Virginia Woolf: the pioneer of feminism

Approfondimenti / lunedì, Gennaio 15th, 2018

LoWomen, who have recklessly challenged the bigoted thought of the period, were those who have, first of all, the characteristics of high intellect. In the Nineteenth century the revolution that was put into effect, was strictly cultural and intellectual. But how it could be happened?

Documented by many texts of the period, the society was too long locked into rigid symbols of restrictions, which did not systematically allow for individualization. One of these symbols were founded in fashion, as certainly the corset, that provoked physical damages; in other circumstances, also education took part in an inexorable movement of castigation, because to be instructed was reserved only for men and for the richest. The mass followed precisely the rules dictated by the rulers and also they were submitted by dogma imposed by the church. Women, therefore, were subjugated from those who considered them insignificant and they reacted abandoning their selves to the bourgeois rules. Individuality didn’t exist, but, otherwise, grew a sense of general frustration, mixed with claim.

However, began to wake small niches of women, who imposed their thoughts, in spite of the great part of the population. One of these women was Virginia Woolf. She was the first woman who introduced individualization in female population, and was one of the first who create a literature for women in the feminist sense. In the era of the development of writers, Virginia Woolf can be considered, with other important writers such as Emily Dickinson and George Eliot, the most inspiring women of those years. Her brilliant mind, despite her psychological problems, goes far beyond the conventions and the distinctions between the sexes. In her writings, it emerges the psychological aspect of human weaknesses that Virginia loved to explore, helped by the story of her life, in particular by describing the nature of women.

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born in 1882 in London from a middle class family. She grew up in a literary and intellectual atmosphere: in fact her father’s friends were some of the most important Nineteenth century writers. Her life was marked by mental problems that crossed and destroyed her feelings. Virginia had two major mental breakdowns during her lifetime, and she would die during a third. Her first breakdown occurred after her mother’s death, when she was only 13 years old, which Virginia later described as “the greatest disaster that could have happened”. The figure of her mother was so important and full of meanings that provoked a huge sadness in her. The second was the sexual violence by one of her brothers, that she painfully called “my incestuous brother”.[1] In those years, sexual violence against women were very common and little punishable. Virginia was fully deprived of family safety that after the loss of his mother was already compromised. These aspects of deprivation, surely characterized her writings and her way to live her life. After these problematic events, which caused her nervous breakdowns, she married Leonard Woolf, a publisher. Her relationship, probably derivative from her unconventional mind, was openly unconventional too. In those years, she and her husband took part in the “Bloomsbury Group”, a group of intellectuals that reacted against Victorian society and values. Also the reactions against the reign indicate the different lifestyle and friendship. A number of her writings are surely autobiographical, such as the novel “Jacob’s room”, dedicated to the dead brother Jacob. She wrote also important novels, such as Three Guineas and Orlando that treated homosexuality themes. After her final attack of mental illness, Woolf loaded her pockets full of stones and drowned herself in the River Ouse near her Sussex home on March 28, 1941. She feared her madness was returning and that she would not be able to continue writing.

The vision of Virginia Woolf was strongly based on the emancipation and independence of women as men. What a woman in Victorian times was forced to do, it was not right for personal growth, especially for her. As seen previously, during the Victorian era the female population was literally forced by conventions, dogmas and dresses. The woman and the Victorian matriarch were women who could not study, if they were not rich or aristocratic enough to do it. The environments in which they lived were common spaces and they had to only take care of their husbands, and their children, and finally the house. These social conventions of formality and rigidity, had distinguish Victorian society until began to appear a glimmer of independence. The woman had to be emancipated, she had to fight for her rights and had to be adept at still be able to maintain the desired attitude from men and society. And it is this that seeks to make real Virginia Woolf in her book “A Room of one’s own”. This book represents the women’s fairest novel ever written.

‘But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own?’ [2]

With this sentence Virginia Woolf began her novel: what does a room for the emancipation of women? Surely a lot, because this fictionalized essay turns around many questions that Woolf ask directly to women’s soul. The room, synonymous of independence and individuality, is the key word to the ideal of emancipation for Woolf. It was a trip, an analysis to understand why women were human beings with lots of difficulties to evolve. This was an essay that remembers the literary history of women: the goal of the book was to highlight the women condition of the Nineteenth century that is the restriction of the female figure to silence. If until the Nineteenth century women had to be without expressions, opinions, and education, Virginia Woolf wanted to push every woman to react. Of course, the repression was really strong in those years, but the new motivation of Virginia Woolf, was the one that every women had to be independent. Independent to write a book, independent to do sport, independent to smoke and work like a men. These were things that in that century was forbidden also to think. This argument was clearly treated in her essay that showed the elevation of the women mind extrapolated by her view. The beautiful and intense vision of women treated in the essay “A room of one’s own”, demonstrate how Virginia Woolf was modern and sensitive to the grow up of women’s wellness and rights.

In this fictionalized essay, born from the restructuring of two conferences held in October 1928, for the female students of Newnham and Girton College, in Cambridge. She saw those girls in their youth uncertainties, and deepened the topic on the basis of studies and research on women’s literature. Just finished the conferences, she had a physical and mental fatigue, as if she had to lift a weight. Having so strongly involved those girls to trust in themselves, she wrote in “A Writer’s Diary”[3], gave her a sense of vitality and stimulation. The social contest, especially the English setting, looked at the uniformity of men, without minding to women tastes, ambitions or interests. What was missing to women in that period, was the individuality, the discovery of their identities. This term will be recurrent in this thesis work, because will put light on aspects of femininity that rarely are discovered. Virginia Woolf was clearly documented throughout the history of literature on women in order to analyze a subject so closely coveted. The first and the most important and symbolic question that Woolf ask herself is:

‘Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?’[4]

This is a question that may give rise to many debates, but Virginia Woolf start from the beginning. Spontaneously Virginia Woolf accord this problem the economic and intellectual poverty of women: it is for this reason that women do not have power in society? Poverty was a very important key in the change of women conditions during years: they didn’t have to work, earn money, probably because their position was to stay in the house. Men, and the society, believed that a working woman could be a bad mother or a bad wife. Woolf believed that this inferiority was a really strong condemnation for every feminine human being. She also describes how the men at the time, especially in power, allowed to annihilate women with serious offenses. Her analysis, leads to the vision of man as a lower figure that makes use of the woman’s superiority to be able to elevate. In a curious and very funny way she described her vision about men:

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” [5]

Women as mirrors, who reflect the little and arrogant image of men. She takes the example of great men in history like Napoleon, Alexander Magnum, Benito Mussolini. According to this view, women had more power than they believed. The origins that Woolf wrote about are the causes for which women are considered inferior in any field, especially literature. The differences between the two sexes in years, in the Nineteenth century became interesting and object of debates and studies, in which Virginia Woolf sat in a library and began to inquire. She highlighted that ‘there is no sign on the wall to measure the height of women in history’[6] , only men wrote about women. There is no trace of women in literature because, as Woolf says, they do not have a room of one’s own. According to her, everyone, both men and women, have to developed their identity through an accurate and individual study. Reading the book of George Macaulay Trevelyan, “History of England“, she opened up about the horrible informations about women in that century:

‘For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the conditions in which women lived? (…)I went, therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan’s HISTORY OF ENGLAND. Once more I looked up Women, found ‘position of’ and turned to the pages indicated. ‘Wifebeating’, I read, ‘was a recognized right of man, and was practised without shame by high as well as low… Similarly,’ the historian goes on, ‘the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion. Marriage was not an affair of personal affection, but of family avarice, particularly in the “chivalrous” upper classes… Betrothal often took place while one or both of the parties was in the cradle, and marriage when they were scarcely out of the nurses’ charge.’[7]

The feminine condition resulted strictly associated, as explained before, to the marriage and the relation with men. The power of men was incredibly imminent that women were constantly in the insignificant corner of the family and the society.

She wrote:

‘Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them. They are not even now as concerned about the health of their fame as men are, and, speaking generally, will pass a tombstone or a signpost without feeling an irresistible desire to cut their names on it, as Alf, Bert or Chas. must do in obedience to their instinct, which murmurs if it sees a fine woman go by, or even a dog, Ce chien est a moi.’

Anonymity, so, was the label of women for many years, and Woolf condemned this kind of reputation in the name of independence. The special thing that differs her from others writers, is that Virginia Woolf loved to transmit her passion to other people: she wanted to show to the students how important and really significant is to study for a woman. But, why women had to be constantly ignored? In spite of this, however she said that women are ‘the most discussed animal in the universe’[8]: the majority of women’s literature, however, is written by men. This denotes that the feminine subject is very interesting, but unfortunately at that time was not treated by women. The man, then, used the image of women as a mirror to reflect its lower image and is absolutely awed by female critics. Switch off it, even before hearing it. If we wanted to analyze better the vision of Woolf, we could say that she, more equality with men, aimed to individualism. It is useful to compare the woman nowadays also according to the prediction that Woolf wrote in the second chapter of “A room of One’s Own”. She dares saying that in a hundred years the woman will no longer be considered the weaker sex, she will be the one will work as a man, and will no longer denigrated or relegated to be useless. Very strong words those of Woolf, that make you think a lot about the condition still full of gaps of us women even today. Her complaint, if you can consider that, go ahead exemplifying women in novels.

‘Not being a historian, one might go even further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time—Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes…(…)But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.’[9]

The men, who have always lived life in relation to society in a free manner, work and write novels so incomprehensible to women. According to Woolf, women do not reach their own individuality and freedom of thought, which men have, they will never be able to understand the society. So, which is the right way to reach an individuality so they can be considered socially?For sure, Woolf, admits that they should have a room of their own, to be able to read, study and be able to have their own individuality, and she returns so to the main title. Then she pushed for a female salary, in consequence of a job, considering that the society was still very hard to digest the women who worked. It can be assumed that her vision is so current for that times: a woman should have a job.

“L’unico mezzo per stare a galla è lavorare. Un appunto per l’estate: devo prendere più lavoro di quello che mi è possibile sbrigare. No, non so da che cosa dipenda. Appena smetto di lavorare sento di affondare giù, giù. E come sempre sento che affondando ancora un poco arriverei alla verità. Questo è l’unico compenso: una specie di nobiltà. Solennità. Devo arrivare a convincermi che non c’è niente; niente per nessuno di noi. Lavorare, leggere, scrivere non sono altro che artifici; idem i rapporti con la gente. Si, neppure avere dei figli servirebbe.”[10]

Woolf described her need to work as artificial pleasure, and attributed it to such as an anchor that let her floating. She said also that relations with people and a family are necessary for her. Her independence is so strong that Woolf’s complaint, who seems like a warning, it was very advanced compared to the times. The speech and the ultimate goal of this book will then be taken from Virginia Woolf during a speech like that but much more mature in 1931. During the speech delivered before a branch of the National Society for Women’s Service on January 21, 1931, she wrote about the woman of the Nineteenth century as a phantom to kill:

‘I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House.’ [11]

Call a woman “The Angel in the House” with these characteristics, means that Woolf gathered perfectly the sense of the restrictions of that period. She described “the angel of the house” in this way:

‘She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it—she was pure.’[12]

How can in this way, a woman, evolve? Underlying the rules and to the pleasures of their men could not aim to individuality, to its identity. Virginia Woolf explains wisely come to be able to reach their intellectual freedom and change. She suggests to delete, or better, kill this ghost that makes women in a blocked position. She talks about her experience of life and tells how to become a writer and journalist, she was able to afford a wage, which is the minimum amounts for which a woman can become independent. In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf says the same thing. She concluded the speech with these words, continuing her stimulus launched during the put in writing of the book below:

‘You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning–the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are able to ask them; for the first time you are able to decide for yourselves what the answers should be. Willingly would I stay and discuss those questions and answers–but not to-night. My time is up; and I must cease.’[13]

Virginia Woolf can be considered one of the first feminists, not in the politics sense of the term, but as an intellectual person who lived on her skin, an attitude not common in her femininity. A matrimonial bond free by the oppressive schemes liabilities paid to the “wife”, and even the passion of love toward a person of the same sex, lived without fear. Unconcealed desire of women dedicated to independence, which have always experienced a condition of submission and non-education. Woolf tells with depth that distinguishes her, an ideal of society and woman in the years ahead will come true without any problems, and that will be the lever that will raise the mentality of female society running into a continuous elevation For her, women, were equal to men and she hoped in a future of justice for the female side. This point of view is clearly recognizable through many novels she wrote during her life. As write below, she discovered bisexuality with the romantic relationship, for several years, with Vita Sackville-West, a woman poet who she met at the Bloomsbury Group. This woman was so important for Virginia to the point that she wanted to write a novel, called Orlando, freely inspired to her, that talk about the transgender and homosexuality. Orlando, a young noble English guy, live a life in both the sexes, falling in love with men.

Homosexuality, so explicitly narrated and lived, has elevated Virginia Woolf as heroin of Nineteenth century. The sexual ambiguity, treated in many ways from Woolf, can be explained by the fact that every human being, own two characteristics. As Freud wrote, many years ago in his work “Three essays on the theory of sexuality“, there is always something male in women, and something female in men, argument also reported by Virginia in the book “A room of one’s own”. In the book “Vestirsi di sogni”, Elizabeth Wilson quotes that:

‘quello che noi uomini chiamiamo “l’enigma della donna” deriva parzialmente, forse, da questa espressione della bisessualità nella vita femminile’ [14]

This topic, really rare at the time, was a deep research for the author, about psychology inherent in the female psyche. Her marriage was open, and her view can be considered really actual for that years.

This relationship with Vita, made herself in the position to think about a sort of union between the male and the female characters that she also quotes in her book “A room of one’s own”. Homosexuality was in those years, a mental illness that could be an outrageous behavior punishable by imprisonment. Also Oscar Wilde, the really important writer of the 19th century, which, openly homosexual, spent most of his last years in jail for sodomy. Women, more than men, were considered punishable for homosexual actions. They were literally segregated in their houses, and more controlled. Their feelings were enveloped by an endless veil of castigation and sometimes carrying to the same sex. Virginia Woolf, in her five chapter of the book “A room of one’s own”, explained how normal was to be inclined to the same sex, and it was something that was not to be condemned.

“Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.” [15]

Her ideology was so present, if you think about all the battles that now happen for the recognition of homosexuality as normal physical and moral inclination. This reasoning led to a very important statement, namely that the human mind must be androgynous in order to produce a free-thinking. Androgyny, which will then be discussed in Chapter 2, will be part of the process of empowerment of women in the early Twentieth century. What Samuel Taylor Coleridge said is “a great mind must be androgynous”, a year after she subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of gender identity with her novel Orlando, Woolf writes:

‘The mind is certainly a very mysterious organ … about which nothing whatever is known, though we depend upon it so completely. Why do I feel that there are severances and oppositions in the mind, as there are strains from obvious causes on the body? What does one mean by “the unity of the mind”? … Clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them, at an upper window looking down on them. Or it can think with other people spontaneously, as, for instance, in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.’ [16]

Woolf then, between the elements that differ her from the society’s approved vision and thought, professed a union between the two sexes. It means that, in an individual, must live both a male and a female way of living. Thanks to this concept, every individual can be free and not be prejudiced, as those elements that made the women to be condemned in the Nineteenth century. Virginia Woolf’s movement to liberate women from prejudice was strictly related to a opened vision of what a woman can be. The restrictions seen at the times of the Victorian age, do not have touched and ruined her personal view of a independent and worker girl.

Virginia Woolf, was an outsider for her incredibly actual and free vision of the woman in the society. She was the pioneer of the early twentieth century feminism, and with her job as journalist and writer, she increased the self-confidence of many women during the Nineteenth century. Her clear and precise vision of women independence, profoundly changed the current thinking through the elevation of the own identity. Her book “A room of one’s own” remains one of the strongest testimonies of the incentive to seek their own identity even before acceptance in society. These are the elements that move away from the common thoughts that made women the weak link of the society.

  1. Biography, Virginia Woolf, Parafrasando,
  2. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”. Feedbooks, 1929, p.7
  3. Virginia Woolf, “A writer’s diary”, 1953. In 1953, Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, decided to gather in volume a selection from his wife’s diaries; he focused on everything related to writing and its activities novelist and literary criticism.
  4. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”. Feedbooks, 1929, p. 69.
  5. Virginia Woolf, “A writer’s diary”, 1953. In 1953, Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, decided to gather in volume a selection from his wife’s diaries; he focused on everything related to writing and its activities novelist and literary criticism, P.97.
  6. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”. Feedbooks, 1929
  7. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”. Feedbooks, 1929, p. 114-115
  8. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”. Feedbooks, 1929
  9. Virginia Woolf, “A writer’s diary”. 1953. In 1953, Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, decided to gather in volume a selection from his wife’s diaries; he focused on everything related to writing and its activities novelist and literary criticism, pp117,118.
  10. Virginia Woolf, “A writer’s diary”. 1953. In 1953, p. 171
  11. Virginia Woolf, “Profession for women: The Death of the Moth and Other Essays”, 1931
  12. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”, Feedbooks, 1929
  13. Virginia Woolf, “Profession for women: The Death of the Moth and Other Essays”, 1931. From the introduction of Mitchell A . Leaska: This is an abbreviated version of the speech Virginia Woolf delivered before a branch of the National Society for Women’s Service on January 21, 1931; it was published posthumously in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. More than a year and a half later, on October 11, 1932, Virginia Woolf began to write her new book: “THE PARGITERS: An Essay based upon a paper read to the London/National Society for women’s service.” “The Pargiters” evolved into The Years and was published in 1937. The book that eventually did become the sequel to A Room of One’s Own was Three Guineas (1938), and its first working title was “Professions for Women.”
  14. Elizabeth Wilson, “Vestirsi di sogni: moda e modernità”. Franco Angeli, 2008. Translation: ‘what we, men, call ‘the woman enigma” comes partly, perhaps, from this expression of bisexuality in women’s lives’
  15. Virginia Woolf, “A room of one’s own”. Feedbooks, 1929.
  16. Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 2015,