Virginia Woolf Teaches How to Fight Fascism
The English novelist and essayist argued that fascism begins in patriarchal repression, and that women must see themselves as a society of outsiders battling the status quo.
On Tuesday, Feb. 26, 1935, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that after “a very fine skyblue day,” she was “plagued by the sudden wish to write an Anti fascist Pamphlet.” She talked it over with her husband Leonard, who “was extremely reasonable & adorable, & told me I should have to take into account of the economic question.”
The topic had been on Woolf’s mind for some time—at least four years. In 1931, she first envisioned the book as a sequel of sorts to her essay A Room of One’s Own. Initially the title had been Professions for Women, a sort of feminist communist manifesto. At one point, she even planned it to be the “nonfiction” section of her novel The Years. But after traveling through Italy and Germany as the political climate in Europe began to grow more and more menacing, Woolf realized the pressing matter was one of fascism, and she was determined to answer the question “how are we to prevent war?” in a society where war seemed inevitable.
For Woolf, the origins of fascism are inextricably tied to the patriarchy. A quotation she read in the newspaper from a man who claimed that women who work emasculate men by relieving them of their duty as provider seemed to crystallize the issue for her. “There we have in embryo the creature, Dictator as we call him when he is Italian or German, who believes 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.”
The pamphlet would eventually become Three Guineas. Published in June 1938, the book is organized around three institutions: educational, professional, and anti-war, each asking for support in the form of a guinea, a then-obsolete monetary denomination used mostly for checks, for a doctor’s fee, luxury goods, or a hefty donation.
Firstly, Woolf argues, she is unprepared to answer the question “how are we to prevent war,” since she, like other “daughters of educated men,” is uneducated. Higher forms of education, like the “noble courts and quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge,” were closed to women. “Education makes a difference,” Woolf writes. “Some knowledge of politics, of international relations, of economics, is obviously necessary in order to understand the causes which lead to war.”
Secondly, how are women to form their own opinions about war—about any topic, for that matter—if they are not independent members of society? In Woolf’s time, women went from being under the influence of their fathers to their husbands. Without an independent income, a woman’s ability to exert any influence on politics, even the politics of her own household was nil. “If he is in favor of force, she too will be in favor of force.”
And even if women do enter the workforce, they are paid half, or less than half, of their husband’s income. Unbelievably, in 2017, women are still paid less for the same work. “The man is paid more than the woman for that very reason—because he has a wife to support,” Woolf acknowledges. “The bachelor then is paid at the same rate as the unmarried woman? It appears not.”
Because of their role as outsiders—outside the educational system and the workforce—women have little to no agency when it comes to effecting change. “If men in your profession were to unite in any demand and were to say: ‘If it is not granted we will stop work,’ the laws of England would cease to be administered. If the women in your profession said the same thing it would make no difference to the laws of England whatever.”
The subjugation of women, whether it’s through the pay-gap, lack of education, or an assault on reproductive rights, is essential for the success of fascism. If women were liberated, as outsiders their desires and needs in a society would not and could not toe the party line. The Nazis knew this. As Marie-Louise Gättens writes in Women Writers and Fascism: Reconstructing History, the National Socialists introduced schools in Germany segregated by gender where the quality of education for the female students was purposefully inferior. They also created a quota in the university system that capped female admission off at 10 percent.
The importance of a college education cannot be understated for Woolf. Nor should it be lost on us today as we scramble to make sense of the current state of affairs. Shortly after the Woman’s March, this photograph went viral. According to exit polls, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. It’s a sobering statistic for Hillary Clinton supporters. But of those 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, the majority of them, almost 2 to 1, do not hold a college degree.
The sheer horror of this statistic is only made worse by its lack of detail. Who are these women? Have they, as perhaps Woolf would suggest, been victimized by systematic internalized misogyny? Or, even more grim, are they motivated by racism—are they fascists themselves? The reflex toward sweeping generalizations is enticing. What we do know is what differentiates them from other white women is their level of education.
And it should not be overlooked that the ideology of this administration coincided with the defeat of the candidate who would have been the first female president of the United States—an accomplishment that would have heralded a true milestone in gender equality in this country. Acknowledgment of this fact seems to confirm Woolf’s inextricable link between misogyny and fascism. As it’s now apparent, the plethora of accusations lobbed against Hillary Clinton during the course of the campaign turned out to be false—as news comes in every day that the opposing side is guilty of the very crimes they had accused her of. In the end, the campaign against Clinton was founded in nothing more than full-fledged sexism.
But now we come to the most important aspect—what are we to do? How are we to prevent fascism, and, by proxy, war? Here’s what Woolf suggests. And according to her standards, the resistance is already underway.
In the third section of Three Guineas Woolf refuses to sign an anti-fascist petition because “if we sign this form which implies a promise to become active members of your society, it would seem that we lose that difference and therefore sacrifice that help.” Instead, Woolf suggests a “Society of Outsiders,” bound together by their status as outsiders, e.g., not white men, but united in their aim to end the threat of fascism.
She proposes, among other things, that mothers be paid a wage for mothering, that the outsiders refuse to take “office or honor from any society, which, while professing to respect liberty, restricts it, like the universities of Oxford and Cambridge,” and that “outsiders will dispense with pageantry,” like the decoration of bishops and soldiers.
And lest we doubt Woolf’s positioning herself as an “outsider,” it’s worth remembering that the threat of fascism was for her, a threat on her life itself. Hitler’s so-called Black Book contained the names of English writers, philosophers, politicians, and others he intended on murdering as soon as he had invaded the country. Both Virginia and her Jewish husband Leonard Woolf were on this list. The couple had a suicide pact in place in the event that German troops ever made it on to English soil. Their home in London was destroyed during the Blitz, and the frequent buzzing of SS bombers near their country house no doubt contributed to Woolf’s already precarious state of mind in the months before her suicide in 1941.
At the end of Three Guineas, Woolf cites the Mayoress of Woolwich, who reportedly said, “I myself would not even do as much to darn a sock to help in a war.” One hundred years ago, when women made up very little of the work force, as Woolf has already acknowledged, their abstaining from work would have had very little political influence. But, she writes, “should other mayoresses in other towns and countries... follow suit... Therefore it is worth watching very carefully to see what effect the experiment of absenting oneself has had—if any.”
Today, Woolf would undoubtedly support protest efforts of any stripe. Over five million people participated in the Women’s March worldwide, with one million in Washington, D.C. alone. And there are its offshoots, like the generalized strike, A Day Without a Woman, on March 8, which encouraged women to absent themselves by taking the day off both paid and unpaid labor. Yemeni-owned and operated bodegas in New York City shuttered their doors to protest the immigration ban in February, with overwhelming support from their communities. Airports were swamped with crowds protesting Trump’s first immigration ban. And if there were any doubts about the protests’ efficacy, ACLU lawyers claimed that the deafening public outcry was directly related to getting the ban struck down in the courts.
The Women’s March (and its offshoots) is the realization of Woolf’s Society of Outsiders. The sooner white women realize that they too are outsiders—the sooner the outsiders can become not just a fight for feminism, but an unstoppable, all-inclusive resistance against fascism.