Virginia Woolf: Anarchy against war

The daughters of educated men who were called, to their resentment, ‘feminists’ were in fact the advance guard of your own movement. They were fighting the same enemy that you are fighting and for the same reasons. They were fighting the tyranny of the patriarchal state as you are fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state. Thus we are merely carrying on the same fight that our mothers and grandmothers fought; their words prove it; your words prove it. But now with your letter before us we have your assurance that you are fighting with us, not against us. That fact is so inspiring that another celebration seems called for. What could be more fitting than to write more dead words, more corrupt words, upon more sheets of paper and burn them—the words, Tyrant, Dictator, for example? But, alas, those words are not yet obsolete. We can still shake out eggs from newspapers; still smell a peculiar and unmistakable odour in the region of Whitehall and Westminster. And abroad the monster has come more openly to the surface. There is no mistaking him there. He has widened his scope. He is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live; he is making distinctions not merely between the sexes, but between the races. You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion. It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourselves. And that makes a difference. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you. But now we are fighting together. The daughters and sons of educated men are fighting side by side. That fact is so inspiring, even if no celebration is possible, that if this one guinea could be multiplied a million times all those guineas should be at your service without any other conditions than those that you have imposed upon yourself. Take this one guinea then and use it to assert ‘the rights of all—all men and women—to the respect in their persons of the great principles of Justice and Equality and Liberty.’ Put this penny candle in the window of your new society, and may we live to see the day when in the blaze of our common freedom the words tyrant and dictator shall be burnt to ashes, because the words tyrant and dictator shall be obsolete.

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

‘Yet these roaring waters,’ said Neville, ‘upon which we build our crazy platforms are more stable than the wild, the weak and inconsequent cries that we utter when, trying to speak, we rise; when we reason and jerk out these false sayings, “I am this; I am that!” Speech is false.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas (1938) is a work for our times. Written as a polyphonic dialogue, it labours to unmask the roots of war in patriarchal society and culture. If Woolf endeavours with care and detail to lay out the conditions in which war may be prevented, these are however neither simple nor transparent, nor obviously attainable.

To say that Three Guineas is of our times is not just to affirm the current relevance of the theme of the essay, the origins and prevention of war – though it is also that. It is to assert its contemporaneity, that is, its untimeliness.

Giorgio Agamben described contemporaries as those who are out-of-time, in their own time but also detached, thereby capable of seeing both what stands in the light, but also what lurks behind in the darkness of what surrounds us. To so behold the obscure requires the courage to stand before that which can be grasped, yet never completely, to apprehend that which as it reveals itself, recedes, always, but which thereby enables us to see what is illuminated differently. It is to be archaic, close to the arkhe, to the origin of things – “origin” as a source that remains present –, in this instance, the arkhe war. 

Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant [inattuale]. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time.

… the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that – more than any light – turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.

And for this reason, to be contemporary is, first and foremost, a question of courage, because it means being able not only to firmly fix your gaze on the darkness of the epoch, but also to perceive in this darkness a light that, while directed toward us, infinitely distances itself from us.

Only he who perceives the indices and signatures of the archaic in the most modern and recent can be contemporary. “Archaic” means close to the arkhe, that is to say, the origin. But the origin is not only situated in a chronological past: it is contemporary with historical becoming and does not cease to operate within it. (Giorgio Agamben, What is the contemporary?)[1]

Woolf’s Three Guineas possesses all of these virtues, or so we contend, and therefore, we endeavour to read it against a certain grain, seeing in it not only a timely criticism of war, but also the outlines of an untimely and unnamed “anarchist” politics.

The occasion for the essay is a letter in which Woolf’s correspondent asks her, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” The question is seemingly straight forward enough, however challenging the answer might be. What Woolf though endeavours to do is to enquire into who is asking the question, for its source conditions whatever reasonable answer can be proffered.

What is immediately at stake is the question of who is the “we” with which Woolf is identified or invited to belong to. Woolf’s correspondent is a man, a “properly” educated and prosperous English barrister, while Woolf is among the nation’s few “daughters of educated men”, of a lower class and therefore from a different world. The “result is that though we look at the same things, we see them differently”. And war has always been a man’s affair.

For though many instincts are held more or less in common by both sexes, to fight has always been the man’s habit, not the woman’s. Law and practice have developed that difference, whether innate or accidental. Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman’s rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; and it is difficult to judge what we do not share. (Three Guineas)

The differences between men and women in wealth and education, in experience and psychology, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Woolf and other women, as women, to understand the problem, a men’s problem, and therefore any answer that she can provide to the question raised is in some sense without value.

These are not differences rooted in the nature or biology of the sexes, but in the traditions and education that have over centuries shaped men’s and women’s experiences, including their instincts.

On this ground, Woolf lists three reasons which drive men to war: “war is a profession; a source of happiness and excitement; and it is also an outlet for manly qualities, without which men would deteriorate.” (Three Guineas) War is, in other words, constitutive of masculinity. And though such feelings and opinions are not universally held by all men, the majority do support war. And the one reason which engenders this unanimity is patriotism.

Englishmen are proud of England. For those who have been trained in English schools and universities, and who have done the work of their lives in England, there are few loves stronger than the love we have for our country. When we consider other nations, when we judge the merits of the policy of this country or of that, it is the standard of our own country that we apply . . . Liberty has made her abode in England. England is the home of democratic institutions . . . It is true that in our midst there are many enemies of liberty—some of them, perhaps, in rather unexpected quarters. But we are standing firm. It has been said that an Englishman’s Home is his Castle. The home of Liberty is in England. And it is a castle indeed—a castle that will be defended to the last. . . Yes, we are greatly blessed, we Englishmen. (The Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Hewart, quoted in Three Guineas)

But if this is what patriotism means to and implies for an educated man, what does it mean to an educated man’s sister? Her experience tells her that she does not have the same reasons for being proud of England.

History and biography when questioned would seem to show that her position in the home of freedom has been different from her brother’s; and psychology would seem to hint that history is not without its effect upon mind and body. Therefore her interpretation of the word ‘patriotism’ may well differ from his. And that difference may make it extremely difficult for her to understand his definition of patriotism and the duties it imposes. (Three Guineas)

Which in turn makes it difficult to answer the question, “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?”, for when asked of a woman, in this case, of the educated woman Virginia Woolf, the response “depends upon understanding the reasons, the emotions, the loyalties which lead men to go to war”, which women do not share. (Three Guineas)

The “we” of the question is spurious, because “we think differently according as we are born differently” and there is no absolute point of view on matters of morality. (Three Guineas)

Taking then the difference between men and women as real – and differences between women: educated “upper” classes versus working classes –, in what manner can “educated women” influence the “educated men” of power? Whatever influence they may have is modest and depends for its part on rank, wealth and nobility, and such an influence, for Woolf, is both beyond the status of most women and contemptible.

Where women’s influence can emerge from is a consequence primarily of – and seconded by the right to vote – the lifting of the bar on women in the professions. The right to work in the latter threw open the “door of the private house” for educated women. Earning a degree of autonomy – financial freedom from her father, husband, older brother –, “everything she saw looked different”. If professional work remains a kind of slavery, it is nevertheless a “less odious form of slavery than to depend upon a father” and this alters the way in which such women can influence society. (Three Guineas) She can become a public critic.

The educated man’s daughter has now at her disposal an influence which is different from any influence that she has possessed before. It is not the influence which the great lady, the Siren, possesses; nor is it the influence which the educated man’s daughter possessed when she had no vote; nor is it the influence which she possessed when she had a vote but was debarred from the right to earn her living. It differs, because it is an influence from which the charm element has been removed; it is an influence from which the money element has been removed. She need no longer use her charm to procure money from her father or brother. Since it is beyond the power of her family to punish her financially she can express her own opinions. In place of the admirations and antipathies which were often unconsciously dictated by the need of money she can declare her genuine likes and dislikes. In short, she need not acquiesce; she can criticize. At last she is in possession of an influence that is disinterested. (Three Guineas)

This novel “women’s” weapon however does not by itself assure equality between the educated. Men’s education is the work of centuries, as is men’s wealth. It is not the recent right to the professions that removes the differences between men and women, “very considerable differences in mind and body” that “no psychologist or biologist would deny.” (Three Guineas)

It would seem to follow then as an indisputable fact that ‘we’—meaning by ‘we’ a whole made trained and are so differently influenced by memory and tradition—must still differ in some essential respects from ‘you’, whose body, brain and spirit have been so differently trained and are so differently influenced by memory and tradition. Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes. (Three Guineas)

And women, “educated women”, see the world through different eyes because their world lies at the threshold of the private house and the patriarchal public world beyond. From and because of this threshold position, Woolf is able to see from the outside in – in a remarkable exercise of critical phenomenology –, from the outside of patriarchy, while still within it. And from this perspective – a perspective that must be attended to, to see if women can help in preventing war, in their own way –, men’s world, “the world of professional, of public life, … undoubtedly looks queer.” (Three Guineas)

At first sight it is enormously impressive. Within quite a small space are crowded together St Paul’s, the Bank of England, the Mansion House, the massive if funereal battlements of the Law Courts; and on the other side, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. There, we say to ourselves, pausing, in this moment of transition on the bridge, our fathers and brothers have spent their lives. All these hundreds of years they have been mounting those steps, passing in and out of those doors, ascending those pulpits, preaching, money-making, administering justice. It is from this world that the private house (somewhere, roughly speaking, in the West End) has derived its creeds, its laws, its clothes and carpets, its beef and mutton. And then, as is now permissible, cautiously pushing aside the swing doors of one of these temples, we enter on tiptoe and survey the scene in greater detail. The first sensation of colossal size, of majestic masonry is broken up into a myriad points of amazement mixed with interrogation. Your clothes in the first place make us gape with astonishment. How many, how splendid, how extremely ornate they are – the clothes worn by the educated man in his public capacity! Now you dress in violet; a jewelled crucifix swings on your breast; now your shoulders are covered with lace; now furred with ermine; now slung with many linked chains set with precious stones. Now you wear wigs on your heads; rows of graduated curls descend to your necks. Now your hats are boat-shaped, or cocked; now they mount in cones of black fur; now they are made of brass and scuttle shaped; now plumes of red, now of blue hair surmount them. Sometimes gowns cover your legs; sometimes gaiters. Tabards embroidered with lions and unicorns swing from your shoulders; metal objects cut in star shapes or in circles glitter and twinkle upon your breasts. Ribbons of all colours – blue, purple, crimson – cross from shoulder to shoulder. After the comparative simplicity of your dress at home, the splendour of your public attire is dazzling.

But far stranger are two other facts that gradually reveal themselves when our eyes have recovered from their first amazement. Not only are whole bodies of men dressed alike summer and winter – a strange characteristic to a sex which changes its clothes according to the season, and for reasons of private taste and comfort – but every button, rosette and stripe seems to have some symbolical meaning. Some have the right to wear plain buttons only; others rosettes; some may wear a single stripe; others three, four, five or six. And each curl or stripe is sewn on at precisely the right distance apart; it may be one inch for one man, one inch and a quarter for another. Rules again regulate the gold wire on the shoulders, the braid on the trousers, the cockades on the hats – but no single pair of eyes can observe all these distinctions, let alone account for them accurately.

Even stranger, however, than the symbolic splendour of your clothes are the ceremonies that take place when you wear them. Here you kneel; there you bow; here you advance in procession behind a man carrying a silver poker; here you mount a carved chair; here you appear to do homage to a piece of painted wood; here you abase yourselves before tables covered with richly worked tapestry. And whatever these ceremonies may mean you perform them always together, always in step, always in the uniform proper to the man and the occasion.

Apart from the ceremonies such decorative apparel appears to us at first sight strange in the extreme. For dress, as we use it, is comparatively simple. Besides the prime function of covering the body, it has two other offices – that it creates beauty for the eye, and that it attracts the admiration of your sex. Since marriage until the year 1919 – less than twenty years ago – was the only profession open to us, the enormous importance of dress to a woman can hardly be exaggerated. It was to her what clients are to you – dress was her chief, perhaps her only, method of becoming Lord Chancellor. But your dress in its immense elaboration has obviously another function. It not only covers nakedness, gratifies vanity, and creates pleasure for the eye, but it serves to advertise the social, professional, or intellectual standing of the wearer. If you will excuse the humble illustration, your dress fulfils the same function as the tickets in a grocer’s shop. But, here, instead of saying ‘This is margarine; this pure butter; this is the finest butter in the market,’ it says, ‘This man is a clever man – he is Master of Arts; this man is a very clever man – he is Doctor of Letters; this man is a most clever man – he is a Member of the Order of Merit.’ It is this function – the advertisement function – of your dress that seems to us most singular. In the opinion of St Paul, such advertisement, at any rate for our sex, was unbecoming and immodest; until a very few years ago we were denied the use of it. And still the tradition, or belief, lingers among us that to express worth of any kind, whether intellectual or moral, by wearing pieces of metal, or ribbon, coloured hoods or gowns, is a barbarity which deserves the ridicule which we bestow upon the rites of savages. A woman who advertised her motherhood by a tuft of horsehair on the left shoulder would scarcely, you will agree, be a venerable object.

But what light does our difference here throw upon the problem before us? What connection is there between the sartorial splendours of the educated man and the photograph of ruined houses and dead bodies [from the Spanish Civil War]? Obviously the connection between dress and war is not far to seek; your finest clothes are those that you wear as soldiers. Since the red and the gold, the brass and the feathers are discarded upon active service, it is plain that their expensive and not, one might suppose, hygienic splendour is invented partly in order to impress the beholder with the majesty of the military office, partly in order through their vanity to induce young men to become soldiers. Here, then, our influence and our difference might have some effect; we, who are forbidden to wear such clothes ourselves, can express the opinion that the wearer is not to us a pleasing or an impressive spectacle. He is on the contrary a ridiculous, a barbarous, a displeasing spectacle. But as the daughters of educated men we can use our influence more effectively in another direction, upon our own class – the class of educated men. For there, in courts and universities, we find the same love of dress. There, too, are velvet and silk, fur and ermine. We can say that for educated men to emphasize their superiority over other people, either in birth or intellect, by dressing differently, or by adding titles before, or letters after their names are acts that rouse competition and jealousy – emotions which, as we need scarcely draw upon biography to prove, nor ask psychology to show, have their share in encouraging a disposition towards war. (Three Guineas)

The “pomp and circumstance” of power, of its institutions and practices, as expressed in public architecture, dress and ceremony that celebrate rank, publicise authority, feed the vanity of military orders, promote competition and jealousy, and consequently encourage in all of their display, the habit of war; creating what Woolf will later call in the essay, “an atmosphere” of patriarchal hierarchy, of male dominion and violence whose power is proportional to its imperceptibility.

The new perspective of educated women reveals the formerly unseen, which may now be criticised. But for Woolf, this is not merely a question of contrasting opinions about what is worthwhile or damaging, but an ethical issue about how we should live. 

If then we express the opinion that such distinctions make those who possess them ridiculous and learning contemptible we should do something, indirectly, to discourage the feelings that lead to war. Happily we can now do more than express an opinion; we can refuse all such distinctions and all such uniforms for ourselves. This would be a slight but definite contribution to the problem before us—how to prevent war; and one that a different training and a different tradition puts more easily within our reach than within yours. (Three Guineas)

Yet precisely because the causes of war are ethical, and because the patriarchal ethics that sustains war is a world closed to women, the latter’s influence on this world can only be superficial. Where they may be of some influence, especially after their admission to the professions, is in the domain of education.

Women’s place in universities was however minor and precarious, at least in Woolf’s Britain, with women’s colleges being grossly underfunded by comparison to men’s and discriminated against, thereby rendering all attempts to influence the young against war fruitless, at least in the hallowed halls of formal university education. Indeed, the very nature of the universities, as social institutions that contribute to and benefit from war and capitalist war economies and as educators in the virtues of competition, possessiveness and the use of force, makes them perfectly ill-suited to the task of preventing war. As they are, they do the opposite.

Referring to a second letter from the treasurer of a women’s college seeking funds to help rebuild the establishment, Woolf proposes to do so only if such a college will help to prevent war. But given what universities are, it may be preferable “to buy rags and petrol and Bryant & May’s matches and burn the college to the ground”. (Three Guineas)

For Woolf, education, existing university education, was no more gender neutral than the society to which it belonged. It could not be anything else but one more pillar of patriarchy. To think and do otherwise would be foolish and only further abet the reproduction of violence of male-masculine domination. Therefore, before setting out to build any institution of learning, one “must consider very carefully … what is the aim of education, what kind of society, what kind of human being it should seek to produce.” (Three Guineas)

And with such considerations, Woolf, writing to the treasurer of the women’s college, gives herself free reign to imagine an education freed of class and masculinity, and accordingly, the culture of war.

‘Let us then discuss as quickly as we can the sort of education that is needed. Now since history and biography – the only evidence available to an outsider – seem to prove that the old education of the old colleges breeds neither a particular respect for liberty nor a particular hatred of war it is clear that you must rebuild your college differently. It is young and poor; let it therefore take advantage of those qualities and be founded on poverty and youth. Obviously, then, it must be an experimental college, an adventurous college. Let it be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The work of the living is cheap; often they will give it for the sake of being allowed to do it. Next, what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not 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. The poor college must teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practised by poor people; such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting and literature. It should teach the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them. The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life. The teachers should be drawn from the good livers as well as from the good thinkers. There should be no difficulty in attracting them. For there would be none of the barriers of wealth and ceremony, of advertisement and competition which now make the old and rich universities such uneasy dwelling-places—cities of strife, cities where this is locked up and that is chained down; where nobody can walk freely or talk freely for fear of transgressing some chalk mark, of displeasing some dignitary. But if the college were poor it would have nothing to offer; competition would be abolished. Life would be open and easy. People who love learning for itself would gladly come there. Musicians, painters, writers, would teach there, because they would learn. What could be of greater help to a writer than to discuss the art of writing with people who were thinking not of examinations or degrees or of what honour or profit they could make literature give them but of the art itself?

‘And so with the other arts and artists. They would come to the poor college and practise their arts there because it would be a place where society was free; not parcelled out into the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid; but where all the different degrees and kinds of mind, body and soul merit cooperated. Let us then found this new college; this poor college; in which learning is sought for itself; where advertisement is abolished; and there are no degrees; and lectures are not given, and sermons are not preached, and the old poisoned vanities and parades which breed competition and jealousy . . .’ (Three Guineas)

But the letter breaks off, as Woolf imagines the face of her melancholy correspondent, far too burdened by “reality” to be able to concern herself with a “different or alternative” education, when what was needed was to graduate women for the professions, giving them the recognised skills and knowledge to be able to contribute to and also to change society. To fall back into the prison of domesticity was equally to further war, a fate most certain, unlike the fantasy of a “different school”.

The day was hot, but she could not go out. ‘How many a long dull summer’s day have I passed immured indoors because there was no room for me in the family carriage and no lady’s maid who had time to walk out with me.’ The sun set; and out she went at last, dressed as well as could be managed upon an allowance of from £40 to £100 a year. But ‘to any sort of entertainment she must be accompanied by father or mother or by some married woman.’ Whom did she meet at those entertainments thus dressed, thus accompanied? Educated men – ‘cabinet ministers, ambassadors, famous soldiers and the like, all splendidly dressed, wearing decorations.’ What did they talk about? Whatever refreshed the minds of busy men who wanted to forget their own work – ‘the gossip of the dancing world’ did very well. The days passed. Saturday came. On Saturday ‘M.P.s and other busy men had leisure to enjoy society’; they came to tea and they came to dinner. Next day was Sunday. On Sundays ‘the great majority of us went as a matter of course to morning church.’ The seasons changed. It was summer. In the summer they entertained visitors, ‘mostly relatives’ in the country. Now it was winter. In the winter ‘they studied history and literature and music, and tried to draw and paint. If they did not produce anything remarkable they learnt much in the process.’ And so with some visiting the sick and teaching the poor, the years passed. And what was the great end and aim of these years, of that education? Marriage, of course. ‘. . . it was not a question of whether we should marry, but simply of whom we should marry,’ says one of them. It was with a view to marriage that her mind was taught. It was with a view to marriage that she tinkled on the piano, but was not allowed to join an orchestra; sketched innocent domestic scenes, but was not allowed to study from the nude; read this book, but was not allowed to read that, charmed, and talked. It was with a view to 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; that solitude was denied her – all this was enforced upon her in order that she might preserve her body intact for her husband. In short, the thought of marriage influenced what she said, what she thought, what she did. How could it be otherwise? Marriage was the only profession open to her.

The sight is so curious for what it shows of the educated man as well as of his daughter that it is tempting to linger. The influence of the pheasant upon love alone deserves a chapter to itself. But we are not asking now the interesting question, what was the effect of that education upon the race? We are asking why did such an education make the person so educated consciously and unconsciously in favour of war? Because consciously, it is obvious, she was forced to use whatever influence she possessed to bolster up the system which provided her with maids; with carriages; with fine clothes; with fine parties – it was by these means that she achieved marriage. Consciously she must use whatever charm or beauty she possessed to flatter and cajole the busy men, the soldiers, the lawyers, the ambassadors, the cabinet ministers who wanted recreation after their day’s work. Consciously she must accept their views, and fall in with their decrees because it was only so that she could wheedle them into giving her the means to marry or marriage itself. In short, all her conscious effort must be in favour of what Lady Lovelace called ‘our splendid Empire’ . . . ‘the price of which,’ she added, ‘is mainly paid by women.’ And who can doubt her, or that the price was heavy?

But her unconscious influence was even more strongly perhaps in favour of war. How else can we explain that amazing outburst in August 1914, when the daughters of educated men who had been educated thus rushed into hospitals, some still attended by their maids, drove lorries, worked in fields and munition factories, and used all their immense stores of charm, of sympathy, to persuade young men that to fight was heroic, and that the wounded in battle deserved all her care and all her praise? The reason lies in that same education. So profound was her unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its immorality, its inanity that she would undertake any task however menial, exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape. Thus consciously she desired ‘our splendid Empire’; unconsciously she desired our splendid war. (Three Guineas)

Pain bleeds from Woolf’s portrait of cloistered women, and therefore, she offers her one guinea to rebuilding the college – before it can go to a society for the promotion of peace –, as the “only alternative to the education of the private house”. At the threshold between the private and the public, where educated women stand, one can only “hope that in time that [university] education may be altered.” (Three Guineas)

There are those who will say that this is all belongs to the past, that great progress has been made in the advancement of women in formal education, with only occasional moments of regression. It would be hard to deny this contention. But then to simply celebrate this “progress” would be to fail to see Woolf’s point. Schools are but an available means to social advancement, a largely imperfect means, both for their broader political and social function and because they instil patriarchal values into whoever passes through them. They are disciplinary institutions, institutions of masculinisation. And if women have gained in being schooled, they have also likely lost, having sacrificed their “female” perspective on “male” society.

And this is even more emphatically the case in the professions.

The independence – financial – of professional women is precarious. The nation’s administrative classes continue to originate in gender exclusive schools, large numbers of women are still confined to the domestic space, and women are forced to make up for years of exclusion from these vary same professions. A potent odour, an overwhelming atmosphere, continues to oppress and exploit women in relations of social reproduction (“the world as it is 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? Is the work of a mother, of a wife, of a daughter, worth nothing to the nation in solid cash? … Among all those offices there is no such office as a mother’s; among all those salaries there is no such salary as a mother’s. The work of an archbishop is worth £15,000 a year to the State; the work of a judge is worth £5,000 a year; the work of a permanent secretary is worth £3,000 a year; the work of an army captain, of a sea captain, of a sergeant of dragoons, of a policeman, of a postman – all these works are worth paying out of the taxes, but wives and mothers and daughters who work all day and every day, without whose work the State would collapse and fall to pieces, without whose work your sons, sir, would cease to exist, are paid nothing whatever. Can it be possible?”).(Three Guineas) It is this very same atmosphere that engenders dictators.

Atmosphere plainly is a very mighty power. Atmosphere not only changes the sizes and shapes of things; it affects solid bodies, like salaries, which might have been thought impervious to atmosphere. An epic poem might be written about atmosphere, or a novel in ten or fifteen volumes. But since this is only a letter, and you are pressed for time, let us confine ourselves to the plain statement that atmosphere is one of the most powerful, partly because it is one of the most impalpable, of the enemies with which the daughters of educated men have to fight. … We shall find there not only the reason why the pay of the professional woman is still so small, but something more dangerous, something which, if it spreads, may poison both sexes equally. There … 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? (Three Guineas)

To then encourage women to enter the professions – the subject of a third letter to Woolf, in which she is asked to contribute financially to such an end –, will this not encourage the very qualities contrary to peace? The professions produce a certain kind of person: possessive, jealous, aggressive. Should then women enter these professions, to become like the men who practice them, to acquire the characteristics that lead to war? To enter the professions, as they stand, is to profess the same loyalties that men have defended for centuries; it is to destroy the senses and all sense of proportion; it is to cripple the soul.

The question that remains – in response to the request of the third letter – is stark: “how can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings; human beings, that is, who wish to prevent war?” (Three Guineas) And if Woolf’s question is first and foremost directed at women, it finally interpolates men as well.

Her answer takes us back again to ethics, to a women’s ethics born of age old unpaid-for professions. What we learn from this past is that all women who have so laboured were educated by the same teachers: poverty – “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.” – chastity – “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. But directly the mulberry tree begins to make you circle, break off. Pelt the tree with laughter.” – derision – “By derision—a bad word, but once again the English language is much in need of new words—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. Directly badges, orders, or degrees are offered you, fling them back in the giver’s face.” – freedom from unreal loyalties – “By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride and nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. Directly the seducers come with their seductions to bribe you into captivity, tear up the parchments; refuse to fill up the forms.” (Three Guineas)

With these virtues – “female” and “feminine” virtues shaped by history –, women “may 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.” (Three Guineas) Under these conditions, Woolf offers a second guinea, a sum that may partially free women from the corpse of patriarchy.

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 round 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 of the new house, daughters! Let them blaze!” (Three Guineas)

Woolf can now return to the first letter, the letter that occasioned the essay Three Guineas, for without the education of the daughters of educated men and their right to earn their livings in the professions, “those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you [men] to prevent war.” (Three Guineas)

In addition to asking for an opinion as to how to prevent war, the letter also makes practical proposals for how “we” – that is, women – may help to prevent war: “it appears that we should sign a manifesto, pledging ourselves ‘to protect culture and intellectual liberty’; that we should join a certain society, devoted to certain measures whose aim is to preserve peace; and, finally, that we should subscribe to that society which like the others is in need of funds.” (Three Guineas)

But what is “culture” and “intellectual liberty”, asks Woolf? Any cultural expression tied to money interests is a “prostituted culture”, a culture invariably bound to the violence of war. If women therefore can “protect culture”, it is only through a disinterested culture free of greed – something for which women are prepared given the manner in which the “female” and the “feminine” were created outside of public or salaried economic activity. And only on this condition can one speak freely, can one speak the truth.

As for the request to join the correspondent’s society for peace, Woolf hesitates. And she hesitates because “men” and “women” are different. But it is from this very difference that “women” may help the cause of peace. To become members of the society would be to lose that difference, and accordingly, in the end, refuses the invitation.

If women and men can have relations of equality within the private sphere, this is not so in public, for the latter is patriarchal in nature.

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—such was the society relationship of brother to sister for many centuries. And though it is possible, and to the optimistic credible, that in time a new society may ring a carillon of splendid harmony, and your letter heralds it, that day is far distant. 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? Inevitably we look upon society, so kind to you, so harsh to us, as an ill-fitting form that distorts the truth; deforms the mind; fetters the will. Inevitably we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist, childishly intent upon scoring the floor of the earth with chalk marks, within whose mystic boundaries human beings are penned, rigidly, separately, artificially; where, daubed red and gold, decorated like a savage with feathers he goes through mystic rites and enjoys the dubious pleasures of power and dominion while we, ‘his’ women, are locked in the private house without share in the many societies of which his society is composed. For such reasons compact as they are of many memories and emotions—for who shall analyse the complexity of a mind that holds so deep a reservoir of time past within it?—it seems both wrong for us rationally and impossible for us emotionally to fill up your form and join your society. For by so doing we should merge our identity in yours; follow and repeat and score still deeper the old worn ruts in which society, like a gramophone whose needle has stuck, is grinding out with intolerable unanimity ‘Three hundred millions spent upon arms.’ We should not give effect to a view which our own experience of ‘society’ should have helped us to envisage. Thus, Sir, while we respect you as a private person and prove it by giving you a guinea to spend as you choose, we believe that we can help you most effectively by refusing to join your society; by working for our common ends—justice and equality and liberty for all men and women—outside your society, not within. (Three Guineas)

What Woolf then proposes, instead of joining a “male” society – for peace, in this instance – is to create a “Society of Outsiders” of educated daughters who refuse to sustain or contribute to the reproduction of patriarchal social relations, a society indifferent to the warring instincts of men, to the violence of sovereignty and the “unreal loyalties” of patriotism which decide on the difference between “nationals” and “foreigners”.

It would consist of educated men’s daughters working in their own class—how indeed can they work in any other?– and by their own methods for liberty, equality and peace. Their first duty, to which they would bind themselves not by oath, for oaths and ceremonies have no part in a society which must be anonymous and elastic before everything would be not to fight with arms. This is easy for them to observe, for in fact, as the papers inform us, ‘the Army Council have no intention of opening recruiting for any women’s corps.’ The country ensures it. Next they would refuse in the event of war to make munitions or nurse the wounded. Since in the last war both these activities were mainly discharged by the daughters of working men, the pressure upon them here too would be slight, though probably disagreeable. On the other hand the next duty to which they would pledge themselves is one of considerable difficulty, and calls not only for courage and initiative, but for the special knowledge of the educated man’s daughter. It is, briefly, not to incite their brothers to fight, or to dissuade them, but to maintain an attitude of complete indifference. But the attitude expressed by the word ‘indifference’ is so complex and of such importance that it needs even here further definition. Indifference in the first place must be given a firm footing upon fact. As it is a fact that she cannot understand what instinct compels him, what glory, what interest, what manly satisfaction fighting provides for him – ‘without war there would be no outlet for the manly qualities which fighting develops’ – as fighting thus is a sex characteristic which she cannot share, the counterpart some claim of the maternal instinct which he cannot share, so is it an instinct which she cannot judge. The outsider therefore must leave him free to deal with this instinct by himself, because liberty of opinion must be respected, especially when it is based upon an instinct which is as foreign to her as centuries of tradition and education can make it. This is a fundamental and instinctive distinction upon which indifference may be based. But the outsider will make it her duty not merely to base her indifference upon instinct, but upon reason. When he says, as history proves that he has said, and may say again, ‘I am fighting to protect our country’ and thus seeks to rouse her patriotic emotion, she will ask herself, ‘What does “our country” mean to me an outsider?’ To decide this she will analyse the meaning of patriotism in her own case. She will inform herself of the position of her sex and her class in the past. She will inform herself of the amount of land, wealth and property in the possession of her own sex and class in the present – how much of ‘England’ in fact belongs to her. From the same sources she will inform herself of the legal protection which the law has given her in the past and now gives her. And if he adds that he is fighting to protect her body, she will reflect upon the degree of physical protection that she now enjoys when the words ‘Air Raid Precaution’ are written on blank walls. And if he says that he is fighting to protect England from foreign rule, she will reflect that for her there are no ‘foreigners’, since by law she becomes a foreigner if she marries a foreigner. And she will do her best to make this a fact, not by forced fraternity, but by human sympathy. All these facts will convince her reason (to put it in a nutshell) that her sex and class has very little to thank England for in the past; not much to thank England for in the present; while the security of her person in the future is highly dubious. But probably she will have imbibed, even from the governess, some romantic notion that Englishmen, those fathers and grandfathers whom she sees marching in the picture of history, are ‘superior’ to the men of other countries. This she will consider it her duty to check by comparing French historians with English; German with French; the testimony of the ruled – the Indians or the Irish, say – with the claims made by their rulers. Still some ‘patriotic’ emotion, some ingrained belief in the intellectual superiority of her own country over other countries may remain. Then she will compare English painting with French painting; English music with German music; English literature with Greek literature, for translations abound. When all these comparisons have been faithfully made by the use of reason, the outsider will find herself in possession of very good reasons for her indifference. She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect ‘our’ country. ‘”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. “Our” country denies me the means of protecting myself, forces me to pay others a very large sum annually to protect me, and is so little able, even so, to protect me that Air Raid precautions are written on the wall. Therefore if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country. For,’ the outsider will say, ‘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.’ And if, when reason has said its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree, by the splash of waves on a beach, or by English voices murmuring nursery rhymes, this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give to England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world.

Such then will be the nature of her ‘indifference’ and from this indifference certain actions must follow. She will bind herself to take no share in patriotic demonstrations; to assent to no form of national self-praise; to make no part of any claque or audience that encourages war; to absent herself from military displays, tournaments, tattoos, prize-givings and all such ceremonies as encourage the desire to impose ‘our’ civilization or ‘our’ dominion upon other people. The psychology of private life, moreover, warrants the belief that this use of indifference by the daughters of educated men would help materially to prevent war. For psychology would seem to show that it is far harder for human beings to take action when other people are indifferent and allow them complete freedom of action, than when their actions are made the centre of excited emotion. The small boy struts and trumpets outside the window: implore him to stop; he goes on; say nothing; he stops. That the daughters of educated men then should give their brothers neither the white feather of cowardice nor the red feather of courage, but no feather at all; that they should shut the bright eyes that rain influence, or let those eyes look elsewhere when war is discussed—that is the duty to which outsiders will train themselves in peace before the threat of death inevitably makes reason powerless. (Three Guineas)

Women are in fact outsiders to patriarchal society, not by nature, but by “the facts of history, of law, of biography; even, it may be, with the still hidden facts of our still unknown psychology.” (Three Guineas) If the ends of a society against war and the “Society of Outsiders” are the same – freedom, equality, peace –, the latter “educated women’s” society nevertheless seeks to “achieve them by the means that a different sex, a different tradition, a different education and the different values which result from those differences have placed within our [women’s] reach. Broadly speaking, the main distinction between us who are outside society and you [men] who are inside society must be that whereas you will make use of the means provided by your position—leagues, conferences, campaigns, great names, and all such public measures as your wealth and political influence place within your reach—we, remaining outside, will experiment not with public means in public but with private means in private. Those experiments will not be merely critical but creative.” (Three Guineas)

The “Society of Outsiders” is not some political vanguard, secure in its knowledge of history and society, and therefore of the path of “progress”. It is, as “a room of one’s own” of an earlier essay by Woolf of the same title[2], a porous, fragile, shifting threshold space between a “private” and “secret” – at least, to men – women’s world and the “public” society of male, masculine and heterosexual domination. Women are not radically outside society, but nor are they fully included. It is then in this space, “an unsubstantial territory”,[3] that Woolf elaborates her pacifism, a pacifism that can only challenge patriarchal capitalism. And it is at this threshold between fixed identities and positions that we can speak of a kind of anarchy, from whence an anarchist politics gains form.

Woolf of course never explicitly identified with anarchism, and if we speak of it here, it is because her explicit criticisms of the violent hierarchies which underlie patriarchy, hierarchies that mark the economy, the institutions of learning, the professions and, by contrast, her own quite radical non-hierarchical vision of what these can or should become under the influence of patriarchy’s “other”, that is, women, resonate with a great deal of explicitly anarchist politics. But even without her “unwitting anarchism”,[4] her “politics” is grounded in a conception of the human being and of nature as unmoored to any stable identity. “There is nothing staid, nothing settled, in this universe. All is rippling, all is dancing; all is quickness and triumph.”[5]  Only the desire to prevail, to rule, and not the love of truth, seeks to render some small part of nature subservient.[6] And thus her denunciation of patriarchy is in part a consequence of what we are tempted to call an “anarchic ontology” that undermines any “great chain of being” held in place by some all seeing and commanding “self”, “I” – an arkhe of life.[7]

… what am I? There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not.[8]

For Woolf, the outsider acts by through objection and refusal, the creation of alternatives to power, passive resistance, absenteeism, while still remain within the very society they question.

For many anarchists, this would hardly justify calling Woolf an anarchist. And we have no interest in defending the adequacy of labels or insisting on the identification. But if for some, anarchism as a political project is clear, in that it aspires to “expropriate the capitalist class and overthrow the State”, it is by no means clear – and it never really was – what this last means.[9] And, if instead, we consider anarchism as an “ethics”, a way of life, that rejects authoritarian rule and the expropriation of the means to satisfy the needs of all by a few, then many are anarchists without so calling themselves.[10] And we may go so far as to say that such an ethics should be present at the margins of any “anarchist” organisation or society.

We close with the last words of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas:

… the answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods. We can best help you to prevent war not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim. That aim is the same for us both. It is to assert ‘the rights of all—all men and women—to the respect in their persons of the great principles of Justice and Equality and Liberty.’ (Three Guineas)

Virginia Woolf’s essay Three Guineas can be found online at the Project Gutenberg Australia.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus, and Other Essays, Stanford, CA: Standord University Press, 2009. (Available here)

[2] Carlos Jacques, “Sabotaging gender, feminism and capital”, in, (06/08/2019)

[3] Virginia Woolf, The Waves [1931], Penguin Books Classics, 2019, p. 10.

[4] John McGuigan, “The Unwitting Anarchism of Mrs. Dalloway”, in Woolf Studies Annual, Vol. 19, Special Focus: Virginia Woolf and Jews (2013), pp. 123-145 (23 pages).

[5] The Waves, p. 33.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Orlando [1928], Penguin Books Classics, 1993, p. 105.

[7] “What am I? … it becomes clear that I am no tone and simple, but complex and many.” The Waves, p. 56.

[8] The Waves, p. 88.

[9] Matt Crossin, “Anarchists and Dual Power: Situation or Strategy?”. This is the first in a series of articles by Matt Crossin, ‘Critical Notes on Developments in the Anarchist Movement’, published Red and Black Notes. If we quote Crossin here, it is not because we believe that he is particularly guilty of blindness, for his mistaken enthusiasm is, we dare say, one shared by many who are smitten by ideologies. To quote Guy Debord: “The fact that anarchists have seen the goal of proletarian revolution as immediately present represents both the strength and the weakness of collectivist anarchist struggles (the only forms of anarchism that can be taken seriously — the pretensions of the individualist forms of anarchism have always been ludicrous). From the historical thought of modern class struggles collectivist anarchism retains only the conclusion, and its constant harping on this conclusion is accompanied by a deliberate indifference to any consideration of methods. Its critique of political struggle has thus remained abstract, while its commitment to economic struggle has been channeled toward the mirage of a definitive solution that will supposedly be achieved by a single blow on this terrain, on the day of the general strike or the insurrection. The anarchists have saddled themselves with fulfilling an ideal. Anarchism remains a merely ideological negation of the state and of class society — the very social conditions which in their turn foster separate ideologies. It is the ideology of pure freedom, an ideology that puts everything on the same level and loses any conception of the “historical evil” (the negation at work within history). This fusion of all partial demands into a single all-encompassing demand has given anarchism the merit of representing the rejection of existing conditions in the name of the whole of life rather than from the standpoint of some particular critical specialization; but the fact that this fusion has been envisaged only in the absolute, in accordance with individual whim and in advance of any practical actualization, has doomed anarchism to an all too obvious incoherence. Anarchism responds to each particular struggle by repeating and reapplying the same simple and all-embracing lesson, because this lesson has from the beginning been considered the be-all and end-all of the movement. This is reflected in Bakunin’s 1873 letter of resignation from the Jura Federation: “During the past nine years the International has developed more than enough ideas to save the world, if ideas alone could save it, and I challenge anyone to come up with a new one. It’s no longer the time for ideas, it’s time for actions.” This perspective undoubtedly retains proletarian historical thought’s recognition that ideas must be put into practice, but it abandons the historical terrain by assuming that the appropriate forms for this transition to practice have already been discovered and will never change.” The Society of the Spectacle, aphorism 92.

[10] “The nineteenth-century “founding figures” [of anarchism]did not think of themselves as having invented anything particularly new. The basic principles of anarchism— self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid— referred to forms of human behavior they assumed to have been around about as long as humanity. The same goes for the rejection of the state and of all forms of structural violence, inequality, or domination (anarchism literally means “without rulers”), even the assumption that all these forms are somehow related and reinforce each other. None of it was presented as some startling new doctrine. And in fact it was not: one can find records of people making similar arguments throughout history, despite the fact there is every reason to believe that in most times and places, such opinions were the ones least likely to be written down. We are talking less about a body of theory, then, than about an attitude, or perhaps one might even say a faith: the rejection of certain types of social relations, the confidence that certain others would be much better ones on which to build a livable society, the belief that such a society could actually exist.” David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004, pp. 3-4.

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