; but it must be admitted that few men care to marry intellectual women unless such women have the tact to keep their gifts somewhat in the background. (I may here say,--it is not worth more than a parenthesis--that the infallible rule for securing some kind of a husband is to be able to flatter a man, either by a real or pretended interest in him, or a real or pretended admiration of his powers. But I hope I have no reader who would wish for marriage on such terms, so I will not catalogue any attractions which ought not to win.) You remember how Charles Lamb speaks of his Cousin Bridget's knowledge of English literature. "If I had twenty girls, they should all be educated in exactly the same way. Their chances of marriage might not be increased by it, but if worst came to worst, it would make them most incomparable old maids." If a woman is not married in the end, the wider and deeper her education goes, the happier and more useful she is; and yet can we deny that a very wide education is likely to repel rather than attract even highly educated men?

My own solution of the difficulty would be to give a girl the best education within reach, but to lay such stress on warm-heartedness and sweet temper that her intellectual attainments would not stand out prominently and concentrate all attention on them. I should do this, not chiefly as a matter of policy, but because it seems to me the only way to preserve the true balance between emotion and thought essential to an ideal character.

It may be said that all the qualities I have discussed are rather superficial, and that it is only when two people have high aims in common that they are capable of the best kind of love on which alone a true marriage can be based. And that is right. All education ought to tend to make a girl noble, and no motive of marriage ought to be held up before her. But I cannot think it is idle for her parents and friends to try to make her attractive as well as good, and I cannot think a man is to be blamed who chooses between two high-minded women the one who has graces as well as gifts.

Another subject which it may be thought ought not to be left untouched in any volume dealing with women is that of the suffrage. I must frankly own that though I have thought much upon this subject I have not been able to come to positive conclusions about it. I am glad for all the freedom women have gained. I wish to see them entirely free. I think a woman needs to be free in order to reach the highest nobility; but it is inward freedom which we most need, and that is independent of circumstances. Epictetus, a slave, won as complete inward freedom as Marcus Aurelius, an emperor.

I see so many arguments on both sides of the question that I am always vacillating between them, and it would therefore be impossible for me to treat the matter here. All I can say is, that the longer I live the more I am convinced that it is personal character which most helps the world forward, and I think our hearty allegiance to the truth which we clearly see will in the end teach us new truth.

I began this little book in the hope of saying some helpful words to girls. I have found it necessary to think of them as having grown into women. I cannot take leave of them without fancying them as they will be in old age.

Charles Dudley Warner once visited the Mary Institute at St. Louis. He was asked to make a speech, and after glancing at the five hundred beautiful young girls before him, he turned to the fine faces of the teachers, many of whom were gray-haired, and said:--

"It is a beautiful thing to be a charming young lady; and the best of it is that you will sometime have a chance to be a charming old lady!"

All old ladies are not charming, but a great many of them are; and would not all of us be so if we could follow the prescriptions I have given so liberally for the conduct of life all the way through? Suppose we were all sweet-tempered and warm-hearted and truthful, and as neat and pretty as we could be, and bright and intelligent and modest and helpful--do you not think we should be charming even if our eyes were dim and our ears dull, and we walked with a cane?

Nevertheless, there is one practical rule that old people must never forget. They must keep growing as long as they live. Your temper must be sweeter at forty than it was at twenty, and sweeter at sixty than at forty, if it is to seem sweet at all when your bright eyes and red lips are gone. We can pardon a sharp word from an inexperienced young girl, who speaks hastily without reflection, but we cannot pardon it so easily from a woman who has had a lifetime to reflect.

If you would keep fresh in body, you must not pay too much attention to rheumatic twinges, and sit still in a corner because you are too stiff to rise. Take your painful walk, and you will be less stiff when you come back. You will have fresh life from outside, and not be a burden to younger lives impatient of your chimney corner.

One of my friends, who is nearly eighty, has taken a trip to Kansas this winter, and has been delighted with the new life she has seen. I need not say that her delight makes her delightful to others. "You need not suppose," she writes, "that I am going to settle down and be an old lady yet. I am planning a visit to California next year."

Mrs. Horace Mann and Miss Elizabeth Peabody were both nearly eighty when they went to Washington on official business--something in reference to the Indian troubles, I believe. I have already cited my mother's friend who began to study botany at ninety. And why not? If the end of knowledge was to help us to get our daily bread, we might at last fold our hands; but if it is to open our minds to the glory of the universe, to make us more worthy to be the immortal souls we hope we are, why should we not be just as eager to learn at ninety as at nine?

A sensitive woman is sure to have many and many an experience in life which will make her heart sad and sore; but I think that every brave and good woman will also feel more and more, as time goes on, that the kingdom of heaven is within her.

The Riverside Library for Young People.

1. _The War of Independence._ By JOHN FISKE. With Maps.

2. _George Washington: An Historical Biography._ By HORACE E. SCUDDER. With Portrait and Illustrations.

3. _Birds through an Opera Glass._ By FLORENCE A. MERRIAM. Illustrated.

4. _Up and Down the Brooks._ By MARY E. BAMFORD. Illustrated.

5. _Coal and the Coal Mines._ By HOMER GREENE. Illustrated.

6. _A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory._ By LUCY LARCOM.

7. _Java: The Pearl of the East._ By MRS. S. J. HIGGINSON. With a Map.

8. _Girls and Women._ By E. CHESTER.

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