Monday, November 12, 2012

The Subversive Act of Interjecting A Private Letter into the Public Sphere

Virginia Woolf smacks the conundrum of women confined to the private sphere in the face with the authorship of Three Guineas by unveiling the often concealed private letter and placing it into the public sphere.  Drafted in 1938, we see Woolf’s conclusions of a lifetime of social, economic and political observation come to form in this edgy format.  This work further allows us to explore the segregation between the public sphere and the private sphere.  

The  book is creatively crafted in response to a letter – the convention itself reveals the subversive nature of thrusting the private letter into the public sphere for appropriate dialogue and debate. “Now regarded as one of the most important letter writers of the twentieth century, Woolf spins and tortures the form of the semiprivate letter in Three Guineas to show how difficult it is for a woman citizen in England in 1936 and 1937 to reply to request for money for good causes. Her replies (our text) also follow the private letter into the public domain,” writes Jane Marcus in the 2005 introduction of Three Guineas. (Woolf), lvii.

Woolf points to the honorary treasurer’s letter soliciting money to rebuild her college as an opening to document Woolf’s perspectives on the role of women in professions, the power dynamics at work in society and the future for women. “She has been asking for some time; she is still asking it seems… History, biography and the daily paper between them make it difficult either to answer her letter or to dictate terms,” Woolf writes. (Woolf), p 39. Woolf indicates the incredulity of asking for money in the face of the war economy.  “Let us inform you: we are spending three hundred millions annually upon the army and navy; for, according to a letter that lies cheek by jowl and your own, there is a grave danger of way. How then can you seriously ask us to provide you with money with which to rebuild your college?” (Woolf), p 41

Woolf wrote this book in 1938 and despite the passage of 74 years of social, political and economic change, the issues remain the same. This awakening reveals a startling, and at times disheartening incidence of social misalignment, gender based power struggles and gender inequality in the workplace. Today, we still address the concepts of professions for women, the use of the word ‘feminist,’ equal pay for work, the ability of women to serve as religious leaders and other topics addressed by Woolf in Three Guineas. From first wave feminism to the third and fourth wave, society still grapples with these core struggles.

As a former journalist and communications studies instructor, I was interested in how Woolf observed the powerful role that men play in the world of publishing. She articulates their role as “gatekeepers” and simultaneously reveals how women are cast to the side, despite their views or the strength of their words.  “Then again although it is true we can write articles or send letters to the Press, the control of the Press – the decision what to print, what not to print – is entirely in the hands of your sex.” (Woolf), p 16.

Woolf tackles women’s role in exterior society head-on, with a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, irony and confrontational language. She includes photography to advance her narrative responses. “The coloured photograph that we have been looking at presents some remarkable features, it is true, but it serves to remind us that there are many inner and secret chambers that we cannot enter. What real influence can we bring to bear upon law or business, religion or politics – we to whom the doors are still locked, or at best ajar, we who have neither capital nor force behind us? It seems as if our influence must stop short at that surface,” Woolf writes in Three Guineas. (Woolf), p28

Woolf underscores the gender- segregated spheres of the public and the private. “Sir I take you to mean that the world at present is divided into two services; one the public and the other the private. In one world the sons of educated men work as civil servants, judges, soldiers and are paid for that work; in the other world, the daughters of educated men work as wives, mothers, daughters – but are they not paid for that work?” (Woolf), p 66. Cloistered inside the home, Woolf resigns the fact that women will continue to support the perpetuation of patriarchy, including the war machine.  “…if they are going to be restricted to the education of the private house they are going, once more, to exert all influence both consciously and unconsciously in favor of war.” (Woolf), p 47.

As author Linda McDowell writes, women submit to a double bind that limits their forced independence on men limits their rights to freedom. “Thus women’s construction as dependent on men, both economically and morally, or as lesser beings – as fragile or in need of protection – reduces their rights to freedom. “(McDowell), p 150.  The simplest freedoms of moving into the public sphere and commanding the integrity of her body remained elusive in Woolf’s world.  “It was with a view toward marriage that her body was educated; a maid was provided for her; that the streets were shut to her; that the fields were shut to her – all this was forced upon her in order that she might preserve her body intact for her husband.” (Woolf), p 48.

We have repeatedly seen Woolf use the device of windows for women to engage in looking. While the peer out windows onto the landscape, they only view a sliver of information. Now, in Three Guineas, she advocates women to ‘light up’ the house. “Take this guinea then and use it, not to burn the house down, but to make its windows blaze. And let the daughters of uneducated women dance around the new house, the poor house, the house that stands in a narrow street where omnibuses pass and the street hawkers cry their wares, and let them sing ‘We have done with war! We have done with tyranny!” And their mothers will laugh from their graves, ‘It was for this that we suffered obloquy and contempt! Light up the windows for the new house, daughters! Let them blaze!” (Woolf), p 100.

Three Guineas offers viewers an encounter with the political mind of Virginia Woolf who tackles issues of her day head-on by taking up the female cause of women’s freedoms evidenced by access to education, access to professions, advocacy for political power and personal freedoms of movement. Despite the fact that more than 70 years have passed since this book’s appearance, women today still grapple with these issues. While women have logged advancements, including the enrollment of young women in universities, the broad issues linger, allowing us to take lessons from Woolf’s energetic advocacy.  


McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1999.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. , 2005.



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