Civic Value of Higher Education for Women, June 1912 Also known as: Bryn Mawr Commencement Address, June 6, 1912

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Vol. VI June, 1912 No. 2




A friend of mine once said that when an animal evinced unusual intelligence we straightway called it instinct, that when a woman displayed intelligence we pronounced it intuition, and that only when a man showed it did we call it by its real name, intelligence. My friend made the clarifying remark under the following circumstances: As a member of a public board she had during six months prepared a careful statement concerning the prevalence of epilepsy in a given area, had demonstrated the stupidity of caring for it in the existing institutions, and had advocated the establishment of outdoor colonies; her researches had led her to visit the existing colonies in Europe and America, to compile the opinions of leading physicians; but when she finally laid the careful results of her long labors before her colleagues she was told that they admired her kind heart and her woman's intuition, but of course in a matter of such gravity they must depend upon the seasoned judgement of the masculine mind. It was somewhat as if that one of your own alumnae who has devoted five years to an exhaustive inquiry into the physiological and economic effects of overwork as it appears in modern industry had been told by the attorneys and judges who utilized the results of her work in securing and sustaining actual legislation that they had found her magnificent piece of research most interesting as a demonstration [page 2] of woman's great gift of insight. In point of fact, Miss Goldmark's researches upon efficiency and fatigue, incorporated into a brief, were presented before various supreme courts, including the Federal bench itself, and finally influenced the lives of thousands of workers, because she presented a comprehensive piece of work at a moment when it was sorely needed.

Only ten years have elapsed between the work of these two college women, and their differing experiences accentuate perhaps the growing discovery, which the higher education of women has done so much to promote, that the intelligence of men and women is made of the same stuff and that both are effective only when disciplined and consciously applied to worthy aims.

But wherein is the old notion of woman's intuition justified, upon what deep human experience is the estimate of her intelligence founded? May we not fairly say that the old distrust is based not so much upon a belittling of woman's intelligence, as upon her lack of mental discipline and, above all, of her lack of power to work in groups or to care for impersonal ends? To this accusation we can only reply that higher education for women is providing discipline and sober inhibitions and at the same time is giving women experience in disinterested group life; here at Bryn Mawr, for instance, it adds to that the training in self-government which means group direction and conscious group control.

A more thoroughgoing answer, however, would require an analysis of the old statement that women remained individualistic and absorbed in family affairs during the many years that men were being trained for cooperative action, first in the primitive associations fitted to warfare and hunting and later in the more complicated ones designed to promote commercial supremacy and governmental control. At the present moment, however, the very socialization of industry and the growing humanization of government call for a group discipline and a power of cooperation of quite another sort, much more analogous to that obtained in family and social relationship than to that obtained in predatory excursions. The traditional power of cooperation among men was most valuable when the need of industry was aggressive expansion, but if the demand should come to be not new markets for the product, not even the greatest possible output, but a consideration of the well-being and development of the worker and of an intelligent and equitable [page 3] distribution of the commodity, then we might well believe that the family and social training would be of more value than the predatory one.

An old demand of government was for frontier defenses, for a standing army in constant readiness for war; but if it should come to be, as seems likely, that of increasing diplomacy, of the elimination of warfare and a development of international arbitration, certainly the long discipline in preserving harmonious family relations through all domestic stress and strain, and the incomparable training in all the aspects of arbitration which the care of a group of children affords, might easily prove to be of greater social efficiency.

Even the most ardent advocates of woman's intuition versus her organizing intelligence admit that women are able to perceive more quickly and accurately then men the implications of a given situation and that their traditional experiences make them of peculiar value when the demand of the moment is for recovery, for recuperation, and for reconstruction.

It is possible that just now these are the powers and faculties society most sorely needs, and that the higher education of women has a civic significance and a human content which it has never had before.

If we may take for granted the old statement that each generation is characterized by a heightened consciousness in regard to one or another of the obstacles blocking the difficult path of social development, or is haunted by compunctions unknown to its predecessors, may we not say that the times in which we are living demand as never before sympathetic interpretation and readjustment, the application of the discoveries and accumulations of scholarship to the living affairs of men; and that until this is done in economics, in science, in the social arts, society will continue to exhibit all the wasted emotion and panful incertitude of one who staggers under a heavy panoply of his own learning, which he cannot drop long enough to set his own affairs in order?

May it not be possible that, quite as the imperialistic statesmen fail to realize that the world has at last attained geographical self-consciousness and that the task before civilization now is not to explore and subjugate but to fashion the earth to human use, so the traditional scholars, following revered precedents, continue the [page 4] office of research and accumulation, while failing to respond to the actual social demands? At least, so far as they do meet them, they do it somewhat sullenly and because they are pushed thereto by the uninstructed masses.

May we not say that for quickening and preservation of scholarship itself, as well as for the fulfilment of its traditional function in the world, that of steadying and enlarging life, the women so recently equipped with higher learning and not yet free from a naive sense of responsibility for the conduct of affairs may perform these delegated offices of interpretation and adjustment as no one less equipped or less human could possibly do, but that this can be accomplished only if the higher education of women keeps pace with the growing demands made upon human intelligence, and seriously sets itself to disentangle and master the present welter of social resources and potentialities?

The traditional scholar has long considered it his business to dig out underlying principles, to expose to view the dry, clean network of society, and he has always been rather disconcerted by the warm living tissue which so quickly and senselessly ever grows up anew between the meshes of this network, apparently forgetting that unspecialized tissue is the matrix for the new growth and holds within itself the possibilities of the immediate future.

As an instance of this we may contrast the economist of today, your own sister alumna, if you please, with the economists of a generation ago, who in their nineteenth century darkness considered the nation merely an agglomeration of struggling men, each moved by self-interest, with a result of national exports and imports. They clung to their simplified conception of economic life, largely because it was easy to deal with, although their ears might have heard the piteous cries of factory children working far into the night and their eyes might have seen overworked women staggering up into the light from the mouths of mines where they had dragged heavy cars for eighteen hours at a stretch. They continued, however, to consider their economic man as the unit of England's industrial system, and it was not the economist at all but the blundering philanthropist who brought before the English parliament the first legislation designed to protect women and children in industry, not because the philanthropists were wise, but because they used their ears and eyes, and because outraged human sensibilities [page 5] could stand the spectacle no longer. Even the economist, who after all had red blood in his veins, could not have endured it if he had not been too occupied with clean, dry principles to attend to it.

At the present moment economists all over the civilized world are constantly challenged as to the effect of the limitation of hours of labor for women, of the prohibition of night work, of the wisdom of minimum wage boards, of the results upon industry of industrial insurance. To judge wisely of these measures, to give an opinion that shall not be more harmful than useful, means that the economist must have sympathetic understanding of men, women, and children. The economist who holds himself aloof from such knowledge can neither be a useful citizen nor, I venture to add, a leading man in his own profession. In the awful "sweating exhibition" held several years ago in London, it was shown that shirts were made from 7 1/2 pence per dozen and that women were working nineteen hours a day for 1 shilling. The latest government investigation in England discloses a number of working women receiving such low wages that England is perforce developing an entire class of English women too poor to pay for continuous shelter. I recently talked to a girl employed in an American factory who sewed 26 seams in a garment, for which work she received 5 1/2 cents for a dozen such garments. The first week she was employed her wage envelope contained 65 cents, and only after three weeks of practice was she earning the large wage of $1.13 a week. Because American economists are exposing themselves to such first-hand knowledge, one of them recently formulated a program of social reform practically founded upon the ascertained needs of young children, of casual laborers, and of the unemployed. Such a program could not have been put forth by one who had studied life conditioned only by economic forces, nor would his plan of relief have been followed as it is now by thousands of his vexed contemporaries eager for guidance. No one could say that such a man was less a scholar because he saw life as it is and came to its healing with such resources as he could command.

It is to such demands that women will most readily respond. Their sympathy, without discipline and scholarship back of it, has been of little use; with it, society may look to them as to the most likely source of help in the present moment of social distress. The [age 6] situation is much too intricate for those who are simply kind hearted, much too human for those who have been disciplined only through academic training.

The same need of the actual application of the mass of acquired knowledge to the human situation is most obvious in all educational matters, and the forward advances in pedagogy are being made in connection with those situations were sympathy with human conditions is a large and constant factor. The first careful study of the relation between the under-developed mind and moral delinquency is now being made in the criminalistics institutes connected with prisons for wayward girls, the two most successful being in the charge of college women. That these researches may result in a great reduction of crime when thousands of deficient children shall be withdrawn from vicious surroundings certainly does not make them less scholarly in temper and method.

As I passed through the Bryn Mawr laboratories a few weeks ago, where the students were making careful psychological tests, I quite longed to utilize that training for actual and immediate service. It is almost at the present moment to tell with any degree of certainty how far the commercialization of the social evil is dependent upon mentally defective girls, or how far it could be controlled by regarding such girls as proper subjects for custodial care, entitled to protection until they could pass certain ascertained tests demonstrating a normal ability for self direction.

A little girls apparently twelve or thirteen years old was recently brought to Hull House in piteous need of rescue from the white slave traders for whom she had been earning large sums of money. But when the usual measures for rescue were attempted they were found not applicable because the girl was actually nineteen years old. Although her captors produced her birth certificate and her age was confirmed by a careful investigation, it seemed utterly impossible to connect such a childlike creature with the age of responsibility. The law, of course, in its operations, could be influenced only by records showing her actual years, and all that the lack of development implied could not be taken into consideration.

We need not only that defective children shall be protected from such cruel exploitation, but that many other children, although actually fourteen years old but still far too immature for factory [page 7] work, shall be protected from premature labor; there is also the mass of normal children in need of vocational guidance and supervision during their first years in industry, that their spirits may not be utterly broken through work ill adapted to their capacity. Such guidance, however, is a most difficult matter, requiring both scientific training in psychology and physiology and a wide understanding of life. Few men or women are as yet prepared for it.

It would also be most valuable to know accurately how much better dependent children would thrive and develop could they be kept with their mothers through some method of pensioning women who are under the double stress of both supporting and caring for their children. This could be done only by instituting a careful comparison between them and the children who had grown up in institutions or in other people's home. Up to the present time such matters have been determined very largely by the empirical method of the nurse who considered the bath too hot if the baby turned red, too cold if it turned blue. How many more poor little creatures are to have their lives stultified by institutional care or wrecked through the neglect of overworked, incompetent mothers before a reasonable course of procedure shall be devised, it is difficult to predict.

Yet what undertaking could require more of trained observation, of sustained effort, of scientific interest, and at the same time be so rewarding and appealing? This synthetic work still awaits the disciplined volunteers, although a large amount of scientific research at the present moment is being applied to its details, to the prevention of infant mortality, to the control of contagious diseases, allied as it is to vaccination and antitoxin, to the bacteriological knowledge in relation to the milk supply. The medical supervision of school children and the examination of factory employees are both closely allied to applied science, and the most successful work being done in the United States today in the study of industrial diseases and in the recommendation of measures for their prevention is being carried on by a woman.

No one is more needed at the present moment than the expert in the application of ascertained scientific knowledge to the humanization of life. Many well equipped women will doubtless find careers as brilliant as those of the men who for the last half century have successfully applied scientific knowledge to the processes of [page 8] manufacturing and to the great mechanical inventions. Certainly educated women would enter this field so adapted to their powers in greater numbers, could they learn to trust their own judgement in matters of scholarship and its obligations and to follow not too slavishly the traditional paths of learning. Such venturing does not by any means imply only petty achievement. The Panama canal is being successfully put through at this moment by the one engineer who best understood that the men actually digging it must have all the resources of modern science applied to their daily regimen, -- scientific care for men at last indicated in terms of commerce and politics.

It has recently been suggested that it should not be impossible to calculate with some precision the limit of the food supply of the planet in relation to the increase of population; to establish a reasonable equilibrium between the resources of the planet and the draughts upon them, between commodities and consumption. Such an undertaking will probably tax human ingenuity to the utmost, and the barest beginnings have yet scarcely been made.

I have said little thus far of the arts, but certainly there is great need that that art in which women have so long excelled -- the art of social intercourse -- should no longer be used merely for diversion, but be made an instrument for social advance. We must certainly count upon women of education and understanding to undertake it. It is hard to over-estimate the importance of social intercourse as a humanizing agency. Nature's anxious care that men should reveal themselves to each other is the foundation of all the great human relationships.

But if the city would preserve for its inhabitants the greatest gift in its possession, the opportunity for varied and humanizing social intercourse, it must undertake more fully than it has ever yet done to organize its social life. In the old city states such as Athens and Florence, local emotion could be depended upon to hold the citizens in a common bond, for the area of government practically corresponded to the area of acquaintance, or at least to that of memory and filial piety. But in the modern city, especially the cities of America, composed of people brought together from all the nations of the earth, patriotism must be based not upon a consciousness of homogeneity but upon a respect for variation, not upon inherited memory but upon trained imagination. Because [page 9] the sense that life possesses variety and color is [realized] most easily in moments of pleasure and recreation, social intercourse alone is able to bring men into a mood which [will] discover and respect human difference and variation.

As the Chinese attribute their present awakening, their regeneration as it were, to the force of ideas which have come to them from five thousand students educated abroad, where they incidentally learned to enjoy the blessings of constitutional government and guaranteed liberty, so may not these women whom the colleges yearly return by thousands to their traditional occupations work a silent revolution, a freeing of life, a widening of interest, an intensifying of vitality, at the very points where society has been most stagnant and unprogressive?