This marvelous anti-war, pro-woman tract is slightly less approachable than A Room of One’s Own, but worth a dozen reads of its own. Its dense, tightly constructed argument covers points in detail (with copious footnotes), and Woolf’s sly style trumpets wisdom while slightly mocking. She is a wonder.
Written as a letter in response to a request by a man asking her opinion of how to avoid war (along with a plea for a donation to his cause and to join it), this is a diatribe against the mistreatment of women at the hands of England. She quotes biographies, newspapers, speeches, to point out the very precarious position women are in, only having been given the right to work in certain professions 20 years earlier, and the brutal response of society to attempt to drain her of any power. Her argument is that war is the plaything and desire of men, and women should resist the patriotic fervor by absenting themselves from war-work, by not appearing at rallies, by pure indifference. Her snobbery does come through in her insistence on focusing only on the daughters of educated men (e.g. the wealthy), and leaving the poor ladies toiling in the dust, forgotten.
My biggest takeaway (perhaps because it’s at the end of the book, after a month of on-and-off reading), is the section on the psychologist’s testimony as to whether women should be allowed in the upper echelons of the Church of England. She quotes Professor Grensted:
“It is clearly a fact of the very greatest practical importance that strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women should be admitted to the status and functions of the Order of the Ministry. The evidence before the Commission went to show that this feeling is predominantly hostile to such proposals… This strength of feeling, conjoined with a wide variety of rational explanations, is clear evidence of the presence of powerful and widespread subconscious motive… it remains clear that infantile fixation plays a predominant part in determining the strong emotion with which this whole subject is commonly approached.”
For as Professor Grensted gave his evidence, we, the daughters of educated men, seemed to be watching a surgeon at work – an impartial and scientific operator, who, as he dissected the human mind by human means laid bare for all to see what cause, what root lies at the bottom of our fear. It is an egg. Its scientific name is “infantile fixation.” We, being unscientific, have named it wrongly. An egg we called it; a germ. We smelt it in the atmosphere; we detected its presence in Whitehall, in the universities, in the Church… Listen to the description. “Strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women be admitted” – it matters not to which priesthood; the priesthood of medicine or the priesthood of science or the priesthood of the Church. Strong feeling, she can corroborate the Professor, is undoubtedly shown should she ask to be admitted… [The two other motives for this feeling are:] To pay women more would be to pay men less [and]… a psychological motive, hidden beneath what the Commissioners call a “practical consideration” – “At present a married priest is able to fulfill the requirements of the ordination service ‘to forsake and set aside all worldly cares and studies’ largely because his wife can undertake the care of the household and the family…” (p 126-128)
After detailing the supportive private relationship between brothers and sisters, she rails against the public relationship and hits on something critical to what’s broken in society:
[T]he public, the society relationship of brother and sister has been very different from the private. The very word “society” sets tolling in memory the dismal bells of a harsh music: shall not, shall not, shall not. You shall not learn; you shall not earn; you shall not own; you shall not… Inevitably we ask ourselves, is there not something in the conglomeration of people into societies that releases what is most selfish and violent, least rational and humane in the individuals themselves? (p 105)
Some ridiculous letters to the editor are quoted, “thickening the odor” of blatant sexism. You can almost hear VW hooting with laughter as she clips these out of the Daily Telegraph (p 51):
I think your correspondent … correctly sums up this discussion in the observation that woman has too much liberty. It is probably that this so-called liberty came with the war, when women assumed responsibilities so far unknown to them. They did splendid service during those days. Unfortunately, they were praised and petted out of all proportion to the value of their performances. (20 January 1936)
I am certain I voice the opinion of thousands of young men when I say that if men were doing the work that thousands of young women are now doing the men would be able to keep those same women in decent homes. Homes are the real places of the women who are now compelling men to be idle. It is time that Government insisted upon employers giving work to more men, thus enabling them to marry the women they cannot now approach. (22 January 1936)
She brings up the very real problem of the power of the press to ignore issues, causing them to be scuttled, quoting Josephine Butler’s fight against the Contagious Disease Act:
“Early in 1870 the London Press began to adopt that policy of silence with regard to the question, which lasted for many years, and called forth from the Ladies’ Association the famous ‘Remonstrance against the Conspiracy of Silence’,… which concluded with the following: ‘Surely, while such a conspiracy of silence is possible and practised among leading journalists, we English greatly exaggerate our privileges as a free people when we profess to encourage a free press, and to possess the right to hear both sides in a momentous question of morality and legislation.” Again, during the battle for the vote the Press used the boycott with great effect. (p 162)
She brilliantly eviscerates the life of lawyers and clergymen:
Here is an extract from the life of a great lawyer. ‘He went to his chambers about half-past nine… He took his briefs home with him… so that he was lucky if he got to bed about one or two o’clock in the morning.’ That explains by most successful barristers are hardly worth sitting next at dinner – they yawn so…. Here is a quotation from the life of a great bishop. ‘This is an awful mind-and soul-destroying life. I really do not know how to live it. The arrears of important work accumulate and crush.’ (p 70)
Those opinions [quoted above] cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life – not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value. They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes… What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave. (p 72)
She asks how we can enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings, human beings who discourage war:
If you refuse to be separated from the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men – poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties – but combine them with some wealth, some knowledge, and some service to real loyalties then you can enter the professions and escape the risks that make them undesirable…
By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.
By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing.
By derision… is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise.
By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality… religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. (p 79-80)
More on why women should have no particular patriotism:
“‘Our country,'” she will say, “throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. ‘Our’ country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner… For in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (p 108-109)
Among the many tangents, some thoughts on literature as currently taught:
Further, the reduction of English literature to an examination subject must be viewed with suspicion by all who have firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of the art, and therefore of the very superficial value of an examiner’s approval or disapproval; and with profound regret by all who wish to keep one art at least out of the hands of middlemen and free, as long as may be, from all association with competition and money making. (p 155)
But for the sons and daughters of [the working class] to continue to sip English literature through a straw, is a habit that seems to deserve the terms vain and vicious; which terms can justly be applied with greater force to those who pander to them. (p 156)
* The Life of Sophia Jex Blake
* Life as We Have Known It by Co-operative working women, edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies