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Feminism and the "Four Great Teachers"

MC's picture

I think I enjoyed portions of Three Guineas, but there was something that really just bothered me about it.

Virginia Woolfe's description of the "four great teachers of the daughters of educated men" (emphasis mine) made me rather uncomfortable for a multitude of reasons. All four "teachers" have intimate associations with how women are controlled, and though Virginia Woolfe's definitions of each "teacher" are hardly the standard definitions for these words, seeing them connected to an essay on how women should act felt very off-putting.

The students of these teachers are not just any women, they are the daughters of educated men- a very particular group of women who, given the setting of her essay, are predominantly white ciswomen from at least a middle class background . The constant fear of poverty that many women faced and continue to face was far less pressing for daughters with well-educated fathers who had the greatest number of opportunities available (though admittedly this was only as long as they stayed with their fathers or married a man who would grow up to be like their educated fathers). Though this meant financial dependence, their freedom was still comparatively greater than the incredibly large population of women excluded from this group. Staying with a well-educated father meant access to what education they could get and, combined with money, more opportunities to see, listen, and speak with a greater variety of people and develop and express potentially dissenting modes of thought. The "daughters of educated men" were expected to be chaste to a certain degree, but because of their fathers' status their own chastity was less likely to be questioned, and they had a greater ability to move about discretely with their affairs. The derision they faced was also less because "daughers of educated men" rarely if ever _had_ to compromise their social status, and because of their inherent chastity due to a multitude of factors (whiteness, socio-economic class, schooling, just to name a few), they would be more strongly defended and more likely to be removed from derision.

So I'm a little uncomfortable with Virginia Woolfe taking tools to control women, particularly women who are not the "daughters of educated men", and swapping around their definitions until she thought they were acceptable to be applied to the "daughters of educated men". And maybe Virginia Woolfe would say that it is my education into the tradition of men's education that also makes me not particularly like her revised definitions of poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom. Pushing against consumerism is one thing, but the ability to feel financially secure is another. Maintaining artistic/academic integrity is one thing, but using words to invoke imagery of prostitution for doing anything ranging from accepting monetary compensation for your hard work to doing what needs to be done to maintain your lifestyle (without hurting others or yourself, I hope) is another. Arguments for and against her definitions of derision and freedom are slightly more complex. While fighting against the confinement of a non-chosen role is, I would say, very feminist, the idea of not commiting to anything is seems unrealistic and a little destructive (cooperation is necessary for change). Refusing awards because you are angry at the bodies and/or reasoning behind the award is admirable, but on the extreme opposite end is refusing to acknowledge your own abilities and accomplishments (which is a very strong method of control society uses against a very broad spectrum of people, and that kind of makes it not cool-- also have a link).

On a last note: has anyone else noticed that Woolfe's "four teachers" are all pretty big issues in modern feminism? Also, would you call Woolfe's "teachers" reclamation of those words? Why or why not? Do you feel that reclamation is viable, or furthers an agenda of control? Are there some words you just wouldn't touch?