Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/Is Education Opposed to Motherhood?



IF, as Max Müller asserts, the first duty of honest philosophers is definition, there can be no doubt that in following it many clouds of discussion may be swept away. Definitions are continually assumed, and we clothe our creeds in wordy obscurity that totally hides their nature. No subject suffers more from this error than the woman question. If debated words were rigidly defined, and results placed barely before us, many sentimental arguments would fail in foundation.

In "Plain Words on the Woman Question,"[1] Mr. Grant Allen discusses a topic which, he thinks, is "too much overlooked by modern lady writers." It is the continuation of the human race. Intrenched behind population and marriage statistics, he opens fire upon feminine reformers from a quarter where they have made little defense. His text is—if a race will continue, it must reproduce itself. His argument may be briefly given as follows:

I. Marriages are decreasing in England and America.

II. Women of the cultivated classes are becoming unfitted for motherhood.

III. The movement which demands the independence and higher education of women is responsible for this—it creates a "spiritless epicene automaton" and the "self-supporting spinster."

IV. The emancipation of women, especially from Mrs. Grundy, is desirable; but it must not conflict with the existence of mothers who are necessary to the race.

Mr. Allen states the needful conditions of a stationary population in this manner: A father and mother are exactly represented in another generation by two children, a boy and a girl. But, in order that two may attain maturity, four[2] must be born; so that either every woman must have four children, or those who do marry must have more than four to make up the requisite number. From this he deduces: "The best ordered community will be one where as large a proportion of women as possible marry. Where many marriages and small families are the rule, the children will on the average be born healthier, be better fed, and be launched more fairly on the world in the end."

After clearly stating and carefully explaining these indisputable facts, Mr. Allen startles us by acknowledging that "it may be brutal and unmanly to admit or insist upon them," as he has been "often told it is by maiden ladies"! There is but one intelligent attitude concerning them are they true or false? Granting, then, that these conditions are truthfully represented, what can be said to the argument which Mr. Allen founds upon them?

I. Marriages are decreasing in many civilized countries. There are local causes for this tendency among men, but the principal and prevailing one with women is that they are passing from the rule of force to a state of freedom, and use their newly found liberty to reject what seems to hamper and handicap them. They are emerging from the condition in which marriage is consequent upon physical or social constraint, and they have not generally arrived at the point where it is for them the result of deliberate choice or response to natural instinct. In China, India, Persia, and Arabia, where marriages are still controlled by force, the number would be diminished at once, without the influence of higher education or industrial training, were the women allowed simple freedom of choice.[3] This decrease would not indicate "the dulling of feminine instinct," but the vitality of it—since marriages are made there in defiance of natural selection, and represent the worst condition of servitude. In more civilized states the popularity of marriage does not depend wholly upon the way in which women regard it, but upon the way in which it is treated by men. The laws of some countries render it easier for a man to live illegitimately with a woman than to marry her;[4] true marriage is discouraged by social usage and dishonored by false philosophy. Few thoughtful minds will deny that the customs which render it difficult for a young man to marry, which send him hither and thither to gain a fortune, succeed in a profession, or dissipate his strength, when he should be choosing his sweetheart, are harmful, and divert men "from the true problem of their sex to fix it on side issues of comparative unimportance."

Boys, as well as girls, should be taught that the full meaning of human life is missed unless they deserve and find a fitting mate. Authors who represent wifehood and maternity[5] as onerous and unattractive, however necessary, or who surround illicit and incomplete love with superficial glamour, are open to the charge of depreciating marriage. Guests are not tempted to a banquet by fear of starvation, nor are men attracted toward matrimony for the interests of the race. Instead of showing that marriage offers the greatest possibility of happiness, it is often described by men as an unintellectual, slavish, and pitiable condition. Few epithalamia are sung by the generation which asks, "Is marriage a failure?" and rare is the poet who writes:

"Clear as amber, fine as musk,
Is life to those who, pilgrim-wise,
Move hand in hand from dawn to dusk."

II. Mr. Allen seems to regard as evidence that women "are becoming unfitted for motherhood" the fact that they do not glory in their femininity, and charges also that women reformers speak and write "as though it were desirable that the mass of women should remain unmarried forever." Worse even than this, he asserts: "At the present moment a great majority of the ablest women are wholly dissatisfied with their own position as women, and with the position imposed by the facts of the case upon women generally; this as the direct result of their false education. "Here are two ideas badly entangled for want of definition—the natural and the artificial position of women. Mr. Allen gives us on the following page his opinion of "the position" (artificial) of women in language strong enough for the most blatant reformer." The position of women was not a position which could bear the test of nineteenth-century scrutiny; . . . their relation to the family, to their husbands, their children, their friends, their property, was simply insupportable." (Does he demand of these ablest women that they should be satisfied with a position he calls "insupportable"?) But, let him not be distressed because woman does not openly "glory" in her natural position of womanhood. There is no failure of healthy instinct here, but a natural feminine divergence from the masculine feeling. The differentiation of the sexes is a subject upon which we have no adequate data. We might as well try to surmise the habits of the wild cat from the domesticated pussy, as to speculate upon the essential qualities of free womanhood. But, so far as woman's physical constitution indicates anything, it points toward greater reserve on her part than is exhibited by man. This corresponds with the almost universal inclination of women to be more modest than men.[6] Therefore, though a woman may prefer her own sex and be proud of her privileges as woman, she will not voluntarily go about "glorifying" her womanhood. If Mr. Allen should meet a young woman who announced herself a candidate for motherhood, it is doubtful whether he would approve of her, although she embodied his theory.[7]

Here, also, Mr. Allen misinterprets the women reformers of England. He states that they "openly refuse and despise marriage." Some may; some write very bitterly of men. But this refusal is for themselves, or for the class to which they belong—reformers. In this they do not differ from a large number of religious or political enthusiasts of both sexes, in every age, who claim that their "cause" is superior to individual rights or duties. Who is the woman in England who maintains such doctrine for the majority of her sex? One of the ablest advocates for women, Emily Pfeiffer,[8] writes to her countrymen:

"You do not well to rest your hope
On natures of a narrower scope,
And leave the souls which, like your own,
Aspire, to find their way alone—
To go down childless to their graves,
The while you get your sons of slaves."

Though men have greatly outgrown tyranny of thought and action, there is still alive much masculine arrogance. With many it is entirely unconscious; it probably is so with Mr. Allen when he calls a literary or scientific education "mannish." I do not know of any purely mannish training except that received by the monks of La Trappe, and that which fits men to be soldiers, sailors, blacksmiths, or workmen whose physical force is a necessity to their calling. A college or university education, although in past years given exclusively to men, was never supposed to fit them for any essentially masculine occupation, not even to become the fathers of the future race. It was preliminary to a professional or literary career, and intended to develop the powers of mind. And mind—emphasize as we will the physical differences of the body that goes with it—has no discoverable gender. The lavish way in which the epithet of "masculine" or "feminine" has been applied to particular minds is utterly destructive of precision of thought. Vigorous minds are called masculine and those of the namby-pamby, sentimental sort are dubbed feminine. This classification may be historically justifiable by the slight appearance women have made in the literary and scientific world, but there have been clear-headed women enough in all antiquity, and there are too many well-developed minds among them to-day, not to make them resent further tricking out with masculine trappings. The wise old Greeks saw fit to personify mind in a woman; the moderns seem to be afraid of such a result.

If education must be specialized, and women should be fitted to become wise mothers, then, in all fairness, men should be trained to become intelligent fathers. Their lack in this respect is as palpable to any just mind as the failure of women in motherhood. That there should be fathers, and good fathers, is no less important, from a utilitarian standpoint, than that there should be good mothers. Indeed, it may be questioned whether there are not annually more children lost to the world through the wickedness and ignorance of male parents[9] than would be gained by the conversion of all "self-supporting spinsters" into model matrons. It is not necessary to enter into detail here, but appalling statistics are easily obtainable. Until no foundling hospital, no abandoned family exists, it is ungenerous to reproach woman with evading or "shirking" her natural duties. Postponement of marriage by men results in another not inconsiderable evil, false marriage[10] of many young women. Nature often revenges herself here by a lack of mothers. The wiser plan would be to follow the teaching of Nature and not dissociate the sexes, particularly during impressionable years. In study, work, or society, do not bar them from each other; then they will not form the erroneous notions that taint maturity. Let them be "human, instead of half-human."

III. The most evident good of education to woman, aside from the discipline of mind and development of power, is in its teaching observation of nature and the intelligent use rather than the repression of any instinct or force. Those who assert that these influences "unsex" woman, render her "unwomanly," should explain what is meant. She may lose some of the characteristics that have distinguished her in the past, but while analytic or radical minds call these characteristics local and temporary, conservatives cling to them as part of essential womanhood. It may be observed that, although Mr. Allen holds fast to the term of "radical," he agrees with our dear old great-grandmothers in this apprehension that education[11] and independence unfit women to become mothers. To these timid souls may be recommended a greater trust in Nature, that she will be able to maintain the differences necessary to a continuance of the race.[12] Clothes and customs vary with time and place; sex is stable and not injured by anything but physical condition. The traditional idea that womanhood can be modified in some occult[13] way by occupation, training, or environment, is wholly unscientific and baneful; for it undoubtedly serves to nurse in many a woman that "slavishness of soul" which Mr. Allen, as a true well-wisher of woman, deplores. Physical condition, then, is the constant coefficient in the problem. Anything injurious to the health of either man or woman incapacitates each just so much for the fullest requirement of life.

Mr. Allen claims that the result of the higher education in England and America has been to convert woman into "a dulled and spiritless epicene automaton." Now, this peculiar product, which I take to mean the opposite of a healthy woman, must be wholly within the reach of statistics, else she, or it, is a fabulous affair. In England it is possible she may exist, but the best available statistics of Girton, Newnham, and Cheltenham prove that she is not typical. The following testimony in regard to women students is given:[14]

"I have known intimately Girton and Newnham Colleges and what is now the women's department of Owens College, Manchester. . . . Were an impression to get abroad that a thorough school and college education is injurious to tolerably healthy women, it would be as mistaken as it would be unfortunate" (Miss Bulley).

"My unqualified testimony is, that the intellectual quickening resulting from advanced education is of great benefit to their physical condition" (Miss Mackillip, Londonderry Collegiate School).

"I have been head of this college for more than twenty-eight years. . . . We have kept the minutest possible statistics[15]—these show that girls, working under proper conditions, are exceptionally healthy" (Miss Beale, Cheltenham College).

Mr. Fitch, inspector of training schools, testifies: "There are in England twenty-six training colleges for schoolmistresses, containing in all eighteen hundred resident students. It is my duty, on behalf of the Government, to make an annual visit to these institutions, and I have seen every one of them during the last twelve months. . . . It is the uniform opinion of the medical officers that the students improve in health and vigor during their two years of residence."

In America, the dulled automaton is not discoverable; indeed, the records are so much in favor of a healthier class than the average of women that physicians who have hastily committed themselves to an opposite opinion say, upon examination, that they "utterly distrust the statistics"![16] The necessary amount of this distrust, and the direction in which it is exercised, may be estimated by citing the authorities for the health of women students: Secretary of the Society of Associated Alumnæ of American Colleges,[17] seven hundred and five alumnæ who report personally; Committee of Education, 1883-84, Washington; Addresses of President Angell, of Michigan University; ex-President White, of Cornell; and President Horace Davis, of the University of California.

But, it may be asked, "Are doubting physicians not justified at all—are there no women students who break down[18] or die?" There are such cases of overstrain or feeble constitution which find their parallel among men, but the percentage among women is so small that it leaves the health average still above the generality of women.

But, urges Mr. Allen, there is "the self-supporting spinster"; "almost every woman should marry"; and she is "a deplorable accident." Now, it is possible that while I may deem her admirable, another may consider her "deplorable"—it is a matter of taste merely. But, that she is not an "accident," rather an eternal verity, stands confessed in Mr. Allen's "almost." Unless, indeed, the entire community should be paired off—which is not desirable for economic reasons—spinsters and bachelors will continue to exist. It does not materially affect the issues of the race whether they are dependent or independent,[19] and we may fearlessly praise in them the qualities which please us most. If the condition of "self-supporting spinsterhood" is more attractive than the condition of wifehood, there is menace for the future. It would be alarming, if we could believe with. Mr. Allen in anything so unflattering to masculine endeavor; but, unfortunately, there are no statistics to prove whether this is due to dulled feminine instinct, or to the failure of man to make love at the right time. In the interim, from collateral evidence, the latter cause appears more trustworthy.

IV. If freedom from Mrs. Grundy is desirable, it is patent that education and independence are gradually liberating woman. The counter-charge is often made that the educated woman is too regardless of that favored deity.

From a biological point of view, Mr. Allen endows four years of college training with enormous potentiality. In this he evidently follows the eminent leader, Mr. Herbert Spencer, who asserts that the infertility of "upper-class girls" in England is due to "overtaxing of their brains"![20] Whether the majority of English "upper-class girls" are educated to that extreme point, and whether the question is not begged in the use of the word "overtaxation," may be left to the reader. It is strange that powerful heredity and palpable causes of race deterioration should be ignored by physiologists[21] in order to throw the onus of this accusation upon mental culture. Insurance tables are made out more scientifically than this forecast of a girl's future. If in education, or in the industrial independence of women, there existed any tendency toward infertility, it would be barely discoverable in our generation, little more so in the next, and possibly in the third generation something might be ascertained from careful statistics following Mr. Galton's method. Nature does not retrograde so rapidly. There is nothing to warrant the assumption that four years of altered food, training, or environment, not interfering with good physical condition, could obliterate an instinct or function. Investigation corroborates this. Even in England, we learn that infertility and higher education are not synonymous terms. A teacher of wide experience states:[22] "I know several families of children whose mothers were among the pioneers of the movement now so savagely attacked. ... Among my friends, not a few sturdy, handsome children, whose mothers underwent severe study in their earlier days. One of these was a lady who, with one other, was the first woman to take the classical tripos, and whose degree was not beaten, I think, for ten years." In America, in "a report given of the family conditions of one hundred and thirty alumnæ who have had children, the exceptional record of good health among these children, and their low death-rate, are strong evidences that the powers of motherhood have not suffered from college work."[23] In addition, the writer's mite of testimony may be offered. In the schools which she has attended,[24] the majority of earnest students were in uniformly good health; a minority were delicate before beginning study. The most frequent examples of ill health were found among those who made a pretense of study and eagerly pursued social excitements. Subsequent effect upon the health may be judged when it is found that twelve years after graduation one young woman, ranking at the head of her class, is the mother of six vigorous children; two others, earnest students, have each a family of five, and a number of others have four children. No correspondence has been held with married classmates living at a distance. These mentioned are personally known to be mothers in the fullest sense, and constitute striking contradictions to the claim that education has an injurious effect upon woman. "But," it may be objected, "these are exceptionally healthy women." Undoubtedly, but if the training has any influence at all, it should make them fall slightly below the standard of the preceding generation, whereas, in several instances, they improved upon the record of their mothers, not only in general health, but in the condition and size of their families.

If, now, we review the discussion to this point, it may be summed up as follows:

I. Decrease of marriage results from a transition state in the condition of women, also from unjust laws and false social customs which discourage matrimony.

II. Able women generally are not dissatisfied with womanhood, and do not advocate celibacy. It is not evident that women of any class are becoming unfitted for motherhood, but women of the "cultivated classes" are not the best possible mothers. Independent and highly educated women are only a fraction among these, and can not be substituted for the whole.

III. The higher education of woman teaches her reverence for Nature; the development and control, not the suppression of natural instinct, therefore tends to make her the best wife and mother. The "spiritless epicene automaton" is mythical. The spinster is an eternal verity. The woman movement has not created her, but changed her condition from dependence to self-support.

IV. The education and independence of women is a step in emancipation even from Mrs. Grundy, but it can not be made responsible for the present infertility among women, for these reasons:

First. It is too recent in effect, having barely reached the second generation. Second. There are more potent causes—heredity, race deterioration, and false marriage. Third. It actually produces healthy wives and mothers in the fullest sense.

There is no denial of the fact that too large a percentage of educated women,[25] as well as of the cultivated classes generally, remain unmarried. However, it has been shown in regard to the former, that "dulled instinct" is not a tenable cause. Some have attributed it more wisely to increased "nicety of choice." This may prove beneficial in the end, when man shall have become a more importunate suitor.

Women can no longer be coerced into marriage, nor will they marry from a sense of duty to humanity. But for these reasons there need be no fear that the race will perish. There is as much prospect that roses will refuse to bloom in June as that women will ever become invincible to love. This force, and this alone, can make of them light-hearted mothers in place of the weary wrecks whose perverted motherhood has been anything but a boon to humanity. As long as it is taught that motherhood oppresses woman physically and restricts her intellectually, so long the average woman may dread or rebel against it. When she studies it in all its conditioning, she finds it does not impose such a fate upon her. She learns to discriminate between the ordering of Nature and the blunders of mankind, and recognizes that normal physical development can not be antagonistic to mental growth.

If, as is known among the lower forms of life, there should be such evil fate in store for women as parthenogenesis or polyembryony, or any entire change of function or structure, it would be quite useless to rebel. Even such highly imaginary metamorphosis would not imply extinction of species. The causes of this calamity have not been fathomed by Darwin nor Weissman; and, if such disintegrating forces were at work among us, who would be wise enough to recognize them?

Study of nature leads us to believe that, if the individual be free and supplied with the means of life, there is great probability of the survival of his kind. However, we have seen that the human race decreases under artificial conditioning, and, if we are concerned lest man should become extinct, let us strive to live simply, naturally; neither separate nor antagonize the sexes; then there may be more need of Mr. Malthus than of any pessimistic prophecy on the danger of developing a woman's mind.

  1. "Popular Science Monthly," December, 1889.
  2. This number is based upon the present proportion of children who become healthy adults, statistics which ought to be materially altered for the better.
  3. It is related that in 1878 eight young girls living near Canton, having been betrothed, arrayed themselves one evening in fine attire, bound themselves together, and plunged into the river to avoid marriage.
  4. In Germany, where marriage is forbidden the younger soldiers, the birth statistics are disadvantageous to the state.
  5. Some English conservatives discourse on these topics in a strain wholly abhorrent to healthy women. They write of "the inexorable law from which, however distasteful, a woman can not escape"; "the stern law that makes women wives and mothers." One would imagine from them that marriage and motherhood made a yawning grave of hope and aspiration. Normal women, who have passed through these experiences, use no woful tones in description.
  6. A few savage tribes form exceptions to this rule.
  7. In college days I knew a young lady medical student who illustrated this doctrine. She openly proclaimed that she studied medicine for the purpose of fitting herself to become a wife and mother. She enlarged her waist, wore most ungraceful garments, broached her pet idea on social occasions, and was the bête noire of her companions. Perhaps she was Mr. Allen's ideal of an emancipated woman. Her fellow-students thought she had missed the inheritance of womanly instinct, or that some secondary male characteristic had cropped out in her. At last accounts she had not put her precepts into practice.
  8. "A Rhyme for the Time," "Contemporary Review."
  9. Meaning the sex as a whole. The large class with which we are best acquainted includes fathers whose fidelity to duty and patient toil equal, if they do not surpass, those of the hardest-working mothers.
  10. Marriage under coercion, or from social or ambitious motives, ignores natural selection, and is often unproductive. A striking example of this is given in France, where false marriage prevails.
  11. The same education as that given to man.
  12. The average notion of manliness or womanliness is very fluctuating. A young man showing great interest in laces and hosiery would be considered to-day an effeminate fellow; yet in the time of Charles I such attention to fripperies was deemed manly enough.
  13. "Principles of Biology," Herbert Spencer; "Sex in Mind and in Education," Henry Maudsley, M. D.
  14. "Woman and Work," Emily Pfeiffer, pp. 115, 111, 128.
  15. Six hundred and twenty-seven pupils passed senior and higher university examinations.
  16. Dr. Weir Mitchell, "Wear and Tear," p. 151.
  17. Report published at Boston, May, 1885.
  18. Rumors of this kind are sometimes too readily circulated. "Serious case, that of Miss O.," said a prominent physician in a Western city; "she has returned from Vassar thoroughly overworked." "Who, Carrie O.? "exclaimed a young lady hearer. "O doctor, that isn't possible! She was the giddiest girl in our class, went to parties three or four nights in the week, never had a lesson, and so Miss M. dropped her. When she found she couldn't graduate, she went to Vassar as a special student, because, she said, ' it was so far away no one would know whether she stood high or not, and she didn't intend to study her eyes out.'" The doctor's countenance fell. One victim of "higher education" was crossed off the score.
  19. It is desirable that young women should support themselves for these reasons: (1) that they may be free to marry; (2) in case they fail of marriage; and (3) because sickness or accident to the husband may render a wife's support valuable.
  20. "Principles of Biology."
  21. Similar premature judgment was given by the late Dr. E. H. Clarke, of Boston, in 1871, "Sex and Education." See also "Woman's Work in Creation," Dr. B. W. Richardson, "Longman's Magazine," October, 1886.
  22. "Woman and Work," p. 116.
  23. Report of "Health Committee, Association Coliegiate Alumnæ," Annie G. Howes, 1885.
  24. Four schools for girls, one college for women, two universities for men and women.
  25. Highly educated women are yet a minority among women of the so-called "cultivated classes," and are better ranked with working women, since they agree with them more nearly in habits of life.