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Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf: Women & Gender

At the same time that she was experimenting with language, Woolf was also experimenting with ideas about gender and relationships between the sexes. Like many members of the Bloomsbury Group, the Woolfs had an open marriage, in which they gave each other permission to pursue outside relationships. In 1922, Virginia met Vita Sackville-West, a poet who also had an open marriage with her husband Harold Nicolson. The two women had a romantic relationship for several years, and even after the affair ended they remained friends for the rest of Woolf's life.

Woolf was interested in bisexuality—not in the modern definition of wanting to make out with girls as well as boys, but in the more intellectual possibility of fusing both male and female identity in a single person. Woolf was a feminist. She argued not that women were better than men but that they were equally necessary. To her, a mind that was able to reconcile both its masculine and feminine parts was the most creative. "The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two [genders] live in harmony together, spiritually co—operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her," Woolf wrote in A Room of One's Own. "It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine."9 In 1928, she explored these ideas in the novel Orlando. Spanning English history from the 1500s to the 1900s, the book follows an eternally young man who wakes up halfway through the book to discover that he is now a woman. The book was sort of a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, and was illustrated with photographs of Sackville-West dressed as Orlando.

Around the time she published Orlando, Woolf was asked to give a series of lectures at the women's colleges at Cambridge University. She later expanded her talks about women and art into the 1929 book A Room of One's Own. She had never forgotten the university education that was denied her because of her gender. "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things," she explained. "Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. … Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one's own."10 In 1938 she published a second, more polemical feminist tract, Three Guineas, in which she argued that it was necessary to boost women's education because if there were more women in positions of power, there would be less war.

It seems fair to point out here that when Woolf wrote about the need to educate women, she wasn't talking about all women. Modern feminism offers a bit broader of an umbrella than the one feminists of Woolf's era used. She was openly disdainful of working-class women, despite the fact that she relied on several such women to help run her home. Her snobbery wasn't unusual for women of her day and upbringing, but it definitely wasn't one of her more flattering qualities. In the story "Kew Gardens," the omniscient narrator notes "two elderly women of the lower middle class" and snidely remarks on their "very complicated dialogue": "'Nell, Bert, Lot, Cess, Phil, Pa, he says, I says, she says, I says, I says, I says."11 She didn't mean it in a nice way.

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