The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Our Girls: Part I
Much has been written and said lately about Mothers and Sons, much that is true and wise, complimentary and encouraging, and, overwhelmed by the heavy responsibilities assigned to us, conscious of our unfitness for this high calling, confessing with sorrow our numerous mistakes and weaknesses, and coming to the sad conclusion, that after half a century of life we are only dimly beginning to learn how to live, many of us look with hope to a new generation of mothers, and ask ourselves how shall we bring up our girls so that the sons of another generation shall have better mothers than our own? Does anyone imagine this an easy task? It has become exceedingly difficult.
For middle-class mothers, the bringing up of a daughter means, now-a-days, a two-fold and simultaneous preparation, for the possibility of marriage, and the probability or necessity of independence. It has become in England, absolutely indispensable to train a daughter (as well as a son) to some definite career. The question of money makes very little difference. No true mother can endure the thought of leaving her girl to an aimless, useless life. Occupation of an absorbing nature is all the more needed where the natural physical and emotional development of a woman is arrested by circumstances which enforce celibacy. And with the disproportion at present existing between the sexes, enforced celibacy must be the condition of many. Now, could the mother tell at an early age, say twelve or fourteen, which of her girls would marry and which would not, the problem would be at once simplified, but no such certainty can ever help her to decide. Not even if out of two sisters one is, at fourteen, extremely ill-favoured and the other strikingly beautiful, can she make sure. An accident, an illness to the latter, time and growth in the case of the former may reduce them to the same level, or even reverse their positions, and besides, how many ugly women are wives and mothers, and how many that are handsome and attractive can we count among the unmarried?
If great difficulties arise in finding good openings for our boys they leave England and seek their fortunes abroad, but only here and there has a girl the health, pluck, and enterprise to do this. A woman is more home-loving, more attached to her friends, less hardy and enduring than her contemporary of the opposite sex. Which of us sighs to join an expedition to the North Pole, or to cut our way through the impenetrable forests of the Dark Continent? It is no doubt a wise dispensation that as a rule we prefer a settled unadventurous way of life. Too much expenditure of vitality in physical strain and hardship might have a very undesirable effect on the future of this race. Be this as it may it remains a fact that a girl cannot, and will not emigrate as readily as a boy, that marriage is often only a possibility, and that is she is to be useful and happy she must some day specialize and take up a worthy life-work. What now is the first requisite in a girl, whatever her destiny? All sensible people will agree I think saying Health and Strength. Is she to enter any department of labour, teaching, nursing, doctoring, business, art handicraft? Immediately she finds herself faced in almost every case with unflinching competition! The young woman of greatest strength and endurance, most perfectly trained, and of best natural faculty, may count upon success, but whatever her attainments and whatever her talent, an insufficient supply of health and fortitude places her at once at a disadvantage. Liability to break down is a fatal barrier to success in almost every one of the many occupations lately opened up to women. And for marriage, all admit that the best hope of healthy, capable children lies in the parents' soundness. The demands upon the mother's physique are very severe; not only the bringing forth of children, but their bringing up taxes the conscientious, loving woman heavily. What self-control, what inward struggle must a mother practise who desires to set an example of forbearance and patience, when her whole system is unhinged and exhausted by weeks of sleepless nights! How hard to bear the prattle and noise, to say nothing of the wilfulness and violence of her children after many days of anxious nursing of a stricken child! And there is another difficulty she has to face also, little commented upon, but painfully real, which necessitates in her the development of almost Herculean strength. This difficulty is the ignorance and inexperience of many men in all matters relating to a woman's health. Do we blame them for it? Certainly not. How can a man, sent early to a public school, then to the University, and compelled afterwards for some years to live in lodgings, how can he know anything of women? By what miracle of natural moral beauty can imagination, sympathy, insight and tenderness unfold under such conditions? At school he has to stand up for himself, fag or be fagged; later on, alone in his snug rooms, he is condemned to consider himself first, and himself only. So habits of selfishness arise, and become inveterate. The bachelor of ten or fifteen years has been forced to take the easiest chair in the best warmth and light, the daintiest morsel, and all the luxury and comfort he can extract from his small surroundings. How can he change at once the use and wont of so long a time? Almost as easily could a leopard change his spots.
Love is blind they say. Yes, indeed; see how blindly that adoring young husband offers his wife presents of jewels and flowers instead of cups of beef tea! Hear him propose a trip to Scotland instead of quiet breakfasts in bed for a few days! Look how he torments himself with a suspicion that his darling regrets her marriage when he sees traces of tears, mere physical relief of an overwrought young mother. Selfish is he? Oh, no, he would empty his purse at her feet, and yet the doctor has had to remind him twice that he must not take his wife for such long country walks. "Reggie will never learn," said a young wife to me a few years ago, "till we have suffered some disaster." What disaster? The loss of a child, perhaps the break down of the mother. And all this not from want of love, but of knowledge; not from absence of admiration and caresses, but of imagination, sympathy and experience, and this it often is that eats away the romance of love's young dream, and brings the dreaded mother-in-law to expand the rift within the lute. Yes, our girls need be strong when they leave the watchful care of a loving mother and place their lives in the tender mercies of an athletic young Anglo-Saxon full of strong activities, ignorant of weakness and ill-health, and gradually coming to a conclusion which he himself hastens on, that women are poor rickety creatures, and that there's something "rotten" in the state of things. And something is wrong undoubtedly, not only in the training of our sons, but in the actual condition of our girls, who inherit the unhealthy existences of their predecessors, due to false notions of what is beautiful and becoming in their sex, some of which prevail even to this day. Only look at our fashion plates, only hear the talk of women "in society!" There is enough folly in these matters to make a girl who places her faith in them an invalid for life, a victim to pernicious customs that no efforts of the sensible, no admonitions of the wisest have succeeded yet in modifying except to a very small extent. We who bring up girls have not only to struggle for their health against insensate fashions, against the exorbitant demands of school life upon their immature vigour and faculty, we have to undo the work of the past and restore to soundness the great-grand-daughters and great--great-grand-daughters of women, in whom weakness and delicacy were considered charms, in whom it was thought appropriate to faint and shriek, and who would shudder with horror, if returning from the spirit-world, they could see their hardier descendants climbing, Alpen-stock in hand, the snowy peaks of the Swiss mountains or "swarming" up ropes in gymnasia. And taking a larger view of our influence in these matters, we have to teach our girls what is often overlooked and what is becoming of vital importance for us all to understand:--viz., that in certain enervating misgrowths of a too material progress, lurk hidden the seeds of physical decay--in the luxurious carriage and pair, in the crowded ball-room and theatre, in the tempting tables of the wealthy, in the partial sacrifice of daylight to sleep, and night to occupation or pleasure, in the mercenary, loveless marriage, above all in the absence of any necessity for work, in the luxuries as well as in the vices of civilization lie unsuspected or unheeded the germs of racial degeneracy. Compare our upper class women with the peasant's wife; what risk and suffering attend motherhood, how few are capable of nourishing their infants naturally, how many are childless! While our humble sister, in spite of poverty and toil, resumes her usual way of living at the end of ten or twelve days after child-birth, supports her baby long herself and is rarely without children.
How can we help confessing that in spite of toil and care she is physically better fitted to be another than we? And why? The country-women lives "laborious days," her food is simple, her body hardy, her sleep sound and refreshing, the air she breathes is pure. Ennui and excitement do not prey upon her, to fashion and convention she is no slave. Notwithstanding all her privations she is often a happier as well as a stronger woman than those above her. Would we change places? By no means. We are heirs to wider views, greater brain power, more refined pleasure. We would keep these, and at the same time introduce into our own lives and into those of our daughters as much as possible of the invigorating exertion, the simplicity, the pure air and the brighter spirits that belong to more natural ways of life. Does anyone imagine this an easy task? Come, you who do, and help to uproot old traditions, to persuade only a few to scorn ugly, unhealthy fashions, to cease hankering after money and the prestige so easily bought in these times by money, bare money unsupported by education, refinement or moral beauty. Come and help to bring up a race of women, hardy, wise and virtuous, who may be better mothers than we are.
Health is indispensable, and comes first in time as well as importance; it is needless to show how this can be worked for. Hygiene and germs! The air is full of them, and hygiene will win in the long run as certainly as truth will win in the long run. But this is the problem we have to solve: How are we, working with all our might to develop physical perfection, to fit our daughters during their few years of girlhood for the duties and responsibilities of wife and mother, for the probability of having to stand alone and, in despite of that, to lead a healthy, noble, useful and therefore, happy life? In another paper we will try to see whether a girl can be brought up without neglect of physical training, indeed with the most earnest unremitting care of the body, with all desirable development of the mind, and, simultaneously, with such knowledge of the duties of mother, wife and housekeeper as can be given before the actually enters upon these functions. Sad to say, in these days, education, as it is called, often encroaches upon what is due to the body. Now the mind will grow, circumstances being not unfavourable, for forty or even fifty years. Literature, art, science, all these can be advanced throughout the greater part of one's life, but there is only one time for bodily growth, only some twenty-one years for physical development and maturity; this can never be shifted or postponed. The foundation of health upon which usefulness and happiness arise must be laid during this interval or never.
Typed by happi, July 2018
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