Virginia Woolf's Feminist Perspective on War and Patriarchy in "Three Guineas"

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Theme 5: Virginia Woolf

A very simple definition of feminism would emphasize that it's about having women’s voices heard, their ideas taken seriously, and having their demands for equality and basic rights incorporated into everyday “democratic” life.

Her Story: A Feminist Perspective

The early history of feminism can be seen in the existence of a cliché word which helps to express this, known as the problem of her story. It may be something of an overused term, but it’s a useful starting point. History needed, needs, and will need to be balanced by her story.

Lana Rakow has distinguished between four feminist approaches to popular culture:

  1. The recovery and reappraisal approach
  2. The images and representations approach
  3. The reception and experience approach
  4. The cultural theory approach

What she says is that feminists have generally tried to recover works written or made by women but which have been ignored. Some have analyzed how women have been represented by men and by themselves, and others have put the emphasis on how women consume cultural forms. Finally, there’s the possibility of taking a general theory developed within feminism and applying it to a popular cultural form. The most practical approach is the images and representations approach.

Virginia Woolf's "Three Guineas": A Feminist Cultural Critique

Giving you an example of what her story might look like, I’ll refer to one of the figures within feminism: Virginia Woolf. Her critical essay of 1939 entitled Three Guineas hasn’t received much emphasis within cultural studies, with Leavis calling it “nasty”, “dangerous”, and “preposterous”. In Three Guineas, Woolf imagines she is replying to a letter sent to her by a successful and respectable barrister asking how the daughters of educated men might help to prevent war. Actually, Woolf discusses the general question of how these “daughters” might help to prevent war within the context of three imaginary requests seeking support and money for different causes. Woolf practices feminist cultural criticism by offering three replies:

  1. A reply to a letter asking for a subscription to a society to help the daughters of educated men to obtain employment in the professions.
  2. A reply to an honorary treasurer's letter asking for money with which to rebuild a woman's college.
  3. A reply to a letter asking that the daughters of educated men should sign a manifesto pledging themselves “to protect culture and intellectual liberty”; and join that society which is also in need of funds.

Woolf gives a Guinea to each cause, but only under very special conditions. It’s important to highlight that Three Guineas was written on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, when Fascism was perceived as a real threat to world peace.

Exclusion, Subordination, and the Patriarchy

In her first Guinea, Woolf’s reply to the question enables her to mount this powerful cultural critique of exclusion and systematic subordination. Many men argued that upper-class women shouldn’t have the right to earn a living, that working in the professions wasn’t dignified and only another kind of slavery. Woolf replies that “to depend upon a profession is a less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father”, thus bringing out what she saw as the patriarchal basis of British life. The patriarchy she talks about is related to patriotism, including the idea that men claim to fight out of a love of freedom and are driven to the pride they feel for their country. These justifications enable Woolf to ask what patriotism might mean to the daughters of educated men. Later, in her essay, she raises the question of national identity, where she suggests she has no country because it has made women dependent and treated them as slaves.

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