The Whistling Girl by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

The wisdom of our ancestors packed away in proverbial sayings may always be a little suspected. We have a vague respect for a popular proverb, as embodying folk-experience, and expressing not the wit of one, but the common thought of a race. We accept the saying unquestioning, as a sort of inspiration out of the air, true because nobody has challenged it for ages, and probably for the same reason that we try to see the new moon over our left shoulder. Very likely the musty saying was the product of the average ignorance of an unenlightened time, and ought not to have the respect of a scientific and traveled people. In fact it will be found that a large proportion of the proverbial sayings which we glibly use are fallacies based on a very limited experience of the world, and probably were set afloat by the idiocy or prejudice of one person. To examine one of them is enough for our present purpose.

“Whistling girls and crowing hens
Always come to some bad ends.”

It would be interesting to know the origin of this proverb, because it is still much relied on as evincing a deep knowledge of human nature, and as an argument against change, that is to say, in this case, against progress. It would seem to have been made by a man, conservative, perhaps malevolent, who had no appreciation of a hen, and a conservatively poor opinion of woman. His idea was to keep woman in her place–a good idea when not carried too far–but he did not know what her place is, and he wanted to put a sort of restraint upon her emancipation by coupling her with an emancipated hen. He therefore launched this shaft of ridicule, and got it to pass as an arrow of wisdom shot out of a popular experience in remote ages.

In the first place, it is not true, and probably never was true even when hens were at their lowest. We doubts its Sanscrit antiquity. It is perhaps of Puritan origin, and rhymed in New England. It is false as to the hen. A crowing hen was always an object of interest and distinction; she was pointed out to visitors; the owner was proud of her accomplishment, he was naturally likely to preserve her life, and especially if she could lay. A hen that can lay and crow is a ‘rara avis’. And it should be parenthetically said here that the hen who can crow and cannot lay is not a good example for woman. The crowing hen was of more value than the silent hen, provided she crowed with discretion; and she was likely to be a favorite, and not at all to come to some bad end. Except, indeed, where the proverb tended to work its own fulfillment. And this is the regrettable side of most proverbs of an ill-nature, that they do help to work the evil they predict. Some foolish boy, who had heard this proverb, and was sent out to the hen-coop in the evening to slay for the Thanksgiving feast, thought he was a justifiable little providence in wringing the neck of the crowing hen, because it was proper (according to the saying) that she should come to some bad end. And as years went on, and that kind of boy increased and got to be a man, it became a fixed idea to kill the amusing, interesting, spirited, emancipated hen, and naturally the barn-yard became tamer and tamer, the production of crowing hens was discouraged (the wise old hens laid no eggs with a crow in them, according to the well-known principle of heredity), and the man who had in his youth exterminated the hen of progress actually went about quoting that false couplet as an argument against the higher education of woman.

As a matter of fact, also, the couplet is not true about woman; whether it ought to be true is an ethical question that will not be considered here. The whistling girl does not commonly come to a bad end. Quite as often as any other girl she learns to whistle a cradle song, low and sweet and charming, to the young voter in the cradle. She is a girl of spirit, of independence of character, of dash and flavor; and as to lips, why, you must have some sort of presentable lips to whistle; thin ones will not. The whistling girl does not come to a bad end at all (if marriage is still considered a good occupation), except a cloud may be thrown upon her exuberant young life by this rascally proverb. Even if she walks the lonely road of life, she has this advantage, that she can whistle to keep her courage up. But in a larger sense, one that this practical age can understand, it is not true that the whistling girl comes to a bad end. Whistling pays. It has brought her money; it has blown her name about the listening world. Scarcely has a non-whistling woman been more famous. She has set aside the adage. She has done so much towards the emancipation of her sex from the prejudice created by an ill-natured proverb which never had root in fact.

But has the whistling woman come to stay? Is it well for woman to whistle? Are the majority of women likely to be whistlers? These are serious questions, not to be taken up in a light manner at the end of a grave paper. Will woman ever learn to throw a stone? There it is. The future is inscrutable. We only know that whereas they did not whistle with approval, now they do; the prejudice of generations gradually melts away. And woman’s destiny is not linked with that of the hen, nor to be controlled by a proverb–perhaps not by anything.