Three letters by Ellen Hayes

In 1909 Ellen Hayes published Letters to a College Girl. This book contains nine letters, covering the four years. We give an extract from the first of these letters.

Ellen Hayes wrote a number of letters to Science, for example: Sun-Heat and Orbital Eccentricity (1893), Mean Values (1893), The Temperature of the Earth's Crust (1896), The Writings of William J Long (1904), Comet a 1904 (1904), The path of the shadow of a plummet bead (1908), Women and Scientific Research (1910), A Country without a Name (1918), The Significance of the Declining Birth-Rate - A Reply (1919), Extra-Mundane Life: A Comment (1921), and River-bank movements due to the Earth's Rotation (1922). We give versions of two of these below.

We note that she also wrote to The Intercollegiate Socialist, for example The New Political Alignment (1913) and Education and the World Peace (1915).

  1. Ellen Hayes, First letter, Letters to a College Girl (Geo H Ellis Co, 1909).

    In entering a college, any college, you are in reality joining a club. One distinguishing feature of membership is that you are to leave home and reside at your club quarters for most of the time for four years. What you hear called "college life" is merely the special variety of social activities that characterise the community you are about to enter. From what you write I see that you are looking forward to it with eagerness. You think that residence in the great home of the club will afford you opportunity for "good times" that you have never yet enjoyed, happy as your home life has been. I am not going to underrate that good time. I am glad it is coming to you. Every one ought to be glad that some hundreds of girls here and there are finding the happiness of the large comradeship that a college affords. This world has not been kind to girls. It has made life hard for them for more thousands of years than history exactly knows. They have been denied freedom and knowledge, they have had to please and obey; and at this present hour the vast majority of them are so restricted that they are little better off than slaves. Do you remember in Miss Scidmore's China: The Long-lived Empire, the account of a visit to a provincial yamun? -

    What did they have to talk about, these helpless, crippled women with their scores of maids, spending all their lives on the hard chairs, hard beds, and hard floors in these cheerless rooms, looking on stone courts and blank walls? Without exercise, incidents, books, occupation, or any social excitements save these stilted visits in closed sedans, it seemed a dreary prison life at best, and the oppressive idea made us long to escape from the harem's walls.

    What kind of a life do you suppose the Chinese regard as an appropriate preparation for the women's years as thus described? But you do not need to go to China for dark pictures of the lives of girls and women. They may be found in every land, including your own. The truth is, you are one of the girls, comparatively few in number, who have escaped into liberty. You may learn what you please; you may go where you please; you may marry or not, as you please. Some day it will be well worth your while to set to work and find out how it comes that you are thus fortunate. It is a long story.
    Thoughts that great hearts once broke for, we
    Breathe cheaply in the common air.
    Do not imagine, however, that you are a free human being to the extent that your brother is. In a later letter I may explain what I mean by this warning. Just now I am bidding you be glad of the coming college life.

    There will be snow-shoe clubs and hockey teams, papers to edit and class politics to "dabble in." Take your share of it all. For instance, you enjoy theatricals. I recall your dramatisation of Lochinvar when you were eleven years old. Others like you will combine for that kind of fun. Play Orlando or Sir Lucius O'Trigger, if you wish; join the golf club; accept a class office, if it comes your way. Do any of these things - provided. Provided what? I hear you ask.

    First of all, do not forget that your health is a most precious possession. Just to feel well is a fundamental source of happiness. You will certainly be defeating yourself if for some present pleasure you endanger or impair that good health of yours. You need plenty of sleep. Some persons never seem to be quite awake or wholly asleep. Do sleep so that when you are awake you may be wide-awake. It is not hard to find out when and what you ought to eat. Experience and the lecturer on hygiene will give you temporary directions that must serve until you elect physiology. As for clothes, woman's dress has been declared "the disgrace of civilisation." It truly is. A class of persons none too strong at best persists in a mode of dress that still further impairs their strength, and consequently diminishes both their happiness and their efficiency. Get into your gymnasium dress and then frankly say what you think of the long, entangling skirts from which you are for the moment free. Enter for the college relay race or a ride into the Grand Canon by the Bright Angel trail, and see how the managers rate your conventional costume.

    It may be said that we walk rather than run through life, and a canon trail is not our usual thoroughfare. Well, watch yourself going upstairs with an armful of books, or crossing a street on a windy day, or performing any of the common acts that may reasonably be expected of persons having arms and legs. The introduction and establishment of a mode of dress suited to the modern civilised woman is one of those major reforms which we must await with what patience we can command. In the mean time we ought to avail ourselves of such relief as the proprieties permit. If the skirt must be a long, harassing gear, it may be reduced to a minimum number of pounds, and it may have pockets. One can move in good society in low-heeled shoes, and even wear a cap in a snow-storm without inviting remark. Of course, a whole book could be written, many have been written, on this subject of health preservation; and I am only writing a letter. Let me just add that club life carries its own penalty. You are a member of a crowd. To hold on to yourself becomes an urgent duty. Nothing will satisfy your nerves except such consideration for them that you may never know you have any. If you cannot assume the role of Portia or edit a paper or preside at a class meeting without nervous excitement, let Portia and the paper and the class take care of themselves. And in any case, all these matters together merit only the merest fraction of your time and energy. There is a region on the moon named by Galileo Mare Serenitatis. On this earth also, for those who search, there are seas of serenity. Camp out on their shores, come what will.

  2. Ellen Hayes, Women and Scientific Research, Science 32 (833) (1910), 864-866.
    There are now nearly as many women as men who receive a college degree; they have on the average more leisure; there are four times as many women as men engaged in teaching. There does not appear to be any social prejudice against women engaging in scientific work, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is an innate sexual disqualification. ... But it is possible that the lack of encouragement and sympathy is greater than appears on the surface, and that in the future women may be able to do their share for the advancement of science.
              Further Statistical Study of American Men of Science, Science (11 November 1910).

    The article affording this quotation commands attention on account of both the method used and the results reached. In a field where impression, conjecture and personal bias play a large, if not a determining role, one must welcome such a well-considered plan for employing a statistical and hence impersonal method. Figures have no feelings. Perhaps none of the results set forth are more striking than the statement that in 1910 only eighteen women are to be found in the first thousand scientific persons. A search for the causes of this fact is in itself a sociological task meriting some expenditure of scientific effort. Would the author of the article referred to be willing to call his "conclusion" a hypothetical explanation, and to admit one or two competing hypotheses?

    As matters stand at present in America a young woman can not fairly complain that she is denied opportunity to study science. If one institution refuses admission to her, another equally good opens wide its doors; if some eminent professor denies her a place in his laboratory, another, equally eminent, will welcome her. But is such opportunity all that is involved? Did the young woman have a fair chance as a little girl? It would appear, on the face of it, that girls and boys in these days and this country enjoy equal opportunities. They may read the same books and play the same games; they pass through the same grade schools and, in most towns, the same high school; finally, they receive, as a rule, the same preparation for college. But is even this all that is involved?

    Whoever will watch groups of girls and boys in any grade school must realise that out of sight, in the homes, distinctions are introduced which result ultimately in mental handicap for the girl. This discrimination manifests itself primarily in compelling her attention in matters of dress. Observe the hat constructed for the little girl's wearing and contrast it with the cap worn by a boy of her own age. Good brains go to waste under a hat like that because it must receive the attention that the boy may save to bestow on a hundred things worth while. The rest of the girl's apparel corresponds of course to her hat. What is the prevailing style, how shall her clothes be made and trimmed, and does she look pretty in them, are considerations that grow with the girl's growth. If she is destined to be a member or, let us say, an associate member of the leisure class she can not proceed far in her teens before her social environment compels acceptance of the notion that a girl must be, first of all, attractive and pleasing - if possible, a social ornament. A girl is free to elect science in the high school, but what does the freedom avail if science appears undesirable on the ground that it in no way contributes to her accomplishments. Further than this, a girl loses as a rule the informal preparation for science that a boy secures. The proprieties and dainty clothing cost her many a lesson that her brother learns; and who concern themselves to take a girl to the blacksmith shop, the power-house, and the stone-quarry, to the places where the steam-shovel and the pile-driver are at work. Yet it was a little girl who once asked, "Why do the cars lean in when they go around a curve?" A little girl also who concluded her explanation of a home-made filter by saying, "And so, you rinse the water with gravel." Given the same circumstances, including the circumstance of encouragement, and it is hardly to be doubted that the rational curiosity to know the causes of things would be found in girls as it is in boys. Opportunity is rendered ineffective and the world of natural phenomena inviting to observation and analysis is denied to girls because they are assigned to an artificial environment demanding an emotional response; and then we wonder at it when young women in their junior and senior years in college elect music and literature in preference to mechanics and physiology; we wonder and we frame theories about feminine predilections.

    Is there any other cause, operating perhaps with the one just described, that may account for the less than two per cent. Table X in the statistical study gives the number of scientific men connected with institutions when there are three or more. Fifty-eight institutions appear in the list with a total of 762 men. Let us drop from this list the four colleges for women. They will scarcely be missed since they take only nineteen of the 762. Of this list of fifty-four institutions just which ones open their major positions freely and fairly to persons of gifts and attainments without regard to sex? By a major position is meant one that a man of the select first thousand would be willing to occupy. Women are quite welcome to become experts in washing bottles and adding logarithms and dusting specimens. Even in the case of high school science the best positions in physics and chemistry are reserved for men. A young woman, however strongly inclined to devote herself to science, may well hesitate to proceed to a science doctorate when she considers that Table X. There is indeed room for doubt whether we should have any thousand men of science if all gifted and ambitious young men were confronted by such barriers as a young woman is obliged to face to-day. We should find these young men going into literature, law, politics, business; but scarcely into science. It appears therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that other factors besides innate sexual disqualification must be reckoned with in attempting to account for the insignificance of women's share in the advancement of science.


  3. Ellen Hayes, Extra-Mundane Life: A Comment, Science, New Series 53 (1380) (1921), 536.

    TO THE EDITOR OF SCIENCE: In discussing the highly speculative subject of intelligent life in other worlds it is well to keep in mind two serviceable precepts of scientific reasoning: First, failure to prove that A is B is not a proof that A is not B. Thus, failure to furnish evidence that other worlds are inhabited by intelligent creatures is not to be construed as proof that such extramundane life does not exist. Second, of two discordant propositions: A is B; A is C; one of which must be true and for neither of which any evidence is forthcoming, we are intellectually bound to accord hospitality - not adoption but hospitality - to the one which is marked by the greater likelihood. Viewed without anthropometric bias this earth is, as we know, one of the less important members of the system to which it primarily belongs - a system dominated by a single undersized yellow star. If we had a time word corresponding to the space word parsec, and also had more definite geological knowledge of the past and future duration of this planet, we might express quantitatively the fact that the human race is relatively a mere episode in the history of the planet itself; while our increasing knowledge of the Milky Way with its encircled disk of stars must convince us that our solar system is, in turn, only an incident in the history of the stellar system to which it belongs. Which is more probable, that this one insignificant planet is the only world in which creatures capable of feeling and knowing have originated and developed, or that multitudes of other worlds have afforded both conditions and cause for life, including intelligent life, and are the homes of beings of both physical and mental parts. The latter supposition seems to be invested with incomparably greater likelihood.

    May 22

Last Updated December 2021