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10 February 2012

Eugenic Education for Women and Girls - Part 1

Alice Ravenhill

Editor's Note: Alice Ravenhill was an educational pioneer, a developer of Women's Institutes, and one of the first authors to advocate aboriginal rights. Yet, she also wrote the following essay in 1914, which should perhaps not surprise, as eugenics was initially associated with progressive causes, such as conservation. Much of what is said here still holds true today. Ravenhill's essay is reproduced here in two parts, with part two following tomorrow.

It is doubtless the complexity of social problems which so often deters those who deplore their results from a pains-taking study of their contributory factors. Many streams of influence, social, economic, and industrial, for instance, have combined to flood the country with that wave of parental inefficiency which constitutes one of the most serious problems of to-day; but no sustained effort has yet been made to trace these to their sources, so that their force continues to be perverted to ends detrimental instead of profitable to the community.

Encouragement, however, is found in the practical outcome of the attention attracted by the publication of statistics demonstrating the wastage of child life, in consequence of the unduly high rate of infant mortality and other preventable causes, and by the growing realisation among the thoughtful that fundamental measures must be taken to stem the unsatisfactory currents of thought and action which make for the limitation of families among one section of society and for their reckless multiplication in another.

Probably the greatest number of factors in all these problems might be ranged in one or other of three groups, which would respectively include biological or physical causes, sociological or moral influences, and economic or industrial conditions. For example, some forms of parental inefficiency indicate that what has generally been accepted as an innate biological instinct, namely, intuitive care for offspring, is temporarily at least in abeyance; others, which are traceable to ignorance, want of observation, carelessness, intemperance, or neglect of the elementary requirements of human infancy, spring in many cases from an exaggerated individualism, from an absence of any sense of social responsibility, briefly from the moral failing of selfishness; while the social sores of poverty, disease and pauperism, or the worse plague of unbridled extravagance and gross selfindulgence, as well as the devitalising influences of insanitary surroundings, originate chiefly in the economic or industrial conditions included in the third group. If, therefore, the education of girls and women is to equip them to withstand the errors and to revise the misconceptions which detrimentally influence modern thought and action in respect of the obligations of maternity, its methods must be based upon a knowledge of biology, ethics, and economics, and must take cognisance of the more potent forces, hereditary, moral, intellectual and social, which will play upon the product of our educational system in its period of productive and more or less independent activity.

It is difficult to estimate at the present moment the relative weight of influence which these forces are bringing to bear upon early womanhood. All things, social and educational, are in a condition of flux and transition. Old standards and traditional ideas clamour for revision in the light of modern demands upon the human race, and that power of expansion, which Mr. Chatterton Hill considers a fundamental law of life, is exhibiting itself with explosive violence, so that, for the moment, no definite opinion can be expressed as to the degree to which economic necessities tend to neutralise the biological instinct of parental care, or to what extent man's ethical standard will yield under industrial stress, or whether the claims of the State will successfully outbalance the exaggerated individualism characteristic of modern youth. What must be done, and that without loss of time, is to impress upon the public the fact that no amount of social culture can replace biological fitness, where the perpetuation of healthy human life is concerned. In common justice to their potential parenthood, to the Empire of which they and their offspring are the pillars, and to succeeding generations, our young people have a right to be trained to preserve a truer perspective in respect of the claims of more or less conflicting duties and desires, to be skilful in the accommodation of old-fashioned principles and practices to new and exacting circumstances, and to withstand temptations in the strength of reliable and up-to-date knowledge.

Three at least of the many innovations in conventional ideas and usages introduced by the great industrial revolution of the nineteenth century bear directly upon these questions of parental inefficiency, of wastage of child life and of failure to perceive racial responsibilities. The same century in which women gained, at great cost, opportunities for a large and liberal culture saw also the transference to a new scene of action of a large proportion of the occupations which had previously engaged their whole attention; the extended employment of steam and machinery rendering it henceforth unnecessary that every household should be a workshop or every home a factory. Experience proved that a majority of the domestic industries could be more effectively and economically accomplished at centres planned for the purpose. The capacity which had qualified women for the extensive organisation of these multiple industries carried on in the castle of the mediaeval baron or in the manor house of the seventeenth or eighteenth century squire, the administrative skill, the judgment, decision, sagacity, foresight, perseverance, and moral courage, they exercised in these spheres were suddenly diverted into fresh channels or received an unrecognised check. In the first case, these qualities gained success for their possessors in the new sphere of higher education, and reopened to women professions and occupations which they had practised in the Middle Ages. In the second case, the energy suffered perversion, a recognised result of suppression or misuse. Thus the claims of domestic life were first narrowed, then despised or neglected, so that household duties became indeed drudgery, for no effort was made to apply to them the intelligence and energy which were meanwhile adjusting other callings to the demands of modern progress.

Throughout these years, the minds of men and women were alike mainly engrossed by the vast industrial and social changes which followed each other with unprecedented rapidity. The mushroom growth of factories and the associated reduction of domestic industries led also to a demand for cheap labour, of which an immediate result was the adoption of that system of false economics which compelled women and children to labour in factories and mines, and thus exposed them to the stress of keen industrial competition, and to the deteriorating effects of prolonged, fatiguing, over-specialised occupation. Equally associated with these new conditions of work were others which sapped the very sources of home life, namely, the aggregation of large numbers upon small areas, which led to dense overcrowding, and the early independence of parental control and its coincident discipline among the young wage earners. The provision of cheap, highly exciting forms of recreation soon met the demand for an almost essential relief to physically exhausting and monotonous toil. The unpaid work of women in their homes became more and more despised; domestic service with its inevitable restrictions was unfavourably contrasted with the relative freedom of factory hands; while the rapid growth of luxury among the well-to-do resulted in a distaste for the trouble and discomforts associated with the insistent demands of a young family on time, energy and purse. Desires for more ambitious standards of dress and diversion were stimulated by improved means of rapid transit, by a cheap press, and by the general social upheaval which upset standards of living and fostered selfishness. At the same time, minds and bodies were strained well nigh to breaking point in their often fruitless efforts to make adjustments in this changed environment, and to keep abreast of new departures.

Now it is an accepted biological fact that when an organism is subjected to any severe and protracted strain, or to a series of conditions which diminish physical efficiency, the qualities last acquired are those to be first weakened and undermined. Prolonged devotion to the offspring during its period of helpless dependency is considered to be of relatively recent development in the human race. John Fiske and other sound authorities on social evolution have expressed the opinion that it is doubtful whether prolonged parental care can be justly described as a deep-seated fundamental instinct. They find good reason to attribute its origin in primitive man not to instinctive tenderness and spontaneous affection for his offspring, but to self-interest, stimulated by the recollections of advantages derived by his own parents from the support and assistance he rendered them in childhood and youth, and to an ill-defined consciousness of the advantages to tribal prosperity of a more stable domestic life. That analogous reasons prompted the large families characteristic of the cotton spinning districts, for instance, became apparent when legal limits were placed on the employment of children. The decline of the birth-rate in certain towns was perceptible and prompt, because the cost and anxiety of child rearing had lost the stimulus of early financial compensation to the parents. Among all the primitive races, indeed, the child was held to be but one among other animate or inanimate chattels, and was treated with no greater, perhaps even with less, consideration than the most costly of these. The power of life or death over their children was exercised by parents certainly to the time of Calvin, which suggests that other sentiments could outbalance the parental instinct, even when it had gained considerable strength and stability, and before it was exposed to the rude shocks to mind and body associated with the social and industrial expansion of the past century.

Of course every one is familiar with examples of touching maternal devotion to offspring, common to forms of animal life far removed from the human, which seems to confute this opinion. But a brief consideration of biological facts affords evidence that, though widespread, this instinct is strictly limited in its duration, and easily susceptible to perversion in the maternal parent, while it is rarely more than temporarily present in the male of any species. At first it is solely ante-natal in its manifestations, and subsequently it is confined to the immediately post-natal period. The cat, for instance, will attack her own kitten when the suckling period is passed, and similarly a puppy soon becomes a stranger whose presence is resented by his mother. That changes in environment or physical disturbances in the mother will lead her to neglect or destroy her offspring are familiar facts to the boy with his rabbits, or the farmer with more than one species of his stock. So that there are unquestionably good grounds for the assertion that the parental instinct demands considerable stimulus and direction if it is to persist at all, and most certainly must these agencies be active if its ethical and economic relations are to be maintained when its purely physical manifestation is no longer physiologically stimulated. Thus, though the simplest evidences of care for the welfare of progeny can be traced among fish, it merely assumes the form of ante-natal interest in the eggs, and is gradually developed in response to structural arrangements, of which it is primarily the result. The basis for what ripens into love in the highest types of life assumes greater prominence in the case of insects, and presumably the rearing of offspring so immature as to demand post-natal care has led to the preparation of burrows, nests, and dens, primitive homes, in which to secure their safety. A further growth of parental interest, intensive and extensive, is noticeable in the highest classes of bird life, when both parents share the duties of incubation and subsequent nursing of the helpless brood ; the necessary stimulus for this devotion being found, it is said, in the instinctive struggle for existence, for, as the type of life becomes higher, the number of offspring diminishes rapidly, while their greater and more prolonged immaturity calls for more parental care.

Among mammalia the great importance of preserving the species at all costs has resulted in the evolution of so marvellously complex a constructive process on the part of the female that it is fitly described as one of the greatest economic processes of nature. This process reaches its highest development in the human race, but the cost to the mother is so high that it calls for compensation. Therefore, in order to achieve its full intention of perfect motherhood among the highest types of life, nature has planned a scheme of paternal as well as of maternal duties. The life of the mother must be preserved and sheltered, for upon it depends the food and natural shelter of her infant. She is therefore entitled to look for the maintenance of herself and her offspring at the hands of the father, at least during the infancy of their family, and it is conventionally assumed that a man's desire to perpetuate his name and race proves a sufficient stimulus to secure the necessaries of life to his wife and children, and thus to relieve her of economic obligations. But, unfortunately, a realisation of the interdependence of offspring and mother, of the mother's physical and moral claims, and of the great economic value to the community of healthy children has suffered regrettable eclipse from time to time among the human race. It is true that considerable modification of paternal asperity in respect of the child is to be traced towards the end of the Patriarchal Age, but even then little thought was given to the preservation of infant life, for, with the exception of the Assyrians and Hebrews, the practice of infanticide is shown by historical records to have been a widespread archaic institution. Though normally confined to girls, it still prevailed among the Greeks and Romans, and persists even to-day among certain Eastern races, its perpetuation having no doubt been sanctioned by a variety of motives, prominent among which would be famine, poverty, a desire to promote national efficiency by the elimination of weaklings, and non-recognition that a new-born child is entitled to the privileges of humanity. It may also not be amiss to remind ourselves that the value of infant life as a national asset was hardly realised till the middle of the eighteenth century, and it was well on in the nineteenth before the effect on infant mortality of ill-nourished, over-worked mothers was first perceived. The publication of the Privy Council Investigations of 1861 and 1863 revealed facts which shocked the public mind, but unfortunately these facts were not sufficiently understood to stimulate a somewhat emotional, but wholly unpractical, electorate to insist on the adoption of measures calculated to effect the eradiction of their causes. Even at the present day many fathers choose to ignore the fact that they are the legal guardians of their children by nature and nurture, for though a child is unfortunately only entitled to recognition as a human being at birth, it is from that moment legally entitled to food, clothing, and lodging at the father's cost until capable of self-maintenance. This non-recognition of legal ante-natal rights reacts disastrously indeed upon the mothers as well as upon their infants. It inevitably tends to national deterioration, besides subjecting poor women to exhausting stress and toil when least fit to endure the strain. The deplorable social consequences are well known, though often ignored, their imperial significance being, as yet, inadequately perceived.

When the conceivable biological explanation for diminished maternal affection is taken into account, together with the paternal indifference, possibly born of economic and industrial as well as of moral causes, the fact that the conditions of true motherhood seem temporarily imperilled among the poorer classes does not appear so surprising. Among well-to-do men and women excessive egoism and absorption in the material sources of enjoyment are probably more actively promoting causes for this unnatural condition, for here the stress on health and emotions is more directly traceable to gross luxury or to excessive and continued excitement than to fatigue, mal-nutrition, and financial disabilities. Indeed, those to whom from one or other cause, the profession of motherhood appears irksome and uninspiring are not wholly blameworthy. Girls have hitherto been deprived of all direct teaching or helpful counsel upon their new functions which ripen during adolescence. Reference to marriage is rare throughout this period of development, and if made, the subject is mostly treated as a joke or condemned as immodest. Whereas, sympathetic advice and judicious discussion of the great issues of marriage should be at the service of every young girl. Indeed, so intimate are the relations of mind to body, so subtle are the influences which promote or hinder normal growth, that a woman physician of long experience considers that possible interference with physical fitness for maternity as well as disinclination for matrimony may and do result from the conspiracy of silence with which it has been customary to treat the dawn of womanhood in our girls. Then for many generations female education was limited by exclusive regard to the specific functions they were to discharge as mothers and housekeepers. According to one writer, family relationships were to overshadow the social, and even the divine, in the lives of women; they were actually to be made the basis of a special moral code applicable to women only, and no attention was to be given in their education to other sides of their nature which craved for expression. The assumption in any scheme of boys' education, on the contrary, was that it embodied means to develop in them all-round capacity in youth, leaving them free to adapt themselves to specific functions in later years, according to their occupations or social spheres. The absence of disciplined, cultivated minds and of training in accurate habits of thought among girls did not, however, conduce to the concentration of their energies to better purpose on the mechanical acquirement of dexterity in the ordinary domestic arts, or to the intelligent exercise of the qualities requisite for the successful bearing and intelligent training of children. Their restricted instruction but enhanced the wearisome monotony of daily doings, for it threw no light upon interesting underlying principles, and rendered no assistance to the solution of the physiological or psychical problems associated with child-rearing; aspirations were checked, energies were frittered away, and the tendency to take false or unworthy views of daily duties was uncorrected by the development of power to form a clear conception of their dignity, worth, and intellectual demands. Neither was any provision made for the employment of girls where large establishments, or a limited supply of young children offered no daily practice in the arts of housekeeping and of rearing babies. No consideration either was shown for the intellectual ambitions or for the economic needs of the many women who would remain unmarried, and who justly claimed to be prepared for self-support or for social service. Is it therefore surprising that a temporary reaction against the claims of maternity coincides with a partial attainment of long repressed desires for expanded interests; or, that a better understanding of the possible results to wife and child associated with sensual indulgence on the part of men, has caused an instinctive shrinking from matrimony among some of the more thoughtful and refined women. Thus the ordeal, physical, mental, and moral, through which womanhood is still passing, in order to place its relations to life and to the community on truer lines, is one of great severity. That it has already produced some good and practical results is an obvious fact. The world is more alive to the real gain to public welfare and prosperity which follows general recognition of the common human element in both men and women; the more broad-minded and unbiassed thinkers are perceiving that the specific functions belonging to each sex demand substantially cultivation of the same qualities in early life, and call for equal educational advantages in a preparation for their performance ; so that, through their efforts, the comparatively less liberal standard of education hitherto deemed sufficient and fitting for girls has been raised to that accepted for boys. It must now, however, proceed to a still higher level, and take into account the special capacities and requirements of a more complete womanhood than was conceived of in the past. The real problem before our girls' schools to-day is to plan a curriculum which will not only keep in view the harmonious development of mind and body, and the preparation necessary for a girl's future life, but which will also cultivate all normal faculties and interests by maintaining a just balance of subjects. And thus we arrive face to face with the subject which gives its title to this paper — In what way can our girls be best prepared to understand and to perform intelligently and cheerfully the duties and functions of perfect womanhood? And I say womanhood, and not motherhood, advisedly, for all women do not enjoy the privilege of maternity, but, with rare exceptions, all women are called upon at some period of their lives to assume responsibility in some public or private capacity for the nutrition and environment of others, while the majority find themselves also charged to a greater or less degree with the care of expectant mothers or with the mothering of infants and the education of children of tender age. There is also evidence that, as women equip themselves more efficiently for these responsibilities and discard traditional empiricism in their performance, they will be entrusted more exclusively with the direction of the domestic side of large institutions, schools, colleges, asylums, and reformatories, where, if maternal instinct be present, it will gain satisfaction, and where, in any case, all the finest intellectual and moral qualities of good women will find ample scope. But such responsibilities cannot be lightly imposed or assumed, therefore, it is to an improved system of school education that eyes are now turned in the hope of realising the ideal of capable, intelligent, practical, womanly womanhood; the "general educative impulse to bring home to the community " a sense of its responsibility for human health and progress, to which the Committee on Physical Deterioration referred, is being fostered by intention, and demands to this end the aid of school machinery for the purpose.

Continued tomorrow . . .

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