March is Women’s History Month and when most people think of feminist icons, Virginia Woolf is not the first to come to mind. Woolf was an early 20th century English writer. Her pioneering feminism made it possible for many women after her to build upon and continue the women’s rights movement.
Though women in the early 20th century were rarely formally educated or published, Woolf used available resources to her advantage. After her parents died, she moved to Bloomsbury, a neighborhood in London. She met a group of artists and writers and together they formed the Bloomsbury Group. She was Virginia Stephens until she met her eventual husband, Leonard Woolf, who was also part of the artist collective. They married in 1912.
Woolf believed that gender and sexuality are fluid, as seen in letters between her and Vita Sackville-West, a writer with whom Woolf had an extramarital relationship. Interestingly, Woolf did not consider herself a lesbian, but the word itself means “women whose erotic and emotional lives centre on women, a definition which aptly describes Woolf’s life and work,” according to The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf.
Woolf’s writing explores many aspects of female suppression. In her speech to the Women’s Service League known as “Professions for Women,” she discussed how she was expected to be gentle in her writing because she was a woman. Woolf was honest in this speech: she admitted that she would have been more apt to be gentle if writing was her only source of income. But since it wasn’t, she killed the “Angel of the House,” the imaginary entity that whispered that she must write to be liked.
“Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must — to put it bluntly — tell lies if they are to succeed.”
In addition to exploring women’s sexuality, Woolf also owned a publishing company with her husband known as Hogarth Press. The company allowed Woolf to publish her own work, as well as early works of T.S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield.
Women today can learn many lessons from Woolf. She was open-minded and entrepreneurial, smart and honest. Who is your favorite feminist, past or present? Let me know in the comments!