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The Exceptional Woman



The prevailing cult of the normal or average individual and the normal or average adjustment makes it difficult for the person of exceptional ability to achieve a form of adjustment which is normal for him. The average group, which is the majority group, assumes the prerogatives of its position and attempts to impose its standards of life and adjustment upon all those in minority groups. Non-conformity is punished in various and insidious ways and to such an extent that many students of social adjustment regard an above-average intelligence in a child not as a gift but as a handicap. It is assumed that unusual intelligence will cause him to be unhappy, maladjusted, and tragic. Educators hasten to camouflage any exceptional aptitude under the cloak of the average and to hold back the exceptional child's normal deyelopment to the norm of another group, the average group. Girls particularly are subjected to this form of mental stunting both by the schools and by their parents in the interests of their "normal" adjustment. The exaggerated cult of the genius which preyailed in earlier eras has given way to an even more exaggerated cult of the average which makes it difficult for the individual of above-average endowments to use his abilities for the common good. And yet, in this era of social disintegration, social reyaluation and change, unusual ability in leaders is needed in an unusually urgent way. Is it possible to assume that the average majority can be expected to learn the lesson of tolerance toward those who differ in any way from its average or normal adjustment? For is not our democracy, for whose preservation we are fighting this second war, really based upon an assumption of tolerance of diversity rather than upon the worship of that average person or majority type which is now so much in vogue?

The learned women with whom we talked were for the most part associated with university life. Very few of them were types which the student of human nature would designate as "good, all-round women." On the contrary, they were frankly specialists and unembarrassed about being so. A woman chemist, who has a national reputation in the field of her specialty, stated simply and with no trace of embarrassment or apology that she spends all of the time which she has free from her teaching in the laboratory. Her outside interests are few. She stated that her work of research gave her more pleasure than anything else she could do and that the hours spent in her laboratory were the happiest intervals she knew. She liked teaching too but less than research, but she had continued in her teaching position in order to have leisure for research. She had used a sabbatical year just passed to do research in the laboratory of a famous specialist whose methods she wanted to know. The two weeks vacation which she permitted herself each summer she spent with her mother whom she has supported since the death of her father fifteen years previously. A younger sister whose college expenses in her own institution she had paid had just graduated and was ready to return to the home town to teach and to live in the home with the mother.

This woman lives alone in a small stone cottage which she had built herself to suit her own needs and wishes. It consists of a large well-lighted study, two bedrooms, bath and kitchen. She entertains occasionally for other members of the staff or for an out-of-town guest. For exercise she goes for long walks over the surrounding hills with her dogs. On Saturday evenings she plays poker, always with the same group, and she seldom loses. She is generally liked on the campus both by her associates and by the students. She is handsome and healthy in appearance but she wears the same clothes year after year.

One of the girl students remarked of her, "When I see Miss Jones at lectures in the class room I think what a wonderful woman she is. But when I see her crossing the campus I wonder how any woman in her right mind could wear those clothes."

Another single woman of outstanding achievement in the field of literature was known as a solitary on the school campus. Her study in the attic of one of the school halls was seldom seen either by her colleagues or by the students. Her school work was conducted from her office adjoining her classroom and it was kept strictly within her published office hours. Her literary achievements, however, have brought international renown both to her and the institution at which she teaches. Students of great promise may be admitted in their senior year to one of her seminars and the privilege is an unforgettable experience. Several women now outstanding as writers are her former students. Her personal life is simple in the extreme, she makes her home with her parents when they are at home, which is seldom, since her father's work requires him to travel. When she has a day free from her teaching in fine weather she goes with her sketch book and lunch for a solitary tramp through the surrounding fields. She appears a happy person, well-adjusted to her mode of life, but little concerned about it. She travels with her parents or alone, as seems convenient, and she has seen many strange corners of the world.

For the woman who has the aptitude or the wish for scholarly or creative work the single life offers the much needed detachment and leisure. The life at "Cross Creek," as described in the book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, needs to be known in order to be understood, but many unattached women have sought to achieve that balance between solitude and the surrounding life which allows proper working conditions without isolation from the stream of living. For an individual cannot live long alone and retain the "common touch," which is essentially human and social, without partaking of the common life. But neither can he find the time nor the mental and spiritual strength necessary for intense and concentrated effort if the demands made upon his time and his spiritual resources are such as to absorb his strength. Particularly is this true in the case of women who lack the calm and the power of detachment from immediate personal demands that men seem to possess in greater measure. But the woman who is single, whether that singleness be voluntary or involuntary, has a resource in her detachment which she can use, if she will, for an achievement which is highly satisfying in return.

Under Green Apple Boughs tells the story of how one woman met the economic and personal situation which confronted her by a life temporarily apart from gregarious living. Her confidence and her sense of personal security seem to have been restored by large doses of healing solitude and communion with nature. The restorative powers of personal solitude for some individuals appear to have been over-looked in an era of intense sociability and high-powered organization. Much of the strength of living is drawn from association with others but much of it is lost in the same way and some "center of solitude," either within the individual himself or in the organization of his personal life, appears to be necessary to the maintenance of a normal balance and a sane outlook on life. Home is a place of relative solitude which provides all that the average individual needs of rest and detachment for the restoration to a normal strength of his mental and spiritual resources and for their regroupment into the array which constitutes the distinguishing characteristic of his individuality. But not all homes provide these rest facilities and some individuals need more solitude than even the best home provides.

These individuals who tend toward solitariness and detachment appear not to make good marriage partners, if they marry. Their personal wish for solitude and independence is thwarted by the demands which marriage makes upon them and they appear unhappy and maladjusted in marriage, even if they remain married, and many of them divorce. It is often assumed that all these individuals are self-centered "introverts" and that they wish to remain unmarried in order to have the leisure to think about themselves and analyze their own feelings. Yet observation shows that many of these people are interested in some pursuit which is in no way connected with their personal welfare but which is nevertheless thwarted by their life in a family home. As single persons they may make a very good and a very satisfactory adjustment but they do not wish to be married and it is evident that they should not marry. But social convention exercises many compulsions upon them in this direction and it is clear that some of them marry reluctantly and that they repent at leisure.

The woman whose cultural or general interests outweigh her personal and feminine interests is often designated as the "blue stocking." In our era she is known on the college or university campus as the "frump" who neglects her personal appearance and her personal life for her books or her laboratory. Stu-dents usually like her in class, and they may wish to emulate her scholarship while they fervently pray that they may never come to resemble her in appearance. As a rule she is a good-natured person who knows her subject well, she is interested in research or writing, she travels widely, she lives alone or with aged parents, and she supports relatives or contributes to the support of an assortment of relatives. She may be and she usually is highly regarded for her success in teaching and for her scholarship but she often hears the statement that she is a "failure as a woman" because she neglects her personal life and her personal appearance. Her relatives and friends try to smarten her appearance and they may succeed for a time but when they relax their efforts she relaxes too and goes back to her comfortable old clothes. Universities have shown a concern in recent years for the personal life and appearance of women graduate students and they seem to have made some progress. Women teachers, and professors, women physicians, and other women in business and professional life today are as a rule smart and well dressed if for no other reason than because they realize the value in their work of a smart personal appearance.

But the woman who is able and willing to devote the major share of her life and interests to professional work or independent scholarly or artistic endeavor is not the norm for other women. Many women who have the native ability to pursue studies are not willing to forego a more active personal and social life which devotion to a profession or the arts involves. For that and other reasons the number of women in semi-professional pursuits has increased more rapidly in recent years. Women serve as able assistants to men in the professional field and to men research workers because of the increase in the employment opportunities in such work and because they do not wish the work or responsibility involved in an independent career. For the woman whose interest in scholarly pursuits is less, a position as an assistant relieves her of that prolonged tedium of the school experience which preparation for a life in the professions entails and it permits also a larger measure of personal freedom once her work experience has begun.



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