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Feminism and Spirituality
by Feral

Beltane 2003, Vol 2-3
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Virginia Woolf
Courtesy of the Gale Group's Free Resources

A Letter To Virginia Woolf

Dear Virginia,

They've made a movie about you and Mrs. Dalloway.(1) The actress who played you won an award for speaking your words. Yet in her speech of thanks she mentioned the (male) scriptwriter and not you.

The awards ceremony happened at the same time as the latest war. There are thirteen women serving in the U.S. Senate now, and nine of them voted for the war, along with sixty-four of the men. That's about 70% of the women and 73% of the men. Not much difference.

The Guinea -- A guinea was £1-1s-0d (which is £1.05) [1 pound, 1 shilling] and could be written as '1g' or '1gn' or, in the plural, '3gs' or '3gns'. It was considered a more gentlemanly amount than £1. You paid tradesmen, such as a carpenter, in pounds but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas. (from the Wilkie Collins website article, "What's a Guinea")

You predicted this. You wrote Three Guineas(2) in 1936-38, "between the wars," as people used to label the time between world wars 1 and 2. You wrote in a time when women, at least "the daughters of educated men," were just beginning to hold jobs and receive their own, earned sixpences into their gloved hands. In Three Guineas, you gave a book-length answer to three requests for financial contributions:

  • to a campaign to help prevent war and "protect culture, and intellectual liberty."
  • to a women's college building fund
  • to a society promoting the entry of "the daughters of uneducated women" into the professions

You saw that a woman, to have any impact on issues of war and culture, must be financially independent. To achieve that independence, she must be educated, and the professions must be open to her.

Flora Sanders female soldier, WWI
courtesy of BBCI

Women in Britain had spent decades working unsuccessfully for the vote, for access to university, for economic independence. What tipped the balance in their favor was world war 1. Some women went about energetically shaming any man not in uniform - handing him a white feather to symbolize his cowardice. But many thousands of women rushed from the confines of home and schoolroom to do the men's work while they fought and died overseas. The war killed so many men, in fact, that a generation of British women expected to stay single or widowed for the rest of their lives.

In 1919, after "the war to end all wars," Parliament officially struck down the prohibition on women in the professions. The next year, British women got the vote, and Oxford began granting degrees to women. (Cambridge was still holding out when you started Three Guineas.)

You saw the beginnings of women's independence, prosperity, and influence -- springing from the opportunities of war, yes -- but still so new, you could hope that empowered women would transform the world. You saw the catch, though: If women are educated like men, and admitted to the professions like men, the successful women will be those who are the most like successful men.

You told the fundraiser for the women's college that you would contribute only if the college did not teach "the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital. They require too many overhead expenses: salaries and uniforms and ceremonies."

Virginia, you were more radical than the '70s feminists who worked so hard to plant Women's Studies in the same academic grove that sheltered weapons research. You were as radical as the separatists, who worked just as hard to withdraw from the "power-over" culture, though some spores stuck to their shoes and traveled away onto women's land.

There are wise women now who teach without degrees and institutions, who work without honors and ceremonies. Many of them are doing all they can to create a world without war. But such women are not elected to the Senate. The Senators have been educated and honored and pressed through a thousand cultural sieves. So it's not surprising that Blanche Lincoln, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, Jean Camahan, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Maria Cantwell, Mary Landrieu, Olympia Snow, and Susan Collins voted for this particular war. It's more surprising that Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, Debby Stabenow, Patty Murray, and 19 of their male colleagues voted against it.


Of course, Virginia, you concluded that you'd give your guinea to the women's college building fund even if they couldn't promise a radical curriculum. To have any effect on matters of war and culture, women must be able to earn their own money. The women Senators have achieved the power to vote on wars, though not to stop them. They want to keep their jobs, or, as women who have learned success from men, they may approve of war.

Since it's still not all that easy for a woman to find a good job, it's not surprising that women have continued to find opportunity in war. As of September 30, 2002, a total of 212,266 women were in the U.S. military.(3) With each war the U.S. fights, more military women participate, in more active roles, and more of them die. Lori Piestewa was the first woman soldier and Native American to die in this particular war; the Native American press referred to her as a "Hopi warrior."(4)

Some of the combat roles are still closed to women, but the distinctions are breaking down. A recent war proved that it was too hard to keep women behind the lines when no one could tell for sure where the lines were. Also, the military women were doing, by and large, a good job. From decades of feminism and working experience, we can guess they were doing their jobs twice as well as most of the men -- because that's the way women always have made inroads into male-only trades. The problem with this particular trade is its intimate connection with "dead bodies and ruined houses," your description of Spanish civil war photographs, which applies equally to the images flashed all over the world from Iraq in recent days. There, the bodies lie on the ground or in the broken houses. As feminists, we fiercely object to "regime change" that kills women and children who haven't had any power to affect the regime.

Here, other women come home in body bags, mourned as heroes, as warriors. As feminists, we support women's right to make their own choices and live their own lives and earn their own money with which to affect matters of war and culture.

But Virginia, you saw the trap. In the years before women had any independence, a woman received "an unpaid-for education at the hands of poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties." Can a woman keep that freedom from unreal loyalties once she enlists, gets the paycheck, the uniform, the training, a measure of respect along with the same old derision? How does she make sense of what she's doing, protecting oil wells while ancient museums burn, killing the women and children from a safe distance?

How can we ask the woman soldier to maintain her freedom from unreal loyalties, when the woman Senator can't seem to manage it? In the world we have now -- not the world you hoped for, Virginia, but maybe the world you feared -- do we surrender to unreal loyalties, or do we get "Dixie-Chicked"?(5)

You decided to donate a guinea to the society to promote women in the professions. You merely asked the society to hold that

If it is wrong to sell the body for money, it is much more wrong to sell the mind for money…. If you agree to these terms then you can join the professions and yet remain uncontaminated by them; you can rid them of their possessiveness, their jealousy, their pugnacity, their greed. You can use them to have a mind of your own and a will of your own. And you can use that mind and will to abolish the inhumanity, the beastliness, the horror, the folly of war.

You also donated a guinea to the campaign to help prevent war and "protect culture, and intellectual liberty." But you rejected the eminent man's request to join his organization working toward that goal. Instead, you said,

We can best help you prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods.

Twentieth-century feminism came to consciousness in the U.S. through the struggles against racial injustice and the Viet Nam war. One more time, women rushed from home and schoolroom to participate, demonstrate, risk their lives and prove their strength, many of them opposing the war, but still in some ways freed by it. Then there was a long, serious effort to "find new words and create new methods" for the transformation of patriarchy.

Now the pattern repeats again. Some U.S. women are carrying protest signs again and some are fiercely shaming the protesters. Some are in boot camp or in the field of war, and some are waiting, as women have always waited, for sons and daughters to come home. At the same time, Iraqi women are searching bombed neighborhoods for food, water, and missing children.

And some women here and around the world are still working to "find new words and create new methods" to bring peace to ourselves and the world. This is the work of many Goddess women, working without honors and credentials and institutions, without Senatorial privileges, without getting paid. This is the work of many covens, turning from the magic of daily, personal survival to the magic of planetary survival. This is the work of many women and men who are resisting the pull of their nightmares and the passive fascination of CNN to do, every day, something positive.

Virginia, it was 1941 when you filled your pockets with stones and walked into the river. Your house in London had been bombed, you had watched the putting on of uniforms, the bravado, the grim parade. You knew it would all get worse. Was it the private or the public nightmare that sent you into the river, or could you no longer distinguish between them?

In Three Guineas, written before the bombs started falling on your house, you wrote,

A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realise that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you in the immensity of your public abstractions forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected.

It's still too soon to tell if women soldiers will make us confront the ancient reality that war is deadly for women, or if the women and the military engine will change one another in hard-to-conceive, positive ways. Maybe through all this horror we are moving toward a time when unreal loyalties can be abandoned and our true connection recognized -- our connection with the dead bodies, the ruined houses, the women everywhere, on every side of every action that leads to war or away from it.


(1) Mrs. Dalloway, a novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1925. Currently available in new editions prompted by the release of the film The Hours in 2002. (The Hours was the name of an early version of Mrs. Dalloway.)
(2) Three Guineas, a book-length essay by Virginia Woolf, was published in 1938. All the otherwise unattributed quotes in this article are from Three Guineas.
(3) Department of Defense document (Active Duty Military Personnel by Rank/Grade (Women), September 30, 2002)
(4) Indian Country Today
(5) In an interview with Diane Sawyer, one of the Dixie Chicks quoted Madonna as saying she didn't want to get "Dixie-Chicked," so she removed the military imagery from her latest music video before releasing it. To "Dixie-Chick" in this context means to revile, abuse, threaten, boycott, and in every way attempt to shame a performer -- a female performer -- for exercising her free-speech rights to criticize a war president.

Graphics Credits
Virginia Woolf, courtesy of the Gale Group's Free Resources
+ Three Guineas, scanned image of the author's book
+ Flora Sanders female soldier, WWI, courtesy of BBCI
Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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