Girls and Women Part 9

Are women really excessively emotional? And if so, is it well that they should be?

I suppose most people would agree that women are more emotional than men, and that this peculiarity comes in a great measure from their delicate physical organization, and in a great measure from the encouragement they get from men in indulging their feelings. Nobody admires a woman when her emotions reach the point of hysteria, and, in fact, those who have encouraged her up to that point are often least patient with her when the crisis comes. The general belief about hysteria is that it is caused by the culpable weakness of a selfish nature, and that is often true. But there are important exceptional cases becoming more and more numerous, where the parents have cultivated what they and their friends consider fine feelings so assiduously that the poor child is born helplessly weak and nervous, and a prey to every vibration in the spiritual atmosphere about her.

Now what are _fine_ feelings? Jealousy, envy, hatred, and others of that class are not fine, and yet they are extremely common among those women who are sensitive and highly organized. They do belong more frequently than we sometimes think to the outfit of an emotional woman. A woman who would not hurt a fly has violent antipathies to excellent people. She would not hurt them either. She would delight in giving them food and clothing if they were in want. She wishes she need not hurt their feelings, but she usually does give pain, because her own feelings are paramount. The important point however is that she is unjust in her judgments. She exaggerates the faults of her foes, as well as the virtues of her friends, and widens every breach.

But we all know that jealousy and envy and hatred are wrong, even if we endeavor to dignify them with finer names, and all of us who have any moral purpose do make our stand against them.

When, therefore, we speak in praise of a woman's emotional nature, we are thinking of a nature in which generosity swallows up justice, and duty is forgotten, because "love is an unerring law." We cannot be too generous, or too loving, or too sensitive to beauty and honor.

But men are as generous and loving as women, so, after all, we do have something a little different from this in our minds when we speak of the emotional nature of women. Do we not mean that a woman is unreasonable?

Love can never be too great, but it is often unwise. All affectionate women who have reached middle age must have received many confidences from girls who have been mistaken in supposing themselves loved by men who have grown tired of them. A girl often suffers intensely in such a case, and it is hard to know how much is due to wounded love, and how much to wounded pride. I suppose most of us have been astonished to see how often when a girl's life seems both to herself and her friends to have been utterly wrecked she is capable of responding to a new lover, and if he proves to be a fine man, how full and fine her own life becomes. This is right, and most natural to the most emotional natures, that is, to those which answer most readily to outside influences. Yet we all have a feeling that sudden and frequent changes of this kind show a shallow character, and girls sometimes make a pathetic struggle to resist new possibilities of happiness, because they cannot bear to admit that the old love can die.

The weakness of character in this case comes from the being ready to love any one who will make us the central figure without regard to any more solid foundation. Such love comes from vanity and is good for nothing. A girl cannot be too careful to guard against such an emotion.

And then, why should a woman cease to love a man simply because she is disappointed to find that he does not love her? Many times the fault is her own. She has believed he loved her because she wished to believe so. But if she has loved him because he was worth being loved, she has a right to cherish that love even when she knows it is hopeless, provided she does not hurt other people. I think it is happily not often that an altogether hopeless love continues long in full vigor, but occasionally it does. If the old lover marries, the woman who cannot conquer her love certainly ought to separate herself as far from him as possible. Any fine theory of being able to be a silent providence in his life is sure to prove fallacious, and to bring suffering to somebody. And it is not best for her to say much to her own friends of her sorrow. She either pains them or tires them. Any love which causes her to do this is unreasonable. I suspect that some women find their love slipping away from them and try to hold it fast by the expedient of talking about it.

No love that has to be held in that way is worth keeping. There are loves we should cherish just as there are others which we ought to cast out, but nothing is real which cannot be retained except by making ourselves a burden to other people.

Another unreasonable love is that which a woman feels for a man who has really treated her dishonorably. It is true that we do not love simply for merit. There are sympathies between men and women as between parents and children with which merit has little to do. One great reason that emotional women attract men is because they can make a hero out of such unheroic stuff. And why should we try always to see the exact reality as if that were nearer the truth than the same reality transfigured by ideal light? The more we believe in others, the better and happier we all are. A man full of faults, selfish, and even vicious, may be helped by a woman who trusts him. But when he has forsaken her, it is not often that she can be of much real service to him. She must indeed forgive him, but when she has genuinely forgiven him, the glamour of love will usually have disappeared. If she insists upon shutting herself up from other love for his sake, she should question herself as to the part sentimentality and perversity bear in her character.

Most of the best work done in the world is done in the face of what seem to be insurmountable difficulties. Our faith moves mountains. An impossible duty is done. The fact that women ignore the impossibility is their strongest power. This, I suppose, is what the physician meant when he said that men liked a woman a little better if she was not always governed by reason. "Love believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." We all like to have such love as that lavished upon us. It is a noble love which glorifies the object by keeping in view all the time the ideal which is to be some day realized. It is something very different from the weak love which distorts the object simply because of its personal connection with us. But no doubt women who are weakly emotional in this way do have a great attraction for men, that is, so long as the man himself is an object of their emotions. Such women are pretty sure to have lovers when better and more unselfish women are overlooked. They do not wear very well, and men tire of them, especially when they exercise their emotions in new fields; and as wives (after marriage) and sisters and mothers they prefer the quieter and less impassioned women. But the great and ardent loves which influence a life still belong to the women of ardent feelings.

Ardent feelings well controlled,--that is our ideal; but how few women of strong feelings do control them well, and how few who have perfect self-control have very strong feelings!

Which shall we choose, the strong feelings or the self-control? We have not complete choice in the matter, for we must begin with the temperament we are born with. Others may choose to love or hate us for the temperament we are not responsible for, but what can we do for ourselves?

I believe the hardest task is that of the cool-blooded women. How are they to make themselves feel without becoming hypocrites? Pretending to feel any emotion is no help in feeling it. Nevertheless, we are not entirely helpless. There are ways of nourishing noble germs of feeling even when the natural soil is cold and dry.

One way is to clear the ground of weeds. A cool nature is sometimes peculiarly prone to envy and suspicion. A woman with little love of her fellow-creatures sits alone in her home day after day, and thinks of her own troubles and the shortcomings of her neighbors till it seems impossible to love anybody but herself. Such emotions as stir the dull current of her life are all selfish. But if she has the one saving virtue of being able to perceive her narrowness, the remedy is in her own hands. For she can go out and speak to somebody, and even a passing greeting sometimes sets the blood flowing afresh. And there is always somebody she can help, though, it may be only a child who is in some trifling difficulty. Every act of this kind makes another easier, and every such act nourishes the little germ of love in the heart. I have no doubt that persistence in doing small kindnesses for every one about her would be potent enough to transform the coldest of us into a woman glowing with love. Yet I cannot say I have ever seen such a transformation. I suppose that is because the cold nature does not perceive its coldness or desire to change. Still there are surely some of us who know that love in us is only a stunted plant, and who do sincerely desire its more luxuriant growth. Those of us who have ardent feelings towards our friends know that we are often worse than cold towards those we do not fancy. We sometimes, alas, take a certain pride in our sensitiveness in this particular. We justify our hatred for uncongenial people till we have fairly faced the truth that love is the law of our being, and that we _must_ love our neighbor. Then, though we cannot change our temperament, yet by the doing of prosaic duties, the germ of love may be made to bud and blossom. At least do not let us allow the turmoil of every-day affairs to crowd out love. We have not time to see our friend. A letter written to us with love and care is hastily skimmed and thrown aside. We do not answer it for many weeks, and then our haste is our apology for saying nothing we really care for.

And by and by the love grows faint. Perhaps our friend dies, and the package of affectionate letters we once saved as precious lies forgotten in a drawer. Our friend did not fail us, we should love her just as dearly again if we were with her daily, but the love has been crowded out.

Now, some of us are really overtasked with necessary work; but usually our hurry comes from our ambition or our indolence. If love were really first with us, we should find time for our friends.

But some of us are so placed that we are continually meeting new people whom we can warmly love. Now there is a limit to the number of people who can form a part of our daily life. It is possible to love a hundred people dearly, but it is not possible to talk intimately with a hundred people every day, or to write a hundred affectionate letters every week.

But because we cannot cling closely to so many, let us not believe that we cannot cling closely to a few. Let us at least hold fast to a few friends, and without trying to form a part of the lives of the rest meet them all warmly when we do meet. We cannot love too much or too many people, and loving one helps us to love another, but we can only fully give ourselves to a few.

I seem to be speaking altogether of nourishing emotion, and we ought to nourish noble emotions. But the task set especially to women is to control less noble emotions. We know well enough what is our duty in regard to jealousy, envy, and so forth, though so many of us who mean to be good women do not make a very heroic struggle even here, and perhaps justify our weakness by the plea that our feelings are strong.

I will therefore speak particularly of some of our failings which lean to virtue's side. What is it, for instance, to be a sensitive woman? The highest women are exquisitely sensitive, they respond to beauty, to love, to truth, and goodness instantly. But suppose they also tremble at ugliness, and shrink from pain? The two kinds of sensitiveness do often exist together. The perfect woman would follow the example of Christ and look through outward ugliness and suffering to inward beauty and goodness, and would keep herself unspotted from the world not by shrinking from it, but by helping it upward.

But as we are imperfect, our sensitiveness shows itself most frequently in making us feel every jar to our pride and vanity. And we make a virtue of this. We ought to guard ourselves against such sensitiveness.

It is a fault which lies very deep. It is almost impossible for a _very_ sensitive woman to be just. In fancying wrong to herself she imputes wrong to everybody about her. In trying to shield herself she wounds others. She fears a slight was intended, and rather than submit to it, deliberately hurts some one who she knows may be innocent. Would it not be better to believe that the person who has hurt her is innocent, and submit to the slight even if it was intended? What harm can it do her to think a guilty person innocent? And what harm can a slight do her? But it always does harm to stoop to an ignoble feeling.

Let us at least be just. But the special accusation against women is that they are not just, and sometimes their special virtue is believed to be a romantic generosity which shuts out justice. Women are prone to be so generous to one person as to be unjust to another. They are strong partisans, and are determined to believe those they love always in the right. That seems like an amiable failing; but is it? Do we wish even our enemy to be wronged to save our friend? I think every high-minded woman would choose to be just, even if she must make her friend suffer; but it is very hard to live by that standard.

Most men who write novels describe women as ready to forgive the man who has forsaken them for another woman, but as implacable towards the rival however innocent she may be. There is too much truth in such a picture, but the best women know that good women are not so unjust. That Dorothea in her anguish at finding Will Ladislaw singing with Rosamund Lydgate should do her utmost to help Rosamund take a better stand is of course unusual, but it is not unnatural. That was a splendid kind of generosity which did indeed swallow up justice, but it was founded on justice, the justice which strove to restore all things to their true relations. If any girl is puzzled as to the true province of feeling, and wishes to know how to reconcile warm-heartedness and self-control, let her read the wonderful chapter in "Middlemarch" which describes the interview between Dorothea and Rosamund.

Wherever we have to choose between justice and generosity we must be just. Otherwise, our generosity is mere sentimentality. And it does no good even to the person on whom we lavish it. Perhaps justice in its highest sense includes generosity. It is just that the rich should help the poor, and more truly generous to give with that thought than with the feeling that one has done something meritorious in giving. It is also mere justice that in dealing with our fellow-creatures we should always think of them as they may be, as they ought to be, and not to remember simply what they are. Our faith in them helps them to rise, but not our pretense that they are right when they are wrong.

After all, however, who is perfectly balanced? There are worthy women who have all their feelings well in hand, who are pleasant to live with, and who do an immense amount of good in the world, and yet who never rise above common-placeness, and never lift anybody else much above the material plane. And there are other women so ardent and generous and loving that they seem to lend wings to everybody they meet, who are yet crushed and ruined themselves by the excess of their grief not only for their own sorrows, but for those of the whole world, until by and by they drag their dearest and most sympathetic friends down into the same abyss of woe.

How shall we keep the true balance? I believe that it always is kept by religious faith, though that too is frequently distorted. The one thing necessary to believe is that a good God rules the universe. There is no limit to the love we may give to such a being or to the creatures He has made, and there is no sorrow which cannot be comforted by the thought that love underlies it, and that it has a meaning though we cannot see it, and there is nothing else which is so sure a spur to duty.

Even this simple creed, however, is not possible to all of us. The upheavals in religious beliefs which this century has seen reach even emotional women and unthinking girls. We cannot believe a thing simply because we should like to believe it. Without this one article of faith, I believe happiness to be impossible, but we need not fail in our duty.

A noble woman whose beautiful life is a benediction to all about her, but whose suffering has been intense, says that as her life has been an exceptionally favored one, it is impossible for her to believe in God.

But she adds, "Though things are not for the best, we must make the best of them. We can always lighten somebody's burden." I believe she is wrong in saying things are not for the best, but there could be no more sublime resolution than to determine to do all we can to make wrong right.



I cannot say how it is in other places, but every one who knows much of society girls in Boston must have been struck with a certain earnest note which sounds through all their frivolity. Few of them are satisfied to be simply society girls. They wish to identify themselves with some charity, or to make a thorough study of some art or science. It may be due to their Puritan ancestry, forbidding them to make pleasure the only business of life.

Many of them seem to be always on the eve of revolt and ready to give up society altogether. They join a Protestant sisterhood or even become Roman Catholics, or they enter a training-school for nurses. I heard only the other day of one of the loveliest "buds" of this season who has already decided that a society life is an unsatisfactory one, and who is almost prepared to go as a missionary to India.

A young girl told me not long ago that she was wretched at the thought she must soon leave school, for she dreaded the society life from which there seemed no escape. She wished to find some charitable work instantly which would be on the face of it so absorbing that it would be a complete excuse for her to refuse all invitations. She is only one among many who have the same feeling.

It is hard to know what to say to such a girl. Motives are so mixed that it is hard to stimulate the growth of the wheat without stimulating that of the tares also. Most serious women would regret to see any young friend become a mere society girl, but how far it is best for a girl to give up society it is not easy to say.

Circumstances make different duties. The pathway of some girls lies directly through society. At the suitable age their sisters, their mothers, and even their grandmothers have formally "come out," and have at once been overwhelmed with invitations to the best houses in the city. If such a girl has it in her mind to rebel against precedents she would do well to consider carefully what Holmes has said in another connection: "There are those who step out of the ordinary ranks by reason of strength; there are others who fall out by reason of weakness." For instance, a girl is painfully conscious of her plainness.

Her sister was a beauty and made a sensation when she was introduced.

The plain girl dreads the comparisons which will be made, and shrinks from the social failure which she foresees. Her feeling would justify her in making no attempt to get into society if she were outside the charmed circle, but it would probably be a weakness to yield to it since she is already within. Her objection is not to society but to the place she is likely to fill in it. Probably the finest discipline of her life will be in accepting her place. If she can forget herself, or, at least, remember that it makes no real difference what others think of her, she will soon gain the quiet ease which is sometimes even more winning than beauty. This will be an attribute of character, and every person's influence is needed in society who commands interest by essential rather than non-essential qualities. Then, if she is a wall-flower she is sure to have time to relieve the misery of some other wall-flower, and as there are always a good many uninteresting people at any party she will find her mission increasing upon her hands. When she has thoroughly conquered her dread of society she will have a right to reconsider the question and decide whether she can use her time to better advantage. If she retires before fighting her battle she will probably always look upon her beautiful sister's love of balls with self-righteous pity; but long before she gains her victory she will be likely to acknowledge that if she were pretty she would love balls too.

It is not lovely for any girl to assume that she is better than her parents. Many girls are better than their parents, and sometimes so much better that they would be blind indeed if they did not see it; but they ought to be very slow to act upon such a truth.

As a general thing they are not nearly so superior as they suppose they are. They think "Irreverence for the dreams of youth" always comes from "the hardening of the heart." But youth has some fantastic as well as some noble dreams, so that docility is a better quality than independence in a very young person. If a worldly minded mother inculcates worldliness in her daughter, the daughter certainly ought to stand firm against the teaching; but if the daughter merely thinks she would rather read Browning than go to a party which her mother wishes her to attend, I think it is best for her to go to the party, even if she is conscious that her mother's motive is a worldly one. I speak only of young daughters. If a girl follows her mother's wishes about society till she is twenty-four or five, and still retains her first aversion to it, it seems to me she has earned the right to be the judge of her own actions, and if she had been really docile and sweet-tempered all the way through, I believe the most worldly minded mother would be ready to yield. It is only when the daughter has combated her parents all the time that they believe her to be unreasonable and obstinate and deserving of coercion. The point is, that she must make her stand for a principle and not for a whim.

One reason that some girls fear society is that they feel awkward and have nothing to say. This is often the case with intellectual girls.

They will not descend to the silly conversation which is more pleasing than it ought to be from the pretty girls of their set, and they know it would be out of place to talk of anything which really interests them.

They do not want to be called blue-stockings even by young men they despise. But the agonies such girls suffer in society are unnecessary.

There is no reason why any girl should talk very much. Of course if she is not a beauty or a graceful dancer she has no other way of attracting attention, but it is not necessary to attract attention. If she is quiet and unobtrusive and sweet-tempered she need not suffer from mortification even if she does not find much to enjoy. I remember a young girl whose great shyness made it a terror to her to meet any strangers. Besides this, she felt so little interest in commonplace people that she had no sufficient motive to subdue her fear. At last as she was on the point of refusing to go to a very small and informal tea party a friend not much older than herself talked seriously to her, explaining that her course would seem morbid and selfish to others, and might be so in truth. The young girl respected her friend, and making a heroic effort to control herself determined to accept the invitation. "I am going," she said to herself, "to show Ellen that I am not too obstinate to take her advice, and I don't care how I appear." So she sat still in a corner and listened to the conversation, which was indeed preternaturally stupid. She felt perfectly at her ease and was quite unconcerned about "making conversation." If anybody asked her a question she answered simply without cudgeling her brains for any wise or witty reply. By and by something was said which did attract her notice, and she actually made a spontaneous remark herself. She realized then that the worst was over. She never again felt such terror on entering a room, and though I never heard that she shone in society, she was always able after that to carry on her share of a conversation without anxiety. She simply laid herself aside for the time being and paid attention to what was going on.

But while it is usually best for a young girl to go into society which lies naturally in her way, it is a very different thing to push into society which lies outside of her path. It is necessary to speak strongly on this point. In every city the number of inhabitants who have lived in it since its foundation is, of course, very small, and they always form an aristocracy, jealous of interlopers. They generally are a law-abiding, conservative class, with some sterling qualities. They are superior to a great many people who would like to associate with them, but inferior to a great many others. Now, just at the circumference of this circle there is another circle equally good, intelligent, and refined, who see no reason why they should be shut out from the inner circle. There is no reason except that they did not first occupy the central ground. The aristocracy of the city is formed on the principle of "first come, first served," and the first will never relinquish their places to the new-comers. Why should the new-comers care? There are enough among them to make a society as good, intelligent, and refined as that from which they are shut out. Nevertheless, it is a human failing to prize what we cannot have, and some of the later comers look wistfully across the dividing line. They cannot cross it, but sometimes their daughters can. They send their daughters to the same schools with the daughters of the "four hundred," and the girls make friends with each other, and with a little skill the password may be learned and the young plebeian may find herself indistinguishable from a patrician.

There are fathers and mothers who urge their daughters to make haste to occupy every coigne of vantage, and gradually advance into the heart of the enemy's country. I am not speaking now of those who are so vulgar as to intrigue for invitations, but simply of the ambitious who wish to accept an invitation given in good faith because it is a step upward in the social scale. Of course I would not say that such an invitation should never be accepted, for there is often congeniality between the hostess and her guest; but it is not worth doing violence to one's feelings for the sake of accepting it. We say that we do not consider the "four hundred" really superior to many other hundreds in the city.

In that case let us treat them and their invitations with exactly the same courtesy and exactly the same indifference that we show to our other friends and their invitations. I think a young girl is always justified in objecting to be pushed into society even when her parents are eager to push her; yet if the matter is urged, it will probably be best for her to gratify her parents, even at the sacrifice of her own sensitiveness. It is not for her to judge her parents. Even if they are wrong, their fault may be like the vanity of a child, because they are still in the childish stage of education, while the daughter's higher development is entirely due to their efforts in her behalf.

There are girls whose religious convictions forbid society, and then they are obliged to withstand their parents from the outset; yet I think such convictions are uncommon where the parents do not share them. But there are other girls who sincerely believe that their time can be better spent than in going to parties and making calls. The conventions of society seem meaningless to them, and they know if they observe them all they will have no time or strength for anything else, while if they do not observe them they will be stigmatized as rude, odd, and even as self-conceited. One cannot read even the most sensible book on etiquette without being oppressed with the feeling that a terrible addition has been made to the moral law in the by-laws which treat of visiting cards, and every writer on etiquette says mildly but firmly that there is a reason for all the rules in the very nature of things, and that if any of us venture to disregard them and substitute our own reason, we simply show our incapacity for appreciating real refinement.

A part of this is no doubt true. The rules of society are reasonable for those who give their whole time to society. When a lady has four hundred people on her visiting list, and a call must be made on each one every winter on pain of losing the acquaintance altogether, to say nothing of party calls and receptions and afternoon teas, it is clear that a language of pasteboard simplifies her duties very much. But for any one who has a definite work in life outside of society, attention to all these minor points is impossible, and we must either be shut out of society altogether or be allowed to enter it on our own terms. The women who have their living to earn have the matter decided for them. Even in the few cases where they are welcomed among the _elite_, their work must always take precedence of society demands. And the same thing ought to be true in the case of good mothers. The care of one's own children never ought to be given up for any conventional duty. But the hardest case is that of young girls who wish their lives to be in earnest, and who have as yet no imperative duties. No wonder they wish to make duties for themselves. Is there any guide in deciding how far they are bound to follow conventions? I know nothing better than the dictum of the Hegelians. "Make your deed universal, and see what the result will be."

If everybody who finds afternoon teas a burden stayed away from them, would any harm be done? If everybody who objects to making calls refused to make them, would it not soon simplify life even for those who do like to make them? If all people who chanced to meet felt at liberty to be as friendly as they felt like being, without any formal preliminaries, who would be injured? The question of absolute right is answered when these questions are answered, and we ought not to let any writer on etiquette persuade us to the contrary. But it is not so easy to say how far it is wise for anybody, particularly for young girls, to set themselves against the customs of their own circle. They then give up the friends they would naturally make, and it is sometimes hard to find equally congenial friends in other circles. Many a girl who might have been happily married if she had not rebelled against conventionalities is left to lead a lonely life; and that not because young men value conventionalities, but because society makes people acquainted. She will some day be likely to regret that she missed her opportunities, unless she had some more definite reason for her course than the mere shrinking from the effort society requires.

Duties we make for ourselves are seldom entirely free from affectation.

An ardent, active girl may easily become so interested in her charities and her studies that she may make a genuine plea that she is too busy for parties and calls; but perhaps she ought not to give up society duties until higher duties actually open before her. Is it not possible that society has some intrinsic worth, or that at all events it might have worth, if earnest people did their part? There is much to be done for the poor, but the poor are not the only ones to be helped. Sweetness of temper and honorable action tell as much sometimes in a game of cards as in an affair of state. The highest good anybody can ever do is to inspire others with a higher ideal, to raise the level of character. The specific act by which this is done matters little; in truth it is usually the result not of an act, but of a noble character influencing others unconsciously. One might give all her goods to feed the poor and not leave the world any better than she found it. On the other hand, I know a frank, light-hearted girl, whose whole mind seems to be absorbed in choosing the prettiest dresses she can find for her approaching _debut_, who is sure to be a factor in elevating every company she enters, because of her scorn of any form of meanness. She would not trouble herself to say anything bitter if one of her acquaintances did a mean thing; but the amazed tone in which she would utter the word "Fancy!" would inflict a punishment no culprit could escape.

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