Is Physical Culture Good For Girls?

A NUMBER of women were watching a game of basket-ball played by some

high-school girls. In the interim for rest one woman said to her

neighbor: "Do you see that girl flat on her back, looking like a

very heavy bag of sand ?"

"Yes," the answer was; "what under the sun is she doing that for?

She looks heavy and lazy and logy, while the other girls are talking

and laughing and having a good time."

"You wait and watch her play," responded the first woman. And so

they waited and watched, and to the astonishment of the friend the

girl who had looked "lazy and logy," lying flat on her back during

the rest-time, was the most active of the players, and really saved

the game.

When the game was finished the woman said to her friend with

surprise in her voice: "How did you see through that, and understand

what that girl was aiming for?"

The answer was: "Well, I know the girl, and both she and I have read

Kipling's 'The Maltese Cat.' Don't you remember how the best polo

ponies in that story, when they were off duty, hung their heads and

actually made themselves looked fagged, in order to be fresher when

the time came to play? And how 'The Maltese Cat' scouted the silly

ponies who held their heads up and kicked and looked alert while

they waited? And don't you remember the result?"

"No, I never read the story, but I have certainly seen your point

prove itself to-day. I shall read it at once. Meanwhile, I want to

speak to that clever girl who could catch a point like that and use


"Take care, please, that you do not mention it to her at all," said

the friend. "You will draw her attention back to herself and likely

as not make her lose the next game. Points like that have got to be

worked on without self-consciousness, not talked about."

And so the women told the child they were glad that her side won the

game and never mentioned her own part in it at all. After all she

had only found the law that the more passive you can be when it is

time to rest, the more alert you are and the more powerful in

activity. The polo pony knew it as a matter of course. We humans

have to discover it.

Let us, just for the interest of it, follow that same basket-ball

player a little more closely. Was she well developed and evenly

trained in her muscles? Yes, very. Did she go to gymnasium, or did

she scorn it? She went, twice a week regularly, and had good fun

there; but there was just this contrast between her and most of the

girls in the class: Jane, as we will call her, went to gymnasium as

a means to an end. She found that she got an even development there

which enabled her to walk better, to play better, and to work

better. In gymnasium she laid her muscular foundation on which to

build all the good, active work of her life. The gymnasium she went

to, however, was managed in an unusual way except for the chest

weights, which always "opened the ball," the members of the class

never knew what work they were to do. Their minds were kept alert

throughout the hour and a half. If their attention wavered they

tripped or got behind in the exercise, and the mental action which

went into the movement of every muscle made the body alive with the

healthy activity of a well-concentrated, well-directed mind.

Another point which our young friend learned at gymnasium was to

direct her mind only on to the muscles that were needed. Did you

ever try to clench your fist so tight that it could not be opened?

If not, try it, and relax all over your body while you are keeping

your fist tight closed. You will see that the more limp your body

becomes the tighter you can keep your fist clenched. All the force

goes in that one direction. In this way a moderately strong girl can

keep a strong man hard at work for several minutes before he can

make any impression on the closed hand. That illustrates in a simple

way the fact that the most wholesome concentration is that which

comes from dropping everything that interferes--letting the force of

mind or body flow only in the direction in which it is to be used.

Many girls use their brains in the wrong way while on the gymnasium

floor by saying to themselves, "I cannot do that." The brain is so

full of that thought that the impression an open brain would receive

has no chance to enter, and the result is an awkward, nervous, and

uncertain movement. If a girl's brain and muscle were so relaxed

that the impression on the one would cause a correct use and

movement of the other how easy it would be thereafter to apply the

proper tension to the muscle at the proper time without overtaxing

the nerves.

Some one has well said that "it is training, not straining, that we

want in our gymnasiums." Only when a girl is trained from this point

of view does she get real training.

This basket-ball player had also been taught how to rest after

exercise in a way which appealed to her especially, because of her

interest which had already been aroused in Kipling's polo pony. She

was taught intelligently that if, after vigorous exercise, when the

blood is coursing rapidly all over the body, you allow yourself to

be entirely open and passive, the blood finds no interruptions in

its work and can carry away the waste matter much more effectually.

In that way you get the full result of the exercise. It is not

necessary always to lie down to have your body passive enough after

vigorous exercise to get the best results. If you sit down after

exercise you want to sit without tension. Or if you walk home from

gymnasium you want to walk loosely and freely, keeping your chest up

and a little in advance, and pushing with the ball of your back foot

with a good, rhythmic balance. As this is the best way to sit and

the best way to walk--gymnasium or no gymnasium--to look out for a

well-balanced sitting and a well-balanced walk directly after

vigorous exercise, keeps us in good form for sitting and walking all

the time.

I know of a professor in one of our large colleges who was offered

also a professorship in a woman's college, and he refused to accept

because he said women's minds did not react. When he lectured to

girls he found that, however attentively they might seem to listen,

there was no response. They gave nothing in return.

Of course this is not true of all girls, and of course the gentleman

who refused the chair in the woman's college would agree that it is

not true of all girls, but if those who read the anecdote would,

instead of getting indignant, just look into the matter a little,

they would see how true it is of many girls, and by thinking a

little further we can see that it is not at present the girls'

fault. A hundred years ago girls were not expected to think. I

remember an anecdote which a very intelligent old lady used to tell

me about her mother. Once, when she was a little girl, her mother

found some fault with her which the daughter knew to be unjust, and

she answered timidly, "But, Mother, I think--"

"Abigail," came the sharp reminder, "you've no business to think."

One hundred years ago it was only the very exceptional girls who

really thought. Now we are gradually working toward the place where

every girl will think. And surely it cannot be very long now before

the united minds of a class of college girls will have the habit of

reacting so that any man will feel in his own brain a vigorous

result from lecturing to them.

This fact that a girl's brain does not react is proved in many ways.

Most of the women who come to nerve specialists seem to feel that

they are to sit still and be cured, while the men who come respond

and do their part much more intelligently--the result being that men

get out of "nerves" in half the time and stay out, whereas girls

often get out a little way and slump (literally slump) back again

before they can be helped to respond truly enough to get well and

keep themselves well. This information is given only with an idea of

stirring girls up to their best possibilites, for there is not a

woman born with a sound mind who is not capable of reacting

mentally, in a greater or less degree, to all that she hears,

provided she uses her will consciously to form the new habit.

Now this need of intelligent reaction is just the trouble with girls

and physical culture. Physical culture should be a means to an

end--and that is all, absolutely all. It is delightful and

strengthening when it is taught thoughtfully as a means to an end,

and I might almost say it is only weakening when it is made an end

in itself.

Girls need to react intelligently to what is given them in physical

training as much as to what is given them in a lecture on literature

or philosophy or botany. How many girls do we know who take physical

culture in a class, often simply because it is popular at the time,

and never think of taking a long walk in the country--never think of

going in for a vigorous outdoor game? How many girls do we know who

take physical culture and never think of making life easy for their

stomachs, or seeing that they get a normal amount of sleep? Exercise

in the fresh air, with a hearty objective interest in all that is

going on about us, is the very best sort of exercise that we can

take, and physical culture is worse than nothing if it is not taken

only as a means to enable us to do more in the open air, and do it

better, and gain from it more life.

There is one girl who comes to my mind of whom I should like to tell

because she illustrates truly a point that we cannot consider too

carefully. She went to a nerve specialist very much broken in

health, and when asked if she took plenty of exercise in the open

air she replied "Yes, indeed." And it was proved to be the very best

exercise. She had a good horse, and she rode well; she rode a great

deal, and not too much. She had interesting dogs and she took them

with her. She walked, too, in beautiful country. But she was

carrying in her mind all the time extreme resistance to other

circumstances of her life. She did not know how to drop the

resistance or face the circumstances, and the mental strain in which

she held herself day and night, waking or sleeping, prevented the

outdoor exercise from really refreshing her. When she learned to

face the circumstances then the exercise could do its good work.

On the other hand, there are many forms of nervous resistance and

many disagreeable moods which good, vigorous exercise will blow away

entirely, leaving our minds so clear that we wonder at ourselves,

and wonder that we could ever have had those morbid thoughts.

The mind acts and the body reacts, the body acts and the mind

reacts, but of course at the root of it all is the real desire for

what is normal, or--alas!--the lack of that desire.

If physical culture does not make us love the open air, if it does

not make us love to take a walk or climb a mountain, if it does not

help us to take the walk or climb the mountain with more freedom, if

it does not make us move along outdoors so easily that we forget our

bodies altogether, and only enjoy what we see about us and feel how

good it is to be alive--why, then physical culture is only an

ornament without any use.

There is an interesting point in mountain-climbing which I should

like to speak of, by the way, and which makes it much pleasanter and

better exercise. If, after first starting--and, of course, you

should start very slowly and heavily, like an elephant--you get out

of breath, let yourself stay out of breath. Even emphasize the being

out of breath by breathing harder than your lungs started to

breathe, and then let your lungs pump and pump and pump until they

find their own equilibrium. The result is delightful, and the

physical freedom that follows is more than delightful. I remember

seeing two girls climbing in the high Rocky Mountains in this way,

when other women were going up on ponies. Finally one of the guides

looked back, and with an expression of mild astonishment said "Well,

you have lungs!" This was a very pleasant proof of the right kind of


There are many good points for climbing and walking and swimming and

all outdoor exercise that can be gained from the best sort of

physical culture; and physical culture is good for girls when it

gives these points and leads to a spontaneous love for outdoor

exercise. But when it results only in a self-conscious pose of the

body then it is harmful.

We want to have strong bodies, free for every normal action, with

quiet nerves, and muscles well coordinated. Then our bodies are

merely instruments: good, clean, healthy instruments. They are the

"mechanism of the outside." And when the mechanism of the outside is

well oiled and running smoothly it can be forgotten.

There can be no doubt but that physical culture is good for girls

provided it is given and taken with intelligent interest, but it

must be done thoroughly to be done to real advantage. As, for

instance, the part the shower-bath plays after exercising is most

important, for it equalizes the circulation. Physical culture is

good for girls who have little or no muscular action in their daily

lives, for it gives them the healthiest exercise in the least space

of time, and prepares them to get more life from exercise outdoors.

It is good for girls whose daily lives are full of activity, because

it develops the unused muscles and so rests those that have been

overused. Many a hardworking girl has entered the gymnasium class

tired and has left it rested.

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