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Week 1B--Moving On: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Anne Dalke's picture

Virginia Woolf says a number of startling things in her 1938 collection of linked essays, Three Guineas (this link will take you to an on-line version, if you haven't been able to get hold of them in hard copy). Perhaps most striking to me is her emphasis on the

  • difference of women ("we cannot understand each other because of these differences...we think differently according as we are born differently," p. 9);
  • bloodthirsty nature of all professional life and training ("professions make people...possessive, jealous...and highly combative," p. 66); and
  • (not to put too fine a point upon it!) challenge to the sort of college (proud its magnificent grounds, buildings, traditions...) that is Bryn Mawr ("the sort of education that is needed...must be ...the poor college, the cheap experimental college, an adventurous college...built of some cheap, easily combustile material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions," p.33).

Woolf comes @ these claims from a very different place than Sojourner Truth, and clearly identifies that position: she speaks, she says, for "the daughters of educated men."

How useful to you, today--to us, today, as a college and as a global community-- is Woolf's form of feminism, one that destroys the obsolete, "vicious and corrupt word 'feminist'" (p. 101), to insist (as an earlier poster observed) on forming an "Outsider's Society," one that works for change and growth "only in obscurity" (p. 114).

(As a further's her plate, as rendered by Judy Chicago!)

Take The Dinner Party Virtual Tour...


albolton's picture

A few belated thoughts

Three Guineas seems to me very important in the sense of giving us a chance to touch base with what I understand is thought of as the first wave of feminism, but I think our world has changed a good bit in the years since it was written.  Even then, I think there was significant difference between England and the US in terms of rigidity of class structure.  So I think we can't expect Woolf to speak directly to our here/now situation.  But she certainly points to where we've come from.

The issue of class reminded me of a book I ran across in a used bookstore a few months ago, Cheap Amusements by Kathy Peiss, subtitled "Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York."  Reading this was something of an eye-opener, and a challenge to assumptions I hadn't realized I'd been making.  It's worth seeking out.

--Alex '65

marybellefrey's picture

Three Guineas

Every time I read Three Guineas I find something new.  The style is so seemingly personal, so hesitating, verbose, repetitive that it is easy to ignore it.  Virginia Woolf wrote as many as 8 versions even of a book review.  We should not be fooled.  She surely was looking for the perfect style and voice to say what she intended.  I understand her to say that women can do all the things men do without the same effects if they commit to poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties.  We all know women who have done these things, even in part, and the results are certainly suggestive.  Studies have shown that there is less corruption, both in the private and the public sectors, where women are in charge.  I have watched the recent political campaigns here in Guatemala.  A native of Antigua, a woman with a degree in architecture and degrees in urbanism from Europe has united 6 political parties behind her and has conducted a different sort of campaign, not competing with the male candidates' gifts to the public nor their elaborate entertainments.  There will be a run-off, but she appears to have won already.  Will she be able to stop the blatant graft and actually do something for the communities in the township?  We will see.  At least there will be a few extra millions to work with because they haven't gone into her own bank account. 

     From all evidence there has been war since we gave our loyalties to male gods.  As women acquire power, many men resort to their only real superiority, physical force.  I should think it natural that we see the same thing on a national or international level.

     Bryn Mawr vs. the poor, combustible college?  Well, she certainly is expensive.  But there is no doubt that she puts the women in "important"  places where women have not previously been.  I do love her and give her half of my very poor income.  She took or is taking every one of us on the roster seriously and has thus made us recognizable in the whole world, even in Guatemala 

Anne Dalke's picture


...further commentary on how Virginia Woolf's ideas look to some of Bryn Mawr's alums @ A Reaction to Three Guineas  and What is a Feminist?
tbarryfigu's picture

Back to Fact

I originally wrote the following post in response to a discussion of "fact," held in Ann Dalke's Stories of Evolution & Evolution of Stories class.  Even so, I feel it applies to Virginia Woolf's observations concerning the bloodthirsty nature of all professional life and training:

"It is my opinion that living in a Capitalist society has perpetuated the idea that certain professionals "own" their field...mainly, scientists "own" science because, well, that's just what they're good at. This belief, held by a majority of the educated population (though they may not necessarily phrase it as such) has allowed professionals to speak to their audience (educators, the professional community, etc.) in much the same way as a priest preaching Christianity.

Basically, If you know your science, you own that science, because, let's face it, after a certain point, you realize you know more than someone else and that knowledge is "yours" to exploit.

Now, while this is happening, others become concious of the fact that they don't know as much about a topic as another and, as a result, find themself looking to that person with the upmost of trust. There are two reasons for this. The first is that they don't obtain the knowledge necessary to contradict them. The second requires a visual: A scientist has spent years absorbing "facts" and is constantly moving up the knowledge ladder. If a scientist standing on the 10th rung of this ladder offers someone standing on the floor a bit of information, they benefit that person as they offer them the means to work their way up the ladder. The person on the floor does not want to believe they are filling their head with less-wrong information, and so they justify the absorbtion of new knowledge by calling it fact."

 It is my opinion that knowledge has slowly transformed into the natural resource everybody wants. More valuable than oil, and hypothetically attainable by every individual, people have begun to fight not only for it, but over it. People persist with this mentality: "If i've spent my time studying, I better damn well know more than you."  Thus, I must agree with Virginia Woolf: "professions make people...possessive, jealous...and highly combative."

jill.sellers's picture

Virginia Woolf in sheep's clothing?

I didn’t write about Three Guineas because I am already behind (struggling to catch up despite going to France tomorrow for 10 days).  The essays were brilliant and relentless.  They range and weave over so many topics, they seem to create a large tapestry of women’s lives in that society, in that time. It is full of accurate and lively detail. I accept it as true. Throughout there is a sense that the immediate subjects—the daughters of educated men—has been so ridiculously suppressed that they are now dangerous pressurized.  When they rise up, who knows that will happen.   


What makes women a “community” may be sex but may equally be a history of a marginalization with certain unique characteristics based on gender both as internalized by women themselves and as judged and assigned by men.  Woolf explores the illogic thoroughly and with bitter humor.   We have been “other” in a way different from other “others” because sex differences are like chromosomal pairs, mirror images, shadows.   Even when acknowledged to be educated, strong, noble, and right women were still expected to subordinate their claims for the good of humanity.  Misogyny expresses it but doesn’t explain it. In fact, misogyny is often strongest when woman begin to assert their strength.


What happens to that notion of female community when restraints ease and opportunities increase?  Doesn’t it seem obvious that women are as bloodthirsty, competitive, and grasping as men, educated or uneducated. How ironic that with increased education and opportunity we now have women in the military supporting combat in practically every way.  Do we argue that they should be combat soldiers too if they want?   If we do not, it can only be because we don’t think anyone should be fighting a war.  And that is a different discussion.

 Virginia Woolf had strong leftist sympathies along with her class biases.  I admire her writing too much to want to be critical.  To the Lighthouse is the perfect book.  But I don’t know that she would have felt much in common with Judy Chicago or even Sojourner Truth, to extrapolate from remarks in letters and diaries about other people and work.  I don’t know whether her scope is narrower or just very different from theirs—and mine.  It’s enough for me that she can share it with such blazing clarity. 


smigliori's picture

Underlying Meaning

As I read Three Guineas, I had a hard time deciding when Woolf was seriously advocating courses of action, and when she was merely trying to point out the ridiculousness of man's suggestion to women that she, who has been kept out of his society in every way possible, should now have the responsibility of saving him from himself. I cannot believe that Woolf was seriously advocating the burning down of schools or complete withdrawal of women for society. These solutions in themselves would seem as problematic as any other courses of action which Woolf poses and then systematically shoots down.


However, I couldn't help but think as a read through about the assumption made by a critic on the back of my copy that the book is "anti-war." While Woolf is writing to a man who has apparently requested her help in an anti-war movement, she never really seems to focus on whether or not that is the correct movement. Her text is far more feminist (a word which she seemingly would not be happy to have applied to her text because of its negative connotations) than anti-war. Her arguments are given to explaining why women are not yet capable of providing effort in the way the addressee of the letter wants them to be. Her argument could as easily have been directed towards any other cause which women are called upon to aid. While the anti-war movement is perhaps something which has been traditionally assumed to be closer to the heart of women, Woolf's solutions are not all non-violent. In her first essay, Woolf wants to burn down the school while the women dance and sing around it, an action which may be construed as barbaric as any manly war instinct.


In her third essay, Woolf asks the man to deal with the real world and real facts, not the dream world. However, Woolf also dreams of a time when the words "dictator" and "tyrant" may be burnt up just as the word "feminist" should be. How does Woolf believe this goal may be reached? She poses no alternate solution to war. While all can believe that war may be a horrible thing, her arguments all seem to support the idea that women is incapable of preventing war when she does not have the opportunity to be in a position of influence, but not necessarily that war is actually preventable.

One Student's picture

Quote A Lot of Questions

Virginia Woolf sounds terribly impressive and certain, in her caustic sarcasm, in her controlled outrage.


She harps on and on about the necessity of money for (financial) autonomy for power (to disagree). But financial equity does not create other kinds of equity, necessarily. And other kinds of equity are necessary for widespread financial autonomy.


Woolf wants to see a breakdown of something: not of US/THEM, but of US versus THEM, the justifications for US, and why it’s better to be US and why WE can do things that THEY can’t. There is a multiplicity still; Woolf is merely pointing out that US and THEM have some general, overarching purposes in common.


Does Woolf say anything of interest, anything applicable to women who are not the daughter’s of education men? What is the contemporary equivalent of the daughter of the educated man? For whom is Woolf relevant, here and now?


When Woolf suggests the sacredness of writing (by comparing it to religion before religion became a profession, by comparing Shakespeare to the Bible), should that change how we view and take in her writing? Is she indulging in profession-pride or art-pride?


I stopped wearing my high school ring this summer. The high school I attended, Miss Porter's School, is very much like Bryn Mawr College. It was founded in 1843, and the sisters of the boys who went to the Ivy League colleges went there. Like Bryn Mawr, we have traditions at Porter's, and in the final one of the school year, New Girls (all students new that year) receive their ring and become Old Girls. Most Porter's girls don't wear their rings all the time, and many stop after graduation, but I put mine on everyday for six years. The magic is gone, and I can't believe in the Cult of the School anymore. I don't participate in any traditions. I have my lantern and keep it in a prominent place in my room, I keep my lizard keychain on a keyring with my One Card. But I’m not sure why I do. I leave things for Athena, but that's a private and individual act, and I'm a classicist who's been flirting with paganism since middle school, so that doesn’t have much to do with being at Bryn Mawr. I believed in the Cult of the School in high school, and I paid attention to the wins and losses of the Porter's athletic teams, I attended every performance of our a cappella group, I read every word in the student publications, and so on. I'm as enthusiastic about my studies as ever, more so, but I am no longer enthusiastic or prideful about my school. I don’t wear my high school ring. I will not buy a Bryn Mawr ring. I’d honestly rather spend the money on books, travel, art, theatrical and musical performances, good food and tea.


Am I performing a Woolfian experiment? A passive experiment, of non-participation in those rituals which create and bind together a community. An experiment in freedom from unreal loyalties, perhaps. But have I achieved thoughtful indifference, or am I merely as self-absorbed and introverted as ever, but without the pretense?


The overarching theme of the three chapters is that individual women should not congratulate themselves for improving their own status within the existing status quo. Woolf wants to see a change in the status quo, which she suggests is best achieved by experimenting, outside the status quo, with different ways of doing things. I’m already in the status quo – Porter’s and Bryn Mawr aren’t exactly Eton and Oxbridge, but near enough, especially given M. Carey Thomas’s vision for Bryn Mawr as no difference from the best universities, except for the admission of women. I’m already one of the lucky few, have been for years. What’s the point of any experiment, then? I’m not divesting myself of privilege, but not participating in expressions of college pride. Can I even envision of the poor, young school? Can I forgive it for not being as old as my high school?


Where shall I put my three guineas?



Flora's picture

I am! (afraid)

Revisiting Three Guineas was more than a little unsettling for me. I adore Virginia Woolf's prose. I love the stream of conscious thoughts in her characters' heads largely because they feel so accurate to me. If I were in say, Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs Ramsay's position, I imagine I would think much of the same things. I find it amazing (and immensely enjoyable) that Woolf can portray the nonverbal aspects of thoughts via crisp images and variable grammar.

However, it is precisely this affinity of thought that frightens me in Woolf's nonfiction. I agree with much of what she criticizes (illogic, abuse, ignorance, hyperviolence, etc.) about patriarchal society, but do not reach the same conclusions (perpetuating, even validating, the gender/class status quo via an outsider's society). It seems that much of the limits of her arguments stem not from a lack of wit but from a narrowness in scope. One could make the argument that the first causes the second, that a sharp mind, by its very nature, pierces even the thickest cultural fog to find the widest breadth of evidence with which to fashion arguments.

And therein lies my fear. My childhood was and family background is very different than Woolf's. But, my status as a white American woman soon to have all the privileges a Bryn Mawr degree affords, places me in a similar socio-economic position as Woolf, class-oblivious advocate for an outsider's society. Has, as Woolf's own words imply, my time at Bryn Mawr blinded me to and permanently alienated me from experiences outside of my own? I am terrified of thinking some ideal universal due to my own ignorance. Woolf, then, reminds me that even the arguments of such a brilliant a mind as hers will almost certainly have errors subject to historical revision. Is all I can hope for, in thought, to strive for accuracy, but expect imperfection?

YJ's picture

A Response to (Mostly) Part III of Woolf's "Three Guineas"

One thing that struck me about Virginia Woolf's "Three Guineas" was her rather clever ability to turn many of the standard arguments about women and their role in society and show quite a different perspective. For example, when she replies to the man who is asking her for a guinea for the preservation of "culture and intellectual liberty" (pg 85), something he feels women can do better than men, she shows just how false that notion is. Women, even educated women of a higher class, lack the necessary power to carry out the things that would be needed in order to help preserve this "culture" and "intellectual liberty" this man has in mind (which he believes is the way to preventing war, another argument Woolf shows is not quite as sound as it may appear). One of the main themes of Woolf's argument is that how can women help preserve these rather abstract things of culture and liberty when they have barely experience either? When they have been shut out of the very places that breed such things, mainly universities? And how can women be asked of such a thing when other men are all the time making remarks to the effect that "women are not fit to teach male students," that women are inferior intellectually, etc.?

Woolf goes on to further show just how ridiculous this request is when she speaks of the sacrifices women would have to make in order to sign such a "manifesto" preserving culture and liberty, for they would have to give up the decidedly unintellectual writing they have hitherto engaged in for the sake of money. Put simply, to ask this of women is to ask of even more sacrifices of them who have already sacrificed so much (though not always by choice).

I would also like to briefly touch on Woolf's concept of an "Outsider Society" which basically already exists as women has always been the "outsider" in society. For me, it seemed Woolf was saying that as long as society is structured the way it is-with a very male-dominated hierarchy-there is no way women can ever become true "insiders," for even the women who should have power or influence, the educated daughters of a wealthy class, are treated as outsiders. As such, it makes no sense to work inside a system that has continually failed women and as Woolf puts it bluntly, treated them like "slave[s]," (pg 108) for in a way it only serves to support indirectly the very structure of that society. Women then, must work outside of this system, remaining "indifferent" in order to be recognized as real members of society.

Overall I found "Three Guineas" fascinating and it resonated with me on a personal level in many ways. However, I'm not sure how much I enjoyed the very class-conscious perspective Woolf was taking, which I understand is only logical since she herself is of this upper-class, but it makes me wonder where exactly lower-class and non-white females fit into this "outsider" society. Women of color are, by virtue of their race and their gender, "outsiders" in more than one respect so even the "outsider's" society Woolf speaks of may not be, ironically enough, inclusive for them.
Deborah Jones Farquhar '68's picture

A Reaction to Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas

A Reaction to Three Guineas
I feel Woolf really reveals herself—it is as if one is looking at a work of art, and she is that work of art, possessing a vast interior landscape. Although Woolf “wanders”, she is brilliant in her wanderings, as she writes about morality, and absolute points of view--“the point of view of an educated man’s daughter.” Is she self-deprecating? The breadth of her topic is astounding. As an aside, is this astounding expansiveness simply a manifestation of her creativity or a precursor to the mental illness that plagued her? Virginia hears so many “voices.” The amalgamation of those voices might, understandably, be conducive to passivity; however, I feel “passivity” should be defined in the context of her era, and woman’s role in that era. She states, “I doubt whether at any time during the last fifty years young women have been more politically apathetic, more socially indifferent than at the present time.” Yet she is as determined as Joan of Arc. She states, “And you will agree that to oppose strong emotion needs courage; and that when courage fails, silence and evasion are likely to manifest themselves… There are two good reasons why we must try to analyse both our fear and…anger; first, because such fear and anger prevent real freedom.” I think she feels a significant loss—a theme I like to call the “Inheritance of Loss”— using the title of the latter book conceptually and not literally— is the younger generation of women passive?—I do not like to use that term pejoratively because I love to connect to that younger generation, but that very generation has not experienced that loss--that is, they have not lived through the Depression, WWII, Vietnam nor the sixties. Do they take for granted both the concrete achievements and intellectual freedom we strove to achieve?—do they even believe that discrimination and harassment exist in the workplace, sometimes especially for smart women? They do exist. These themes (discrimination and harassment) can be gratuitous and non-quantifiable. Virginia states, “Here, if indeed they consent to listen, they might very reasonably ask us to be more explicit—not indeed to define culture and intellectual liberty, for they have books and leisure and can define the words for themselves. But what, they may well ask, is meant by this gentleman’s ‘disinterested’ culture, and how are we to protect that and intellectual liberty in practice?” She was ahead of her time.

We need to educate our young women to be brave. In Virginia’s words: “However that may be, let the plural stand and continue: ‘Daughters of educated men who have enough to live upon, and read and write your own language for your own pleasure, may we very humbly entreat you to sign this gentleman’s manifesto with some intention of putting your promise into practice?’”

I think that is Bryn Mawr’s manifesto.