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Killing the Angel in the House, by Virginia Woolf
Episode 2213th April 2021 • Breaking Down Patriarchy • Amy McPhie Allebest
00:00:00 01:28:37

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Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s text is called Killing the Angel in the House, and it’s a collection of lectures and essays written by Virgina Woolf between 1905 and 1941. That phrase, Killing the Angel in the House, and what it represents, has been really, really important in my life so I can’t wait to share it and discuss it with my reading partner today, Rachelle Burnside. Hi, Rachelle!

Rachelle: Hi, Amy!


Amy: Rachelle Burnside is a friend of mine from the Stanford Master’s of Liberal Arts program. We have been dear friends all the way through our program, as we not only did our foundations courses together, but then we also kept choosing the same electives! We studied William Blake, Dante and the Sacred Feminine, and very memorably, Rachelle and I had some life-altering (for me) conversations during our class on International Womens’ Health and Human Rights. Rachelle is incredibly well-read and well-spoken, and I’ve learned so much from you through the years, Rachelle, I’m thrilled that you’re here with us today! 


Rachelle: Thank you, Amy. I’m excited to be here to talk about these issues. I love what you’re doing with this podcast. 


Amy: So can I have you start by introducing yourself? Tell us a little about you, where you’re from.


Rachelle: So, I was born and raised in California, and I’ve spent my entire life here, with the exception of a year-long teacher exchange where I taught religion, philosophy, and ethics at a Catholic school in London. That was an interesting experience, on many levels, not the least of which because, like you, I was raised in a Mormon family, although I left the church when I was 18. I came from this really niche Protestant background and a culture where we don’t teach religion in public school and then suddenly found myself teaching not just Catholic theology, but religious practice for Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Sikhism, etc., because that’s part of the required curriculum in England. I found it refreshing, actually, because people were much less dogmatic and were able to have really nuanced, thoughtful conversations around faith and theology in ways that we are unable to have in the U.S.  My mother is adopted, and her adopted parents both have ancestors that were part of the original group of settlers that migrated to Utah with Brigham Young. Her birth mother, who was also Mormon, has family roots in Georgia and Virginia from the original Scotch-Irish settlers. We don’t know anything about my mom’s birth father except that according to her 23andMe results he must have had English, French or German, and Scandinavian ancestry.  My father is from Battle Creek, Michigan. His maternal grandfather came from Glasgow, Scotland to Canada an indentured servant after he was orphaned at 14. His maternal great-grandmother was from Baden-Wertemberg, Germany. The rest of the family is all English, Irish, and Welsh, with the exception of my dad’s father, who we found out through DNA testing was actually illegitimate and biracial, which no one in the family knew-- even my grandfather. So I have tiny 5% of my DNA from West Africa, specifically Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast. Through genealogical research and DNA, we’ve been able to figure out who my grandfather’s paternal family was, and my 2x great grandfather was a man named Franklin Johnson, born in 1850 into slavery in what is now West Virginia, and died in 1945 in Michigan. My father converted to Mormonism when he was in his teens, and my parents met when he was on his mission. I grew up in Sacramento, in an all-white community until I was 13. I then moved to East San Jose when my mom remarried. My step-father was Chinese-American, and my middle school was a majority-minority school. It was a great education in learning that not everyone has the same life experiences as you do. I attended Santa Clara University where I graduated with BAs in English and History. I briefly worked in educational publishing and high-tech public relations before getting my teaching credential at San Jose State. I taught high school English for 21 years, working with all levels from beginning English learners to AP students. The longer I was in education, the more passionate I became about addressing system inequities in the education system, particularly for students of color and English Learners. So I did a lot of work with the AVID program and was an in English Language teacher on special assignment for the last few years before transitioning out of the classroom. I currently work as a teacher on special assignment supporting English, history, and AVID teachers with curriculum and professional development. My focus in that position is to try to encourage systemic changes at the classroom level in terms of the way we create curriculum, interact with and support students. I’m also trying to finish my master’s thesis for the Stanford program. I’m writing about William Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I’ve started an Etsy business called Blue Gardens Beauty during the pandemic. I make and sell natural, artisan bath and beauty products--soaps, bath bombs, lotions, shampoos, face masks, etc.  


Amy: And then the other thing I like to ask my readers is what brought them to this project. What are your thoughts, briefly, about Breaking Down Patriarchy?


Rachelle:  I think one of the reasons you and I bonded early in our master’s program was our mutual frustration with the patriarchal nature of our religious upbringing, even though my experience growing up Mormon was a little different than yours. My parents divorced when I was two and both drifted away from the church at various points. I was primarily raised by my grandparents, and while my grandfather, who I adored, was always able to see everything in clear, black and white, right and wrong terms, my grandmother struggled with a lot of things. I remember a period when I was little when she refused to go to church, but she wouldn’t talk about it. When I was older, I learned that she’d quit nursing when she married my grandfather, that she’d had a nervous breakdown in the 1950s and had to be hospitalized because of an eating disorder. The minute he retired, she began volunteering for the hospital auxiliary several times a week. I think she just really struggled to be what she was supposed to be. She had ambitions that she had to give up and things weren’t always clear for her. Yet she was married to a man who never had questions. I know they loved each other, because she told me about their marriage, but I also think she never felt fully understood. That’s probably part of the reason I began questioning Mormonism at a young age, which broke my grandma’s heart, but I just couldn’t make myself be what I was supposed to be in that community. I was an intellectual woman who didn’t necessarily want marriage and children. But the church was just the first of many spaces where I felt that being a woman with a voice and a mind of my own was not appreciated and that if I wanted to be “acceptable,” I would need to make myself smaller so other people would be more comfortable.That experience, unfortunately carried through my college experience and even through to teaching. It’s exhausting having to constantly try to edit yourself or make yourself palatable, to carry the emotional labor of navigating other people’s discomfort with a woman expressing an opinion or being in a position of authority, or challenging some preconceived notion of femininity. And it wasn’t until I was in my 40s and started to see a really amazing therapist -- who was a man, by the way-- that I realized that no matter how small I made myself, it never was going to be small enough so that people with ingrained misogyny were going to be comfortable and like me. And to recognize that when people dismiss your lived experiences as not being real, when they accuse you of being angry or hysterical or playing the victim when you simply challenge their sexism, they’re trying to gaslight you. And you don’t need to engage with their bs. It’s still a constant battle, though, and I struggle most days with it. And I don’t even have the extra layer of racism that some of my female colleagues have to deal with on top of it, which I can’t even begin to fathom. I think projects like this are incredibly important because nothing will ever change until we, as women, stand with each other and just set our boundaries, call this stuff out, and refuse to participate in this toxic structure any more. 


Amy: Thanks so much, Rachelle. So before we get started, let’s review who Virginia Woolf was. We talked about her in detail during our most recent episode on A Room of One’s Own, but just as a review, could you tell us some details about this author?


Rachelle:

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in Kensington, London, England in 1882. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a respected man of letters, and as a young girl Woolf was introduced to many literary figures, including Henry James and others. Woolf also made great use of the family home’s vast library, working her way through much of the English literary canon as a teenager. Her summers were spent in St. Ives, Cornwall, which would later form the setting for her famous novel, To the Lighthouse.


For the purposes of this episode, we want to mention that To the Lighthouse is another must-read, especially if listeners are interested in understanding gender dynamics in the early 20th Century. The characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are very much modeled after Virginia’s own parents, and the way they interact with each other very much illustrates the Victorian ideology of “the angel in the house,” which we will discuss today.


Virginia’s mother died when Virginia was just thirteen, which led to a mental breakdown. She also wrote in her journals about being sexually abused by an older step-brother throughout her entire childhood, and Virginia struggled with severe bouts of depression her entire life. However, she experienced happy times as well, particularly as a part of a robust and dynamic literary group called the Bloomsbury Group, she owned a publishing company, she was married to a man, Leonard Woolf, who loved her and whom she loved - although she famously also had an affair with a woman, Vita Sackville-West, who accompanied Virginia to the lecture “Professions for Women,” which we’ll be discussing today. Woolf produced novels and essays and lectures that changed English literature forever, and expanded society’s understanding of gender. I particularly appreciate Woolf because she lets us inside her own mind, as we’ll see when we read and discuss this collection of essays. 



Amy: One last part that is important to set up before we start talking about the essays is the concept of “The Angel in the House.” This was the end of the Victorian era, which was of course named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. and as we’ve talked about in past episodes, one pervasive feature of the Victorian era was the ideology of separate spheres, which held that men and women had complementary roles in society: the man’s role was to work in the professional world, to lead in government and in all institutions, religious and secular. The woman’s role was to be the man’s supporter and helper, to nurture children at home, and be the gentle, quiet, keeper of the hearth. This is also referred to as the Victorian “cult of domesticity,” where women were placed on a pedestal and almost worshipped as self-sacrificing angels, but they were very strictly controlled and prohibited by law from leaving the domestic realm. 


This idealization of the selfless, self-abnegating woman was captured and then perpetuated by a poem written in 1854 in England by a man named Coventry Patmore. He considered his wife Emily the “ideal woman,” and he wrote this long, sentimental poem about all of her virtues. The poem wasn’t that popular at first, but it became extremely popular in the United States, and then it caught on back in England after that. Its influence continued well into the twentieth century as it became part of many English Literature courses once adopted by The Norton Anthology of English Literature


So here are just two excerpts that will give you an idea of what kind of behaviors this poem is idolizing. Could you read it, Rachelle?


Rachelle: 


The best half of creation’s best,

  Its heart to feel, its eye to see,

The crown and complex of the rest,

  Its aim and its epitome.

Nay, might I utter my conceit,

  'Twere after all a vulgar song,

For she's so simply, subtly sweet,

  My deepest rapture does her wrong.

Yet is it now my chosen task

  To sing her worth as Maid and Wife;

Nor happier post than this I ask,

  To live her laureate all my life.


Man must be pleased; but him to please

  Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf

Of his condoled necessities

  She casts her best, she flings herself.

How often flings for nought! and yokes

  Her heart to an icicle or whim,

Whose each impatient word provokes

  Another, not from her, but him;

While she, too gentle even to force

  His penitence by kind replies,

Waits by, expecting his remorse,

  With pardon in her pitying eyes.


Rachelle: So, the narrator of the poem has written, what on the surface, seems to be a poem praising women as the “best half” of creation. The narrator ascribes what we’ve come to regard as stereotypical feminine characteristics to women -- emotionality, simplicity, sweetness, selflessness, and a desire to please men above all else. The image of women in the poem is patronizing, first of all. If you characterize women as  childlike, innocent, and naive, you’re laying the groundwork to justify policing their lives with the excuse of protecting them. And of course, the narrator’s assertion that it’s the male prerogative to get what they want, adn the justification of that selfishness by assuming that fulfilling male desire is women’s greatest pleasure is maddening. No one -- male or female -- MUST be pleased, but everyone LIKES to be pleased, regardless of gender. What I found most disturbing about the poem, however, was the relationship dynamic between men and women that’s described, in which women basically annihilate their selfhood in serving their husbands, and the husbands are not only unaware of this sacrifice, they’re often ungrateful or even abusive. The narrator’s suggestion that women who silently endure this treatment without reproaching men for this bad behavior should be praised as some type of gender martyrs is not just sexist, it’s actually toxic. 


Amy:

Ok, let’s start. As I mentioned, this book is a collection of lectures and essays. There are seven of them, but Rachelle and I are just going to talk about two: we will spend most of the time talking about the lecture “Professions for Women,” which includes the metaphor of “killing the angel in the house,” and then briefly, “The Intellectual Status of Women,” which is a really relatable back-and-forth between Woolf and one of her male friends about women’s intellectual capacity. We will publish all the excerpts we don’t have time for, along with our notes on that essay, on the website, so check it out on Breaking Down Patriarchy.com. 


So let’s start with  Professions for Women. 


Amy: 

Virginia Woolf read this lecture to a group of young women gathered at a meeting of the National Society for Women’s Service on January 21, 1931. It was published posthumously in 1942.

 

“When your secretary invited me to come here, she told me that your Society is concerned with the employment of women and she suggested that I might tell you something about my own professional experiences. It is true I am a woman, it is true I am employed; but what professional experiences have I had? It is difficult to say.

 

My profession is literature…[and that] road was cut many years ago – by Fanny Burney, by Aphra Behn, by Harriet Martineau, by Jane Austen, by George Eliot – many famous women, and many more unknown and forgotten, have been before me, making the path smooth, and regulating my steps. Thus, when I came to write, there were very few material obstacles in my way. Writing was a reputable and harmless occupation. The family peace was not broken by the scratching of a pen. No demand was made upon the family purse. For ten and sixpence one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare – if one has a mind that way. Pianos and models, Paris, Vienna and Berlin, masters and mistresses, are not needed by a writer. The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in the other professions. (1-2)


This reminded me of the previous episode on A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf talks extensively about people’s willingness to invest in men’s education and careers, but not in women’s. 

 

[Woolf then talks about the simplicity of writing – you just have to sit down and “move the pen from left of right,” and soon she was published, and because she came from a family of means she didn’t even have to use the money on rent, so she bought a Persian cat. Now she starts into the meat of the essay, which is to talk about the process of writing and a certain problem that gets in her way.]

 

Rachelle:

***But wait a moment. Articles have to be about something. Mine, I seem to remember, was about a novel by a famous man. And while I was writing this review, I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, the Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House.  I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it – in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all – I need not say it – she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty – her blushes, her great grace. In those days – the last of Queen Victoria...

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