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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson


Title:     Girlsterousness
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

They tell the story of a little boy, a young scion of the house of Beecher, that, on being rebuked for some noisy proceeding, in which his little sister had also shared, he claimed that she also should be included in the indictment. "If a boy makes too much noise," he said, "you tell him he mustn't be boisterous. Well, then, when a girl makes just as much noise, you ought to tell her not to be so _girlsterous_."

I think that we should accept, with a sense of gratitude, this addition to the language. It supplies a name for a special phase of feminine demeanor, inevitably brought out of modern womanhood. Any transitional state of society develops some evil with the good. Good results are unquestionably proceeding from the greater freedom now allowed to women. The drawback is that we are developing, here and now, more of "girlsterousness" than is apt to be seen in less enlightened countries.

The more complete the subjection of woman, the more "subdued" in every sense she is. The typical woman of savage life is, at least in youth, gentle, shy, retiring, timid. A Bedouin woman is modest and humble; an Indian girl has a voice "gentle and low." The utmost stretch of the imagination cannot picture either of them as "girlsterous." That perilous quality can only come as woman is educated, self-respecting, emancipated. "Girlsterousness" is the excess attendant on that virtue, the shadow which accompanies that light. It is more visible in England than in France, in America than in England.

It is to be observed, that, if a girl wishes to be noisy, she can be as noisy as anybody. Her noise, if less clamorous, is more shrill and penetrating. The shrieks of schoolgirls, playing in the yard at recess-time, seem to drown the voices of the boys. As you enter an evening party, it is the women's tones you hear most conspicuously. There is no defect in the organ, but at least an adequate vigor. In travelling by rail, when sitting near some rather underbred party of youths and damsels, I have commonly noticed that the girls were the noisiest. The young men appeared more regardful of public opinion, and looked round with solicitude, lest they should attract too much attention. It is "girlsterousness" that dashes straight on, regardless of all observers. Of course reformers exhibit their full share of this undesirable quality. Where the emancipation of women is much discussed in any circle, some young girls will put it in practice gracefully and with dignity, others rudely. Yet even the rudeness may be but a temporary phase, and at last end well. When women were being first trained as physicians, years ago, I remember a young girl who came from a Southern State to a Northern city, and attended the medical lectures. Having secured her lecture-tickets, she also bought season-tickets to the theatre and to the pistol-gallery, laid in a box of cigars, and began her professional training. If she meant it as a satire on the pursuits of the young gentlemen around her, it was not without point. But it was, I suppose, a clear case of "girlsterousness;" and I dare say that she sowed her wild oats much more innocently than many of her male contemporaries, and that she has long since become a sedate matron. But I certainly cannot commend her as a model.

Yet I must resolutely deny that any sort of hoydenishness or indecorum is an especial characteristic of radicals, or even "provincials," as a class. Some of the fine ladies who would be most horrified at the "girlsterousness" of this young maiden would themselves smoke their cigarettes in much worse company, morally speaking, than she ever tolerated. And, so far as manners are concerned, I am bound to say that the worst cases of rudeness and ill-breeding that have ever come to my knowledge have not occurred in the "rural districts," or among the lower ten thousand, but in those circles of America where the whole aim in life might seem to be the cultivation of its elegances.

And what confirms me in the fear that the most profound and serious types of this disease are not to be found in the wildcat regions is the fact that so much of it is transplanted to Europe, among those who have the money to travel. It is there described broadly as "Americanism;" and, so surely as any peculiarly shrill group is heard coming through a European picture-gallery, it is straightway classed by all observers as belonging to the great Republic. If the observers are enamoured at sight with the beauty of the young ladies of the party, they excuse the voices;

"Strange or wild, or madly gay,
They call it only pretty Fanny's way."

But other observers are more apt to call it only Columbia's way; and if they had ever heard the word "girlsterousness," they would use that too.

Emerson says, "A gentleman makes no noise; a lady is serene." If we Americans often violate this perfect maxim of good manners, it is something that America has, at least, furnished the maxim. And, between Emerson and "girlsterousness," our courteous philosopher may yet carry the day.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Girlsterousness