Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/March 1887/Higher Education of Women and the Family




THE address of Dr. Withers Moore, President of the British Medical Association, delivered before a general meeting of that body, August 10, 1886, has attracted very wide attention. The importance of the subject with which the paper deals can not be overestimated. A few quotations will best show what it is and what are the views of the author upon it:

"Education is very expensive, physiologically as well as pecuniarily, and growing girls are not rich enough to bear the expense of being trained for motherhood" (the italics are my own), "and also that of being trained for competition with men in the severer exercises of the intellect. Woman should be protected from the rude battle of life by the work and labor of man. ... It is not good for the human race that women should be freed from the restraints which law and custom have imposed upon them, and should receive an education intended to prepare them for the exercise of brain-power in competition with men. . . . Bacon, for want of a mother, will not be born. She who should have been his mother will, perhaps, be a distinguished collegian," etc.

The report goes on to say that "Dr. N. S. Davis, of Chicago, cordially sympathizes with these sentiments, and said that in America they had abundant evidence of their truth." And a late number of "Science" adds: "There are two channels of expenditure of physiological force in woman—the terrible strain of higher and professional education, . . . and the expense of being properly trained for motherhood."

Surely no one would be more ready than I to accept the conclusions of Dr. Moore and his supporters could I but be convinced that they have been drawn from reliable data, and presented in an unprejudiced manner.

It is true beyond question that in America the small and rapidly diminishing numbers in the family is a matter of grave national import. Dr. Nathan Allen has written much upon this subject, especially in connection with the New England States, but the difference in this regard between those States and other localities where the families are purely American is very slight. Presuming that physical laws operate much in the same manner upon both sides the Atlantic, we shall confine our discussion to American soil, and thus endeavor to find just what basis we have for accepting the theories which have been forced upon our notice, to discover in what the "abundant evidence" of Dr. Davis lies; or, failing in this, to seek for the kernel of truth in some other direction. A short time ago I began collecting facts intending to show the great falling off in numbers in the American family, taken without regard to location or worldly circumstances. These I will now present (although they are as yet quite incomplete), because they have a direct bearing upon the subject which we are considering. In some of the tables only one or two lines of descendants could be traced; in others, all or nearly all appear:

PSM V30 D635 Gradual reduction in the size of the american family.jpg

Un, Unmarried. Dotted line, females. Plain line, males. D, dead. No ch., no children.

Nearly all grades of American life have been included here, excepting perhaps that found in extreme poverty. The women were, for the most part, simply educated. Some in the district school only, while others were instructed with due deference to the limitations considered proper in female education, and with the usual surfeit of "accomplishments." A few were more highly educated, and yet as large a proportion of the latter as of the former have married, and the largest families of the present generation belong to the most highly educated of the women.

Within a stone's-throw of where I sit are half a dozen well-to-do American families. Taken together, there are not as many children in them as there are parents, and in none of them will there presumably be any increase. Not one of these mothers is in any sense a highly educated woman.

In one hundred and seventy-five American families I find an average of 3·2 children (now adults in most cases) to each. In one sixth of them there is but one child each. (No childless families are included.) Of the few really large families, the evidence seems to be that the mothers were in most cases well educated; in a few cases, exceptionally so. Taken as a whole, they represent a very wide range of female education, from the most ordinary to the highest which the time afforded. I have made many inquiries as to the proportion of children in American and foreign families in the schools of Brooklyn and New York, and I find that in the German, Irish, and Italian families there are two, three, and four times as many children, upon an average, as there are in the American family.

It would be difficult for even the most prejudiced observer to attribute these maternal deficiencies to the "higher education of women"; and it is a little singular that we are so often treated to a bald statement of the "higher-education" theory, without any facts being adduced by which to prove it. The diminishing and vanishing native family is a fact, but a fact which must be accounted for in some other way than the one proposed.

In turning elsewhere for an explanation, we will leave out of our present discussion those men—and their name is legion—who have brought to their wedded lives only the remnant of a vitiated or shattered constitution, or those in whom the instinct of fatherhood seems to be so nearly wanting, that they are not willing to make any of the sacrifices incident to the rearing of a family; and will consider the question solely from conditions which obtain with the other sex.

Here the two great primary causes are—1. Physical disability. 2. Disinclination to bear and rear children. We will briefly consider these in their order, though their order could well be reversed if in that lay any indication of their relative importance.

There is something almost ludicrous in the spectacle of a physician, educated and professedly observing, passing over without a word all the death-dealing follies which are making invalids of tens of thousands of women all about him, while he lifts his voice in dismal croaking over the awful prospect which looms before his jaundiced vision, of a time when more women shall be educated. Forgetting all else, he might have spared one thought for that doomed multitude, shut off forever from honorable motherhood, gone to dire destruction, because untrained in anything which would insure to them a self-respecting independence.

Just what is meant by the term "being trained for motherhood," or why this training should be designated as "one of the two great channels of expenditure of physiological force," I find myself unable to understand. But it may safely be asserted that any training which exhausts without more than correspondingly strengthening a part, no matter where applied or for what purpose, should straightway be condemned. The "competition" and the "terrible strain" theories seem to me to have but little foundation. In my university life I saw nothing to confirm them. The work was pleasant and inspiring, and I am sure I can safely say that for the most part we enjoyed it. We did not trouble ourselves about the relative weight of our brains, and, as in the district school or the high-school, so here, it mattered little whether it was Jane or John who stood best; and it was quite as likely to be Jane as John.

As I recall the animated faces, the healthy bloom, and high spirits of the young women, I fail to find any ground for the assumption that their work was in any sense done at the expense of their vitality. On the contrary, I know that in many cases there was decided improvement in health from the beginning to the end of the course.

All this much-talked-of "physiological expenditure" is a myth. The intellect is quickened and strengthened by proper use, not at the expense of any other organ, but in and of itself. It is with this as with the muscles: strength comes with use. The fault has lain, not in the training of one set of organs, but in the neglect of others. The balance of health has thus been lost, and all parts have suffered in unison. To correct this, to establish a harmonious development of mind and body, is what true higher education aims to accomplish; and in doing this it is striking at the very root of woman's disabilities.

Seeing daily, as I do, young women in college in far better health than young women in society, or living in pampered idleness at home; seeing them healthier as seniors than they were as freshmen; knowing that my records tell me that they average a smaller number of excuses because of illness than do those of the men's colleges with which I am able to compare data, and knowing from statistical evidence that woman college graduates enjoy a sum total of twenty per cent better health than the average woman, how can I conclude otherwise than that college-work, per se, is not injurious to health, nor incompatible with the best good of the sex and the race?[1]

Where is there a physician who does not know of countless numbers of women among the wealthier classes who are beset by all manner of ailments, for no other reason than because they have nothing to do, or rather because they have brought nothing into their lives which called forth the strong motive forces of their natures? The petty, selfish considerations which have dominated them have been too shallow to float them out into the broader channels, and they have become poor, stranded wrecks, with no interests but their aches and pains, no comfort but in the doctor's daily visit. The contemplation of these wasted lives, powers for good gone to rust and decay for lack of use, should make the angels weep. God forgive the man or woman who would wish to keep alive the baleful thrall of old prejudices and customs which work such irremediable evil to the human race! John Stuart Mill has said that "there is nothing after disease, indigence, and guilt so fatal to the pleasurable enjoyment of life as the want of a worthy outlet for the active faculties." He might have added that nothing so tends to promote disease and physical poverty as such a want.

Of the barbarous inflictions of fashion, of the effects of social dissipation upon the impressionable nervous system of a young girl, of the neglect of such exercise as is necessary to her vigorous health, I have no time to speak more fully, but among these are found some of the greatest hindrances to health, some of the most serious obstacles to motherhood.

One of the greatest of living physicians. Sir Spencer Wells, says: "As for the outcry against women taking up mens' work, it is breath wasted. For my own part, I think women capable of a great deal more than they have been accustomed to do in times past. If over-work sometimes leads to disease, it is morally more wholesome to work into it than to lounge into it, and if some medical practitioners have observed cases where mental overstrain has led to disease, I can not deny that I also have at long intervals seen some such cases. But for every such example I feel sure that I have seen at least twenty where evils equally to be deplored are caused in young women by want of mental occupation, by deficient exercise, too luxurious living, and too much amusement."

That a strong disinclination to bear children is manifested by many American women no one can deny, and the rich even more than the poor seem averse to giving themselves to the cares and deprivations incident to the rearing of a family. These women are ready and willing to marry, but they have no intention of burdening themselves with the laudable results of matrimony.

Women with one or two children, wealthy, living in palatial residences, will tell you that they can not afford to have more children; also that they are quite worn out with their present cares, and that to have a large family would break them down completely; so by their manifold arts, all tending to thwart the Divine laws of their being, coupled with the selfishness and inanity of their lives, they succeed in bringing themselves to a state of physical disability which one of our prolific great-grandmothers would have been horrified to behold!

The root of the whole matter lies in the purposeless drift of everything which has been wont to enter into a woman's training. She has been made to feel that "woman should be protected from the rude battle of life by the work and labor of man," and these women have boiled down the sentiment into a selfish disregard of every obligation which they owe to the world. They most decidedly approve of all the limitations to "woman's sphere." They marry because they want to be taken care of, and their estimate of the value of life lies in the getting of the greatest amount of creature comfort with the least possible personal outlay; so "Bacon, for want of a mother, is not born." Not, however, because "the woman who should have been his mother is a distinguished collegian," but because she will have none of him; and his unwelcome existence is cut short long before it is time for him to appear upon this mundane sphere.

The poor woman has the same aversion to having a family that the rich one has, and for much the same reasons. Trouble and expense are to be avoided, and, worse than all, it is unfashionable to have a large family. I well remember hearing in my childhood a healthy young married woman held up to ridicule because she had so many children. Strange to say, her husband was commiserated in the same breath as a much-afflicted individual! At length, in an evil hour, the poor wife listened to an evil counselor, and the handsome, rosy-cheeked woman was from that time only a sallow, sad-eyed wreck of her former self. But she was no longer a target for the idle jests of her neighbors; the cradle was empty, and ever after remained so.

This is the kind of sentiment which openly or covertly prevails with us, and this is the Moloch to which are being sacrificed not only the health of so many of our women, but the lives of unborn millions who should stand crowned the sons and daughters of our glorious land.

It is in the higher, broader education of women that our hope for the future lies. The alarmists who cry that women will not marry if educated know full well that they are firing blank cartridges into empty space. There will always be plenty of women with brains and plenty also without brains from whom to choose, so that no man need go without a wife. If he prefers one who has a knowledge of Greek verbs stowed away somewhere in the neighborhood of an adorable pair of eyes, so much the better for him, for no amount of education will ever prevent a woman from marrying the man of her heart when he appears; and her education will be the best surety of her marriage resulting in all that which a true marriage should bring.

I do not mean to say that every girl should have a college education. What I do mean is, that the colleges are becoming centers for the training of girls to more healthful ways of living, both mental and physical; and the only thing to do for women of the wealthier classes to lift them out of the ruts of idleness and destructive obedience to fashion's vagaries is to educate them, and give them broader interests and a mental grasp of the value of life because of its obligations to other lives.

Men and women must ever be one in every interest which affects the public good. It is difficult to see how even individual welfare can be made distinct. Women with low ideals, selfish, and untrained; women with feeble, undeveloped physiques, as well as women whose high moral and intellectual worth is enhanced by bodily perfections, all have an influence that puts its stamp upon the household of which each forms a part. And to "train a girl for motherhood" can be done in no better way than by building her from day to day upon the noblest plan which the grand and growing facilities of our time have made possible to us.

  1. President Bascora, of the University of Wisconsin, says on the same point: "The young women do not seem to deteriorate with us in health, but quite the opposite. . . . It has long seemed to me plain that a young woman who withdraws herself from society and gives herself judiciously to a college course is far better circumstanced in reference to health than the great majority of her sex.