Is Virginia Woolf a Feminist Writer?

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Virginia Woolf was an eminent 20th century British writer who used the theme of womanhood throughout her literary work.  She illustrates how women interact with their societies or communities in general.  The foundation for many of her essays and novels is showing how women feel (and behave) in a patriarchal world (“Virginia Woolf”, np). By using internal dialogue and stream-of-consciousness techniques to exemplify her character’s points-of-view, she makes ordinary events seem extraordinary, thus exploiting the reader’s empathy.  While these views may not be considered strictly feminine, they do depict the trivial aspects of her everyday life as she perceived them.  Her writing draws from her own life experience, but the text in itself is not purely autobiographical.

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Does this style predispose Virginia Woolf as a feminist writer because she was female and wrote about issues that were important to women?  Is she still a feminist if her emotional dependence upon men was greater than her intellectual dependence (Allen, np.)? Or through current retrospect, do we see her as a champion of feminism because she overcame the prevailing male attitudes within her family and society (by living an unconventional lifestyle) to write about what she thought was essential?  Critics offer the opinion that “…her life has come to stand for a great deal; it has become a heavily loaded symbol in the current dialogues over gender, class, madness, and marriage. The famously gifted, original, neurotic, courageous, difficult, and very imperfect human being she once was has disappeared…”(Allen, np).

Virginia Woolf gained prominence during the first-wave of political feminism in the early 20th century, but the major focus of this effort revolved around suffrage.  Feminism today is defined by independence, equality, and the challenging of gender roles.  She has been portrayed as a feminist, but her writing supports idealist views that humans, in general, should be free to pursue activities that make them whole, regardless of the sexual orientation, gender, or culture.  Eyal Amirane asserts that biology is not destiny, and the use of specific language is not synonymous with having a feminist philosophy, “Thus feminist analysis can take a textual form that is not bound to the body, though it is already (always) about the body…it takes place not on the writer’s body but in the body of the text…” (Amirane, np).  A writer can be of either sex, since art is created in the mind first, and passed through the body of the artist.  When Woolf tells us that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is going to write”, she intimates to us that there is no need to establish a political philosophy, just the need for privacy and economic support. (Lavender, np).  Woolf did not embrace a specific political ideology and was ambiguous about suffrage, but still believed in being feminine, and her definition meant assurance by allowing “… women the fundamental right to control their own lives and income…” (Allen, np).

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In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa wants to perform purposeful roles—wife, mother, lover, and hostess, with aplomb.  The role created for her character is one of a strong feminine tradition.  She is artificial and shallow, but tries to be everything to everyone.  Her party is a tribute to the prestige of her husband and family’s reputation.  Her selfish attitude and demeanor exemplify the divisions in social class, the acceptable exclusions, and how snobbish women can be towards each other.  Clarissa is a strong protagonist and she is stereotypical in her assertions and behavior.  We are privy to the inner emotional workings of the characters, but within the context of this novel these are not special or unique (Crawford, np).

This novel might be considered an example feminine writing, but not feminism.  This work does not espouse a feminism point of view.  The context is about everyday life and events, plain and ordinary, and issues that might be relevantly to the concepts of feminism are not dynamically situated or present in this work.

In To the Lighthouse, the dominance of Mr. Ramsey overshadows the delicate, but resilient nature of Mrs. Ramsey.  Mr. Ramsey is stern, contemptuous, hurtful, and critical to his wife and children, demanding their sympathy and attention.  Mrs. Ramsey is a soothing force, set upon running a content household, providing comfort to her children and other acquaintances.  She is supportive, loving, and careful with her emotions, but allows her husband to dominate her ideas and opinions.  She wonders how her life got out of control and thinks that she has lost some of her inner essence by trying to please everyone. During one of their conversations, he curses at her after she suggests the excursion to the lighthouse may not be out of the question since the weather has cleared.  Later he feels guilty but does not confess his feelings.  Mrs. Ramsey dies and by dying she no longer is forced to submit to his emotional dominance (“To The Lighthouse”, np).

This novel could be set as an example of how emotional dependence upon men can be greater than the intellectual dependence.  Mrs. Ramsey knows that her husband’s attitude is cruel, but they are emotionally intertwined (maybe him more that her). His demeanor is understandable for the time frame in which this work was written, but the abuse is not acceptable. The prevailing attitude by Tansley (a visitor) is that women cannot be educated, so the production of art and literature by them is moot.  Mrs. Ramsey is a good and caring mother, but not a strong intellectual force within her family.

Our view of Woolf’s work may be seen through hindsight and it can be stated that her unconventional lifestyle has allowed us to culturally peg her as a feminist. Her connubial relationship could be called unique, since she and her husband seemed to have a caretaking arrangement, and not a passionate physical association.  She had deep friendships with other women and these may have been physically intimate.  Her early family history (incest and sexual abuse) also may have had some bearing on what may be considered her feminism attitudes.  A woman can be independent if she can support herself with a source of income.

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Was Woolf as a feminist?  Her body of literary work does not necessarily affirm that she believed in the early concepts.  She knew about women, she knew they wanted independence, respect, and to be valued for themselves.  She wrote about what women did, how they thought, and their feelings.  She appreciated the uniqueness for an individual’s desire to be oneself, despite societal conventions.  The delineation between feminine and feminism in her writing is subtle, Woolf tells us “… I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in…” (“A room of one’s own, np).  Her views lean towards a humanistic view.

Did you like this sample?
  1. “A room of one’s own.”  Virginia Woolf on Women and Fiction.  Joel Rich, Webmaster. 24 Jun 05.  29 Nov 05.
  2. Allen, Brooke.  Complexity & Contradiction:  Virginia Woolf & George Eliot.  Nov 1997 29 Nov 2005.
  3. Amiran, Eyal.  Signing Woolf:  The Textual Body of the Name.  1999. 28 Nov 2005. Crawford, John W.  The Perfect Hostess.  1999. 29 Nov 2005.
  4. Lavender, Catherine.  Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.  5 Nov 19995.  29 Nov 2005.
  5. “To The Lighthouse.”  To The Lighthouse.  Jason Carter ,Webmaster.  5 Jun 2002. 29 Nov 2005.
  6. “Virginia Woolf.”  The Literature Network.  2005. 28 Nov 2005.
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