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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The European Plan

Title:     The European Plan
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

Every mishap among American women brings out renewed suggestions of what may be called the "European plan" in the training of young girls,--the plan, that is, of extreme seclusion and helplessness. It is usually forgotten, in these suggestions, that not much protection is really given anywhere to this particular class as a whole. Everywhere in Europe the restrictions are of caste, not of sex. Even in Turkey, travellers tell us, women of the humbler vocations are not much secluded. It is not the object of the "European plan," in any form, to protect the virtue of young women, as such, but only of young ladies; and the protection is pretty effectually limited to that order. Among the Portuguese in the island of Fayal I found it to be the ambition of each humble family to bring up one daughter in a sort of lady-like seclusion: she never went into the street alone, or without a hood which was equivalent to a veil; she was taught indoor industries only; she was constantly under the eye of her mother. But in order that one daughter might be thus protected, all the other daughters were allowed to go alone, day or evening, bareheaded or bare-footed, by the loneliest mountain-paths, to bring oranges or firewood or whatever their work may be--heedless of protection. The safeguard was for a class: the average exposure of young womanhood was far greater than with us. So in London, while you rarely see a young lady alone in the streets, the housemaid is sent on errands at any hour of the evening with a freedom at which our city domestics would quite rebel; and one has to stay but a short time in Paris to see how entirely limited to a class is the alleged restraint under which young French girls are said to be kept.

Again, it is to be remembered that the whole "European plan," so far as it is applied on the continent of Europe, is a plan based upon utter distrust and suspicion, not only as to chastity, but as to all other virtues. It is applied among the higher classes almost as consistently to boys as to girls. In every school under church auspices, it is the French theory that boys are never to be left unwatched for a moment; and it is as steadily assumed that girls will be untruthful if left to themselves, as that they will do every other wrong. This to the Anglo-Saxon race seems very demoralizing. "Suspicion," said Sir Philip Sidney, "is the way to lose that which we fear to lose." Readers of the Bronte novels will remember the disgust of the English pupils and teachers in French schools at the constant espionage around them; and I have more than once heard young girls who had been trained at such institutions say that it was a wonder if they had any truthfulness left, so invariable was the assumption that it was the nature of young girls to lie. I cannot imagine anything less likely to create upright and noble character, in man or woman, than the systematic application of the "European plan."

And that it produces just the results that might be feared, the whole tone of European literature proves. Foreigners, no doubt, do habitual injustice to the morality of French households; but it is impossible that fiction can utterly misrepresent the community which produces and reads it. When one thinks of the utter lightness of tone with which breaches, both of truth and chastity, are treated even in the better class of French novels and plays, it seems absurd to deny the correctness of the picture. Besides, it is not merely a question of plays and novels. Consider, for instance, the contempt with which Taine treats Thackeray for representing the mother of Pendennis as suffering agonies when she thinks that her son has seduced a young girl, a social inferior. Thackeray is not really considered a model of elevated tone, as to such matters, among English writers; but the Frenchman is simply amazed that the Englishman should describe even the saintliest of mothers as attaching so much weight to such a small affair.

An able newspaper writer, quoted with apparent approval by the "Boston Daily Advertiser," praises the supposed foreign method for the "habit of dependence and deference" that it produces; and because it gives to a young man a wife whose "habit of deference is established." But it must be remembered, that, where this theory is established, the habit of deference is logically carried much farther than mere conjugal convenience would take it. Its natural outcome is the authority of the priest, not of the husband. That domination of the women of France by the priesthood which forms even now the chief peril of the republic--which is the strength of legitimism and imperialism and all other conspiracies against the liberty of the French people--is only the visible and inevitable result of this dangerous docility.

One thing is certain, that the best preparation for freedom is freedom; and that no young girls are so poorly prepared for American life as those whose early years are passed in Europe. Some of the worst imprudences, the most unmaidenly and offensive actions, that I have ever heard of in decent society, have been on the part of young women educated abroad, who have been launched into American life without its early training,--have been treated as children until they suddenly awakened to the freedom of women. On the other hand, I remember with pleasure, that a cultivated French mother, whose daughter's fine qualities were the best seal of her motherhood, once told me that the models she had chosen in her daughter's training were certain families of American young ladies, of whom she had, through peculiar circumstances, seen much in Paris.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The European Plan