“How are we to help you prevent war?” Virginia Woolf’s feminist pacifism

Welcome to Art Resists! Each week this newsletter promotes, discusses, and thinks through a variety of anti-fascist art. Our first “season” focuses on 1933–1945, a time when fascism and authoritarianism were sweeping Europe and Asia. Artists of conscience across the world spoke out against ethno-nationalist violence, repression, and war. Here is a glimpse of what they made.

Virginia Woolf blasts H.G. Wells’ misogyny as tyranny

Last week, I mentioned that vaunted British novelists Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells shared space on the program for the 1937 NJCSR fundraiser “Spain and Culture, in aid of Basque refugee children.” Both had strong political opinions; both wrote passionately about stopping the spread of fascism across Europe. They had, as Paul Robeson urged, taken the side of freedom against slavery.

But a year later, in 1938, Woolf publicly attacked Wells for his misogynistic and anti-feminist rhetoric. She sought to remind the world that “freedom” means freedom and dignity for all. Wells — among other British male writers — may have said he chose freedom, but he was still espousing forms of oppression.

The attack comes in the middle of Woolf’s book-length essay, Three Guineas [full text at Project Gutenberg Australia]. The essay is worth reading in its entirety — it’s a foundational document of feminist anti-fascist pacifism.

Three Guineas takes the form of a long letter written by Woolf in response to a man who has asked her “How should war be prevented?” Woolf answers from the point of view of her own social class, the white daughters of educated men who have only recently gained access to education (60 years prior), the professions (20 years prior), and the same voting rights as men (10 years prior). Woolf argues that the history of these inequalities has not yet passed from view, and the daughters of educated men are still at a structural disadvantage compared to their fathers and brothers. For that reason, the question for Woolf becomes, “How are we to help you prevent war?”

It has no easy answer. “War is an abomination,” Woolf declares, “a barbarity; war must be stopped.” And yet, Woolf is not comfortable doling out her three guineas to various anti-war, education, and professional charities, for she cannot be sure that these charities are really doing anything to prevent war and fascism. She argues forcefully that education and professional life must be completely reimagined, in order to teach the young to hate war, force, domination, and “the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.”

Furthermore, Woolf asserts, it is useless to combat oppression and fascism abroad when it festers throughout Britain. Here she turns to the words of various British male writers, demonstrating that their misogyny is dictatorship barely disguised.

With her trademark sarcasm, Woolf speaks to the white daughters of educated men about their supposed lack of continued political activism:

Your lethargy is such that you will not fight even to protect the freedom which your mothers won for you. That charge is made against you by the most famous of living English novelists — Mr H. G. Wells. Mr H. G. Wells says, “There has been no perceptible woman’s movement to resist the practical obliteration of their freedom by Fascists or Nazis.” Rich, idle, greedy and lethargic as you are, how have you the effrontery to ask me to subscribe to a society which helps the daughters of educated men to make their livings in the professions? For as these gentlemen prove in spite of the vote and the wealth which that vote must have brought with it, you have not ended war; in spite of the vote and the power which that vote must have brought with it, you have not resisted the practical obliteration of your freedom by Fascists or Nazis. What other conclusion then can one come to but that the whole of what was called “the woman’s movement” has proved itself a failure; and the guinea which I am sending you herewith is to be devoted not to paying your rent but to burning your building. And when that is burnt, retire once more to the kitchen, Madam, and learn, if you can, to cook the dinner which you may not share . . .

She’s quoting from H.G. Wells’ unbearably long and solipsistic Experiment in Autobiography [full text at Project Gutenberg Australia], in which he blathers at length about politics, utopianism, and gender. For Woolf, his words, along with the published writing of many other men, demonstrate a misogynistic will to power that looks a lot like the oppression Britain is supposedly against.

There, in those quotations, is the egg of the very same worm that we know under other names in other countries. There we have in embryo the creature, Dictator as we call him when he is Italian or German, who believes that he has the right whether given by God, Nature, sex or race is immaterial, to dictate to other human beings how they shall live; what they shall do. Let us quote again: ‘Homes are the real places of the women who are now compelling men to be idle. It is time the Government insisted upon employers giving work to more men, thus enabling them to marry the women they cannot now approach.’ Place beside it another quotation: ‘There are two worlds in the life of the nation, the world of men and the world of women. Nature has done well to entrust the man with the care of his family and the nation. The woman’s world is her family, her husband, her children, and her home.’ One is written in English, the other in German. But where is the difference? Are they not both saying the same thing? Are they not both the voices of Dictators, whether they speak English or German, and are we not all agreed that the dictator when we meet him abroad is a very dangerous as well as a very ugly animal? And he is here among us, raising his ugly head, spitting his poison, small still, curled up like a caterpillar on a leaf, but in the heart of England. Is it not from this egg, to quote Mr Wells again, that ‘the practical obliteration of [our] freedom by Fascists or Nazis’ will spring? And is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity? And must not that fight wear down her strength and exhaust her spirit? Should we not help her to crush him in our own country before we ask her to help us to crush him abroad? And what right have we, Sir, to trumpet our ideals of freedom and justice to other countries when we can shake out from our most respectable newspapers any day of the week eggs like these?

In the end, Woolf gives her three guineas to the three causes, but emphasizes their interconnectedness, “for the causes [anti-war, women’s education, and women’s right to work] are the same and inseparable.” She stakes her final response to the question “how should war be prevented?” on her vision of dignity for all: “the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” For Woolf, this means we must see ourselves and our own struggles in others.

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First edition slipcover of The Years, illustrated by Vanessa Bell

Virginia Woolf originally intended Three Guineas to be part of a novel-essay that moved back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. She couldn’t get the form to work, though, and ended up separating the two. The fiction parts became the novel The Years [full text at Project Gutenberg Australia], which follows a genteel family from 1880 to the mid-1930s. The two texts still form a fascinating diptych, demonstrating a writer working through her commitment to social justice from opposite directions.

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

PhD, writer, feminist.

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