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Home » Woolf: Women Were Not Able to Do What Creative Work?

Woolf: Women Were Not Able to Do What Creative Work?

Last week, the news broke that the Virginia Woolf Society had cancelled the 100th anniversary gala of Woolf: A Literary Life, an event which was to celebrate Virginia Woolf’s life and career as a writer. The gala had been planned for October this year, with the news of its cancellation only emerging some time after.

In the days and weeks that followed, the social media platforms were alive with disappointment and even vitriol. While many fans and supporters of Virginia Woolf took the news in their stride, there were others who felt that the world they had known and grown up in had cruelly closed its doors on them. Some tweeted their despair at the thought of missing out on the chance to celebrate the centenary of Woolf’s writing; others expressed their anger at the Virginia Woolf Society, branding them ‘censors’ for cancelling such a significant event.

Whether or not you agree with their actions, it is impossible to argue that the Virginia Woolf Society didn’t have good reasons for cancelling the gala. The event was beset by controversy from the start, with many voices in the literary world speaking out against it. Critics and academics expressed their concerns about the lack of gender balance in an all-male lineup of speakers, while others questioned the very purpose of the festival, given that Woolf had died in 1941. In a letter to The Times published in July this year, Professor Dame Alice Arlene Waterlow expressed her dismay that ‘the greatest writers of today’ were being overlooked in favour of a century of ‘luminary men’.

The backlash against the Virginia Woolf Society was swift and merciless, with people who had previously supported them turning their back on them. It is perhaps not a huge surprise that a group of women dedicated to promoting the work of Virginia Woolf would find themselves in the crosshairs of a social media storm. Nonetheless, the reasons behind the society’s decision to scrap the gala are as much about the status quo as they are about gender equality. Far from being a one-off incident, the fallout from the cancellation of the gala is a stark example of how the feminist fight for women’s rights still rages today.

The Virginia Woolf ‘Manifesto’

It wasn’t always thus. In fact, Virginia Woolf wrote extensively about the barriers faced by women in order to challenge the status quo and call for change. She began publishing in the 1920s when women could not own property and were restricted to a domestic sphere, defined by society as ‘women’s work’. If a wife and mother, she would later write, ‘never leaves the home, or ceases to give her attention to the children, to cooking, cleaning and sewing…what happens to her mind?’

Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out (1921) and Night and Day (1923), addressed the lack of freedom suffered by women at that time. In The Voyage Out, which was published when she was 25, Woolf questioned whether or not women had a place in the ‘modern world’, denouncing the ‘confectionery’ of marriage and questioning whether or not it was good for women to be defined solely by their gender.

In Night and Day, Woolf explored the ‘double bind’ suffered by women in modern society, in that they are expected to behave politely yet attractively towards the opposite sex, while also being expected to behave like ‘naturally’ attracted individuals. She drew on her own experiences, as she later acknowledged, when she wrote: ‘For the past twenty years I have lived a double life; I write as a man, and I feel as a woman…I am a woman with a terrible burden to bear…I never felt womanly; in fact, I have never felt as if I belonged to the group of women…I have often wished that I were a man.’

Woolf’s prolific writing during this time – at least 20 books were published between 1921 and 1941 – was driven by a need to question the status quo rather than simply reflect it. In her lifetime, she would go on to publish 27 books – 12 of which were posthumous titles. In many cases, her works were ahead of their time, with gender equality and the ability to identify with and understand the experiences of other groups, particularly racial minorities, forming a focus of her work. While she achieved literary acclaim and commercial success, her books were largely overlooked during her lifetime, partly because of her gender. They were only brought to wider public notice through the release of the film adaptation of her final book, The Waves, which was released in 2015 and starred Irene Adler as Woolf.

Changing Tastes

Fast forward a few decades, to the 1950s and 1960s, and the literary world had begun to embrace and value the works of Virginia Woolf. Her books began to gain in popularity, with her first published work Three Essays (1925) going on to sell over 100,000 copies. By the time of her death in 1941, her popularity had soared; in The Encyclopedia of Literature, Eliot Arnold argued that ‘no other writer…has affected English literature more profoundly or for longer’ and she was hailed as one of the great novelists of her time.

Even in the years since her death, Woolf’s impact on English literature and culture has been profound. Since the 1950s, there have been numerous tributes, from academic conferences to public readings, centenaries to film adaptations, with more planned for the future. While she may not always be considered ‘modern’ literature, Woolf’s body of work is undoubtedly influential and holds a significant place in modern culture.

Backlash From a Female Perspective

It is worth stepping back for a moment to consider how the fight for equality has played out from a female perspective. While Virginia Woolf was undoubtedly an influential writer, it is fair to say that she never shirked from a misogynistic view point. In many of her works, especially her early works, she displayed a clear distaste for what she saw as the ‘confectionery’ of marriage and the ‘triviality’ of everyday existence. This undoubtedly stemmed from her own ‘double life’, as she later acknowledged, but it is fair to say that her feelings towards women were mostly uncharitably paternalistic. While Woolf’s work is undoubtedly important in modern culture, her treatment of women in some of her earliest writings is, to say the least, questionable.

Looking to the future, the fight for equality is far from over. While there are numerous examples of misogyny in literature and film today, there are also many brave and determined women fighting the good fight. The ability of women to identify with and speak out for other marginalised groups, whether that be due to race, sexuality or intellectualism, forms a focal point in many of their works. The most prominent and successful of these literary titans are undoubtedly women such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose 2018 hit Americanah is the epitome of a ‘coming-of-age’ novel, and Emily Brontë, whose Wuthering Heights is a tale of two feuding sisters, who despite their differences, share a deep respect and concern for one another.

We couldn’t have predicted this turn of events when we woke up that morning, but it has certainly provided the opportunity for the feminist movement to further develop and grow. It is highly likely, however, that this incident will serve as a wake-up call to many that there is still much work to be done.