What Kind of Girls Smoke? (Mar, 1922)

For those of you who don’t like to read here is a quick bullet point summation of the article:

  • Mark Twain didn’t like his wife cursing because she didn’t “know the tune”. I think this means either she was bad at cursing, or that she didn’t understand why you would curse. Obviously this means that no woman “gets” cursing, thus it is wrong for a woman to curse.
  • For a woman, smoking is like cursing. They don’t understand it. They are bad at it. They pout.
  • Women are weak and frail, like little children.
  • This is proved because when a ship is sinking women and children are let off first.
  • Children should not smoke, it’s bad for them.
  • Thus women shouldn’t smoke.
  • The author likes young boys with their “soft, beautiful faces, as delicate as a womans” and loves the change in their voices which change from “haunting sweetness” to the “bellow of the male animal”.
  • If a woman is good at smoking and likes it, that means she’s tough.
  • Tough women are bad and should never be allowed to have children.
  • I have no idea what the monkey on the front page is about. I don’t even really understand the caption. Are they saying that smoking is bad because a monkey can do it? A monkey can eat, does that mean eating is bad?

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What Kind of Girls Smoke?

It’s a Fine, Manly Accomplishment for Women, Don’t You Think? — But What Are the Real Reasons Why Women Should Not Smoke?

By Wainwright Evans

IN Albert Bigelow Paine’s “Life of Mark Twain” the story goes that Mark Twain was given, in moments of strong feeling, to the use of English more vigorous and picturesque than anything to be found in the dictionary. It wasn’t Sunday School English, in fact. All this grieved his wife very much, and she sought by every means to break her distinguished husband of his habit of latitudinarian speech.

One day something went wrong; and Mr. Clemens began in words embroidered with lightening to express his views. Mrs. Clemens heard him from the next room. She waited without protest till he was through; and then, to shock him into a sense of his own impropriety, lifted up her voice with an eloquence copied from him.

Mr. Clemens listened in critical and appraising silence. When silence reigned again, he called out, “You’ve got the words all right, my dear, but you don’t know the tune!”

That little yarn has always seemed to me to throw an interesting side-light on the question “Should Women Smoke?” In humorously presenting the incongruity and essential unfitness of a woman swearing, it seems also to suggest the incongruity and essential unfitness of a woman smoking. A woman who smokes doesn’t know the tune. A woman with a cigarette has the technique down all right; she holds the little white coffin nail just so; she puffs in approved fashion, pouting her delicate lips more than the smoker’s technique allows; she may even blow rings neatly, and send them one through the other, and all that. But somehow it’s off the key; the incongruity of the thing hits you between the eyes, and either amuses you or shocks you. You may not be able to justify your sense of the unfitness of it, but you feel it.

The real reason why a woman should not smoke is the reason why a child should not smoke. Opinions may differ as to whether or not men should smoke; but they do not differ as to whether boys should smoke. The matter is not even debatable. A boy should not smoke for the simple reason that he is more delicately organized than a man. He is growing, he is going through the critical period of adolescence; his face, hitherto smooth, soft, beautiful, and delicate as that of a woman, is beginning to sprout a beard; his voice, hitherto a thing of peculiar and haunting sweetness, the strange spiritual sweetness you get from the minor cadences of a boy choir, is now deepening and changing to the bellow of the male animal. Neither before nor during this change in his life will any person of sense advocate tobacco for that boy—no matter what he thinks about tobacco for adults. The reason is that the lad is still a child. And, of course, the same would apply in the case of a young girl who is developing into a woman.

The organization of the child is so delicate and fine, both physically and psychologically, that we all instinctively recognize the impropriety of permitting children to partake of strong alteratives and drugs. Wise parents do not even allow their children to have tea and coffee. And it goes without saying that alcohol is absolutely under the ban also.

This does not mean that one recognizes an arbitrary “double standard” of conduct as between children and adults; it does mean that one recognizes in the child a sensitiveness which the tougher organization of the adult has lost, a sensitiveness which cannot be disregarded without grave consequences.

To hear profanity or foul obscenity come from the mouth of an adult is not pleasing; but we take his greater toughness into account, shrug, and let it go at that. But how inexpressibly shocking to hear such things from the lips of a child! We don’t accept toughness from children. Call this a “double-standard” if you like. The fact stands. Society reckons offenses by their consequences, not by their abstract morality. It will penalize you hardly at all if you steal a cent; it will send you up for a month if you steal a dollar; and for a year if you steal a hundred. And yet, ethically, stealing is stealing, regardless of the magnificence of the theft.

The question, therefore, of whether a woman should smoke need not be argued on the debatable ground of abstract morality. There is plenty of food for thought in the question of the physical well-being of women, and of its consequences and implications for society. Why, when the ship is sinking, does the cry go up, “Women and children first?” Why this instinctive classing of the women and children together, in spite of the fact that the women are adults, physically and mentally?

One obvious reason is that the physical strength of a woman, adult though she be, is usually less than that of a growing boy of, say, fourteen. Physically she is classed by men with the children, to be sheltered and cherished like them.

Again, a woman’s organization, particularly if she be delicately reared, has about it the same delicacy of adjustment, the fineness, the sensitiveness to stimuli, which is characteristic of children. The delicacy is a little less pronounced, but it is there. This is not said in derogation but rather in praise. Indeed, it is this delicacy which men are most eager to preserve in women, and which they prize and love most greatly. They find in it certain aesthetic values which are of the utmost importance, because of the spiritual conditions that produce them. Men prize this in women more than they prize mere physical beauty, which, however lovely, is a fleeting thing. It is the quality which makes many a woman beautiful at seventy. It is the quality which goes with the divinest side of motherhood. It peculiarly fits women to deal with children—to nourish them and raise them to maturity It is this which brings the average mother closer to her children than their father ever gets; nor does any normal man begrudge his wife that privilege.

Here, then, may be some reason and justification for the old “clinging vine” tradition which it is the fashion, in this robust age of the feminist, to laugh at. There is an eternal reason for the clinging vine notion of women; you will find it well expressed in the old song that begins:

“Young Rory O’Moore loved Kathaleen Bawn;
He was wild as a hawk; she, soft as the dawn.”

From such women spring the boys who will grow into Rory O’Moores and the girls who will be other Kathaleen Bawns.

I am aware that it is the fashion to dispute all this. I merely point to the fact, rooted in biology and psychology, of this eternal, basic difference; and that it sums up in the fact that women are more closely allied to children and to adolescents in their requirements than they are to the tough, full-grown male of the species; and that there is something wrong with them when they are not.

This is a fact that has to be reckoned with. It makes an absolutely similar code for men and women both impossible and undesirable. It means that conduct which might be comparatively devoid of harmful consequences in the one may have the gravest results if indulged in by the other. Can you imagine a woman nursing a baby and smoking a Pittsburgh stogie, or even a mild cigarette?

If there be a sound reason why women should not smoke cigarettes, it is the same reason why they should not smoke big, black cigars, or a pipe. The difference is only one of degree. There is no other reason. As a practical problem of conduct, it has to be gauged simply by the effect. If there be any reason why men should not smoke, it has to be argued on the same grounds: What is the effect?

Of course this opens the way to the claim that since it may be plausibly maintained that it does a man no special harm to smoke in moderation, it is equally evident that it may do a woman no harm to smoke in still greater moderation—if she substitute the mild cigarette, for instance, for the strenuous cigar or pipe; that the true solution is for a woman to guard herself against excess, just as she might take one glass of wine or one cocktail, but no more.

Is that sound reasoning? Perhaps. I admit that the question is debatable. And yet, it calls to my mind an incident in my own experience which brings us right back to the suggestion I have made that a woman’s physical organization is to be classed in delicacy with that of a child and should, in most cases, be as rigorously shielded from stimulants and narcotics. When I was a youngster I once called at the home of a young woman who represented a perfection of breeding, education, culture and refinement, which we are accustomed to recognize as one of our ultra-metropolitan products. It would have been better for that young woman’s health if her mother had married a prize-fighter perhaps instead of a prominent but small-muscled dignitary of a very important and dignified church. Besides being highly cultured, this young woman had a mind and will of her own, and was on the whole very sane and well-balanced besides.

In those days it was not so common for women to smoke as it is now. For a girl to smoke was almost as bad as for her to wear a skirt coming only as low as her ankles.

When I arrived, the first thing she did was to take a cigarette, a very choice and expensive cigarette, and to offer me one. I took it. It made me feel right devilish, I can tell you. This, I told myself, was seeing life. The Movie Vamp hadn’t come in then; but it was a good deal like keeping company with Theda Bara or Pola Negri in their vampiest moments.

We smoked, gravely, sedately, self consciously. I watched her critically, and I observed that she didn’t know the tune; but what most surprised me was that she smoked just one and then quit.—I commented on this. It seemed like undue moderation.

“I can’t smoke more than one,” she said. “They make me sick.”

Since then the memory of that incident has come back to me many times. I know now that if she did not inhale, and if the cigarette was mild, and if one was her limit, tobacco was a poison to her, and she probably had no business to be smoking at all.

But what about the woman who could have smoked a box of cigarettes on the spot and never know she had done it?—I answer with another question: What about the woman who can drink a half dozen highballs with the toughest male tippler, and demonstrate that like him, she has leather insides? Does the thought charm you? Has the lady retained those aesthetic values which tell the world what she is, or what she isn’t?

The whole point is that while it is bad enough for a man to have cast iron insides, or pickled internal organs, or smoke saturated lungs, it is infinitely worse for women to be that way—worse in its spiritual implications and worse in its physical consequences. It is bad for the women, and it is bad for the babies that are to be brought into the world and nourished at those breasts.

Not only that, but it is bad for any child, with his physical, mental, and moral fineness—a fineness which is beautifully expressed and symbolized by the silken texture of his skin, that his closest associate in his formative years should be, not a person akin to himself, and sympathetic to him, but a smoked, toughened, tanned, and pickled feminine edition of the Old Soak.

If a woman is never going to have any children her offense toward the race is less; but the woman who expects motherhood, thereby accepts a peculiar responsibility which involves the stewardship of her body, and involves besides that, a certain respect for the aesthetic values in her life. The use of tobacco is not consonant with the perfection in these fine and lovely qualities which children have a right to require in their mothers.

You can sum it up this way—the reason why women should not smoke is essentially the reason why they should not swear, or chew, or drink whiskey; it’s tough and they don’t know the tune; and they can’t know it unless they become tough. Beware the woman who does these things, not with loathing, but rather with ease, elegance, and relish.

I knew a man who, when he was a green country boy made a trip to the great city. There a friend undertook to show him the town; and they started on a journey through the Tenderloin, to the end that the youth might see what the world was like.

“And,” he said in relating the experience to me years later, “there sat that girl, smoking. I wasn’t used to seeing women smoke. They didn’t do it in our neck of the woods. But that wasn’t what disturbed me. What clean bowled me over was what she was smoking,—a big, fat, black cigar that would have put me on the casualty list in five minutes. And I considered myself pretty hard-boiled, too. That finished me. I couldn’t see anything attractive about a woman smoking a rank cigar. Whatever temptation I was under with respect to the lady fled. ‘Come,’ I said to my friend, ‘let’s get away from here.’ We went.

“It was the shock of my young life. But I have always been thankful to that girl for frankly smoking that cigar. A library of preachment and warning from all the sages could not have more completely and vividly revealed to me just what she was—just how hard she was, how unlovely, how unlike a woman, how physically and psychologically repulsive, and what violence a man does to his deepest instincts whan he permits himself to be drawn by such women. I suppose it was the want of what I might call feminine aesthetics in the performance rather than the its unconventional side, that repulsed me most. I wouldn’t have recoiled from a cigarette; I wouldn’t have seen what it meant; but the cigar—the highball beside her—there was no misinterpreting that.

“It taught me a fundamental lesson. I know now why I abominate coarsegrained women, and women who make themselves coarse-grained. It’s instinctive. They can’t be good mothers. No child should ever be trusted to their hands—and no youth, either.”

1 comment
  1. […] Apparently twenty years after this article, it was alright for women to smoke. […]

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