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Reading Three Guineas

Notes for Day 2 of Critical Feminist Studies

Woman's Education, Professionalization...and War-Making?
Reading Virginia Woolf's 1938 essays, Three Guineas

with help from Sarah Palin

Sarah Kauffman: At the beginning, [Woolf] mentions that war is a strictly man's outlet for "manly" qualifities...she uses this order to explain why "patriotism" is a different concept altogether for women....Now that women have clear political agency and are very much involved in the political process, it is interesting to see Woolf's philosophy shine through the current American government....Can women in our government criticize without being overtly criticized?

Emily Bock: as a society, we more often than not are trained to feel more comfortable if we can label or assign uncomplicated, simple others individuals...we're thinking in terms of some woman-identified feminism

anorton: So much of her writing seems self-deprecating that it seems a joke....Is Woolf completely serious in these essays, or are they meant to have a humorous edge?

lrperry: Woolf...suggests that it is this very outsider status that allows these women to effect more meaningful change.

aaclh: I was surprised at how satirical/sarcastic...her writing style was....
Why is this book addressed to people of money? ...
I found interesting the idea that poverty can be a teacher....
also the idea that it could be valuable (I know, passive) to women
to remain outside of men's society.
Do women see the world differently than men?

As a way of getting us all involved in working our way
towards answers to some of these questions....

I'm distributing "guineas" (metaphorically represented by assorted buttons and coins) for you to engage in the same sort of "thought experiment" that Virginia Woolf conducts.

N.B. per Wikipedia: " by itself a badge of social class, the money amount of 21 shillings (1.05 pounds sterling) for which no coin existed, but the common denomination for solely upper-class transactions (e.g., purchase of pictures or race-horses, lawyers' or medical specialists' fees, and so on.)"

Woolf argues that three causes are identical:

  • establishing a woman's college
  • supporting a professional women's organization, and
  • preventing war.
"The three guineas...are all given to the same cause, for the causes are the same and inseparable" (144). Think (and write) through these connections for yourselves (they may be very different than they appeared to Woolf, writing during the rise in fascism in the late 1930's):
  • What is feminism to you?
  • With what causes (if any) is it separable?
  • To what causes will you donate your (meagre) funds?
    (Bins and labels provided.)

    sarina: I am starting to question if feminism is more than a focus on gender equality, but equality in general.

    aeaston: What is feminism? It's so elusive to me. I always thought of feminism as a celebration of women and their rights. Woolf says you must free yourself from unreal loyalties such as sex pride. Then is feminism not a fight for women but a fight to eradicate the distinction between men and women? between sex,nationality, etc.?...I want to believe that...

Having taken your stands (and explained them),
let's try to get a handle on Woolf's sort of feminism:

  • In her account: what is it like to be a woman?
  • What is her understanding of sexual difference?
  • Does she minimalize or maximize it?
  • Does she see it as biological/natural/essential/socially constructed?
  • What does she see happening to difference when social conditions change
    (i.e., when women begin taking degrees and entering the professions)?
  • Should women then lose their differentness?
  • Should they want to? Try to?
Key passages from

"'we'...must differ in some essential respects from 'you,' whose body, brain and spirit have been so differently trained and are so differently influenced by memory and tradition. Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes. Any help we can give you must be different from that you can give yourself, and perhaps the value of that help may lie in the fact of that difference." (18)

"Do we wish to join that procession, or don't we? On what terms shall we join that procession? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?" (62)



"The professions have a certain undeniable effect upon the professors. They make the people who practise them possessive, jealous of any infringement of their rights, and highly combative. (66)

"to emphasize superiority...rouses competition and jealousy...which encourage a disposition towards war. We can refuse all such distinctions ourselves." (21)

"education, far from teaching the educated generosity and magnanimity, makes them on the contrary to anxious to keep their possessions...that they will use...much subtler methods than force when they are asked to share them? And are not force and possessiveness very closely connected with war?" (29-30)

"This is an awful mind- and soul-destroying life....Sight goes....sound goes...Speech goes...Humanity goes...Health goes...What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave."(70-2)

"How can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings...who wish to prevent war?" (75)

[Woolf ends w/ a refusal] "to be separated from the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men--poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties." (79)


With those passages under our belts/ringing in our ears,
let's return to two of (both Anne's and Virginia's) main themes:

"What is the aim of education, what kind of society,
what kind of human being [should it] seek to produce?" (33)
(Always the test case: what would Woolf's analyses of Bryn Mawr be?)

What is key for me in Virginia Woolf's analysis: the claim that
any distinctions made on a single axes of value lead to...war.
I read this as a valuation of difference--
and see an educational and political agenda following directly from that.

There are limits to her vision, to her "outsider's society":
she writes with the hauteur of the privileged woman--
certainly exhibits no solidarity w/ the working class--
she also claims none.

Lots of feminists use the word "woman" as a universal category;
Woolf is unusually precise in her use of categories:
she speaks only about the "daughters of educated men";
she was aware that she was not representative of all women
(an ungenerous reading would be that this
just gives her an alibi for not thinking about others,
those maids in private houses that were so imprisoning for wealthy women).

(Bringing it home...)
From Examining Our History: Inclusion/Exclusion at Bryn Mawr (11/18/05):

Joseph Taylor directed in his will that his money be used to erect buildings "for the comfort and advanced education and care of young women, or girls of the higher classes of society."

From the College Archives

Elizabeth Mosier '84 and Creative Writing instructor
"Campus Life," Bryn Mawr College Homepage, accessed 4/3/00:

What I felt from the moment I stepped through Pembroke Arch was that Bryn Mawr College was for me. It was the "room of one's own" that Virginia Woolf had counseled me to find. And in finding it at this women's college, I was surprised to discover that here, my gender wasn't the most noteworthy thing about me. For the first time in my life, the fact that I'm intelligent wasn't met with great surprise. At Bryn Mawr, it was quietly expected that I would go beyond what others had assumed were my limitations, laid on me with the parenthetical phrases following every accolade: "That's good work--or writing or reading--(for a girl)."

aeaston: This led me to think about...what it means to be a student at an all women's college. Here, I am making my claim in the world. I am equipping myself with the tools I need so that I won't need to rely on someone else. I am "throwing open the doors of the private house" for myself.

Does providing "a room of one's own" seem to you
a vision adequate as to guide a women's college?

How about this alternative?

Would Virginia Woolf be know of this news from the 4/16/00 NYT: "In the largest donation ever to a woman's college, a New York couple has given $25 million to Wellesley College. The gift from Anthony Wang and his wife, Lily...was announced as the college began a five-year campaign to raise $400 million, the most ambitious fund-raising goal ever set by a woman's college...since women have traditionally lagged behind men in charitable giving, women's colleges have had less success than coeducation institutions in fund-raising...Wellesley's president said the gift from the Wangs "shattered that shibboleth. This says women are loyal and they care, and they care about causes that have to do with women and the institutions that help women to make a difference in the world," she said. 'When we pull this campaign off, it will say that women are every bit as capable of raising money to support an institution they love as men are. We don't have to think of them as any less capable in that realm any more than we have to think of them as less capable in any other realm.'"

Does saying that "women are every bit as capable of raising money
to support an institution that they love"
seem to you a good end for women's education?

Might we re-conceive our work on other terms,
as installing multiple different sorts of women in the public sphere?
As eschewing the public sphere??

Also as part of "re-conceiving our work,"
we turn, next week, to the first section of the course,
interrogating the category "woman"--> and thinking about
the possibility of a non-identitarian politics.

We're starting w/ biology, and will welcome Paul Grobstein as our guest.
In preparation, please read Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective.