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The American Girl by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

An Extract From ~ Maids Wives and Bachelors

One of the most interesting, piquant, and picturesque of all types of feminine humanity is the American girl,—not the hothouse variety, reared for the adornment of luxury, but the every-day, every-where girls that throng the roads leading to the public schools and the normal schools, and who, even, in a higher state of culture fill the halls of learned colleges with a wondrous charm and brightness,—girls who have an aim in life, a mission to fulfil, a home to order, who know the worth of money, who are not ashamed to earn it, and who manage out of limited means to compass all their desires for pretty dresses and summer vacations, and even their pet dream of an ocean voyage and a sight of the Old World.

Physically, these girls enjoy life at its highest point. Look at their flushed cheeks and bright, fearless eyes, and watch their light, swift, even steps. They have no complaint to make of the heat, or the sunshine, or the frost; they have not yet heard of the east wind. Rain does not make them cross; and as for the snow, it throws them into a delicious excitement; while the wind blowing their dresses about them in colored clouds only makes them the more eager to try their strength against it.

That these girls so physically lovely should have the proper mental training is a point of the gravest personal and national importance. And it is the glory of our age that this necessity has been nobly met. For the American girl, “Wisdom has builded her house and hewn out her Seven Pillars;” and as she points to the lofty entrance she cries to all alike, “Go up; the door is open!” If the girls of fifty years ago could have known the privileges of our era how would they have marvelled and rejoiced and desired “to see their day.”

But manifold as her privileges are, the American girl generally knows how to use them. She proves daily that the parable of the ten talents did not refer to men only. Indeed, the fault girls are most likely to fall into is the belief that they each and all possess every one of the talents. In reality this is so seldom the case that it is impossible to educate all girls after one pattern; and it is therefore a grand thing for a girl to know just what she can and cannot do. For if she have only five talents there is no advantage to be gained by creating fictitious ones, since the noblest education is that which looks to the development of the natural abilities, whether they be few or many, fashionable or unfashionable.

Ask the majority of people “What is education?” and they will be apt to answer “The improvement of the mind.” But this answer does not take us one step beyond the starting-point. Probably the best and most generally useful rule for a girl is a deliberate and conscientious inquiry into her own nature and inclinations as to what she wants to do with her education. When she has faithfully answered the inquiry she is ready to prepare herself for this end. For it is neither necessary nor yet possible that every girl should know everything. Besides which, the growth of individuality has made special knowledge a thing of great value, and on all occasions of importance we are apt to defer to it. If we cross the Atlantic we look for a captain who has a special knowledge of its stormy ways. If we are really ill we go to a specialist on our ailment, no matter what “pathy” we prefer. Special knowledge has a prima facie worth, and without inquiry into a subject we are inclined to consider specialists on the subject better informed than those who have not this qualification. Hence the importance of cultivating some one talent to such perfection as will enable a girl, if need be, to turn it into money.

There is another point in the preparation of the American girl for the duties of life which is often undervalued, or even quite ignored; it is the little remembered fact that all our moral and intellectual qualities are very dependent for their value on our surroundings. The old Quakers used to lay great stress upon being “in one's right place.” When the right person is in the right place there is sure to be a success in life; failure in this respect is almost certain misfortune; a fine accountant before the mass, a fine lady in the wilderness, are out of their places, and have lost their opportunity. And so educational accomplishments which would bring wealth and honor in a great city may be detrimental to happiness and a drag on duty in an isolated position.

Hence the importance of a girl finding out first of all what she wants to do with her education. For in this day she is by no means cramped in her choice; the most desirable occupations are open to her; she may select from the whole world her arena, and from the fullness thereof her reward. But if her object be a more narrow and conventional one, if all she wishes is to be loved and popular in her own small community, then—if she is wise—she will cultivate only such a happy arrangement of graceful, usual accomplishments as prevail among her class and friends. For a very clever woman cannot be at home with very many people. She is too large for the regular grooves of society; she does not fit into any of its small aims and enjoyments; and though she may have the kindest heart, it is her singularities only that will be taken notice of. If, then, popularity be a girl's desire, she must not obviously cultivate herself, must not lift herself above her surroundings, nor lift her aspirations higher than the aims which all humanity have in common. And it is a very good thing for humanity that so many nice girls are content and happy with such a life object; for the social and domestic graces are those which touch existence the closest, which sweeten its bitter griefs and brighten its dreariest hours.

It would be foolish to assert that the American girl is without faults. Physically and mentally, she may stand on her merits with any women in the world; morally, she has the shortcomings that are the shadows of her excellences. Principally she is accused of a want of reverence, and setting aside for the present her faults as a daughter, it may be admitted that in general she has little of this quality. But it is largely the consequence of her environments. Reverence is the virtue of ignorance; and the American girl has no toleration for ignorance. She is inquisitive, speculative, and inclined to rely on her own investigations; while the spirit of reverence demands, as its very atmosphere, trust and obedience. It is therefore more just to say that she is so alert and eager herself that when she meets old men and women who have learned nothing from their last fifty years of life, and who therefore can teach her nothing, she does not feel any impulse to offer reverence to mere years. But if gray hairs be honorable, either for matured wisdom, extensive information, or practical piety, she is generally inclined to give that best of all homage, the reverence which springs from knowledge and affection, and which is a much better thing than the mere forms of respect traditionally offered to old age.

It is also said that the American girl is a very vain girl, fond of parading her beauty, freedom, and influence. But vanity is not a bad quality, if it does not run to excess. It is the ounce of leaven in a girl's character, and does a deal of good work for which it seldom gets any credit. For a great deed a great motive is necessary; but how numberless are the small social and domestic kindnesses for which vanity is a sufficient force, and which would be neglected or ill-done without its influence! As long as a girl's vanity does not derive its inspiration from self-love there is no necessity for her to wear sackcloth to humiliate it. We have all known women without vanity, and found them unpleasant people to know.

There is one fault of the American girl which is especially her fault, and which ought not to be encouraged or palliated although it is essentially the shadow of some of her greatest excellences—the fault of being in too great a hurry at all the turning-points of her life. When she is in the nursery she aches to go to school. When she is a schoolgirl, she is impatient to put on long dresses and become a young lady. As soon as this fact is accomplished, she feels there is not a moment to lose in choosing either a career or a husband. She is always in a hurry about the future, and so frequently takes the wrong turn at the great events of life. She leaves school too soon; she leaves home too soon; she does everything at a rush, and does not do it as well as if she “made haste slowly.”

But what a future lies before these charmingly brilliant American girls, if they are able to take the fullest possession of it! The great obstacle in this achievement is the apparently wholesome opinion that education is sufficient. But the very best education will fall short of its privileges if it be not accompanied with that moral training which we call discipline. Discipline is self-denial in all its highest forms; it teaches the excellent mean between license and repression; without it a girl may have plenitude of knowledge, and a lamentable want of sweetness; so that one only second rate on her intellectual side may be a thousand times more lovable than one who is first rate on her intellectual side, but lacks that fine flavor of character which comes from the expansion of noble inward forces, disciplined and directed to good ends.

Every one understands that no character, however intellectual, is worth anything that is not morally healthy; but morality in a woman is not in itself sufficient. She must have in addition all those charming virtues included in that word of many lights and shades and subtle meanings—womanliness; that word which signifies such a variety of things, but never anything but what is sweet and tender and gracious and beautiful.


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