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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 22, 13th April 2021
Killing the Angel in the House, by Virginia Woolf
00:00:00 01:28:37

Killing the Angel in the House, by Virginia Woolf

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?


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?


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. 


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. 


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.]



***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 – every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “my dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” And she made as if to guide my pen. I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself… I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. 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 expresng what you think to be the truth about human relatiations, 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. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer. (3-5)

Amy:  So much to talk about here. 

  • As you know, I wanted to write about Killing the Angel in the House for my master’s thesis, but I was told that “No one takes that poem seriously anymore,” and I was told it was irrelevant in the 21st Century. For me, I had never learned about the separate spheres ideology, I had never heard of the Angel in the House, and I felt like the concept was a revelation and really helped me understand some dynamics that I had witnessed and participated in for my entire life, so I told this professor who was telling me I couldn’t write about it, “Maybe this is irrelevant and outdated for you, but it isn’t for me! It isn’t for the women I know!” And I told her my guess was that most women who were from any conservative religious background would still relate to it. What do you think, Rachelle? 

I totally agree. I think that on the surface we don’t take the separate spheres ideology seriously, but if you delve below the surface, the concept that there are male and female spheres still exist in our culture, and not just in conservative religious spaces. You only have to look as far as the effect that the current pandemic is having on working women to see that while we intellectually reject a separation of spheres, in actuality, women still carry the majority of the domestic burden despite also making inroads into the workforce. If that wasn’t the case, we’d see more equity in the effect the pandemic is having on working parents; but we’re not. You also see the last vestiges of the separate spheres ideology in the reaction that people like Candace Owens had to Harry Styles’ Vogue cover or even my brother-in-law’s low-key panic over my nephew liking to take a bath using the bath bombs I make. 

  • I think it’s so interesting that the person she does battle with is not her dad, who dominated her mom. It’s not Coventry Patmore, who wrote the poem that put the wife in a gilded cage. The person she does battle with is the woman. Why do you think that is? 

I think it comes from an understanding that you can’t control the thoughts and behavior of other people, but you can control your own. What good is it to try and engage with her father or with Coventry Patmore if she can’t get rid of her own internalized misogyny? I totally get that impulse. She has to learn to reject her own acceptance of this male-defined image of what a woman should be--even if that acceptance is subconscious--and define what she thinks a woman is based on her own lived experience outside of this patriarchal construct. How can she--or any of us--truly understand ourselves and speak our truth when we are censoring our thoughts and filtering our experiences so that what we say is socially acceptable? Especially when what is deemed “socially acceptable” is a woman who, as she writes, “never had a mind or a wish of her own” but rather deferred to the thoughts and wishes of others? She says that the voice of the angel whispered in her ear as she wrote, compromising her artistic voice, telling her to “flatter” the male writer and disguise her real thoughts -- or the fact that she had thoughts at all-- from her readers. To be an artist takes honesty and authenticity, which you can’t do if you’re censoring yourself to fit with social convention. The Angel of the House, as she argues, “cannot deal with feely and openly” questions of “human relations, morality, and sex.” Instead, she argues, “They must charm, they must entertain, they must--to put it bluntly--tell lies if they are to succeed.” She credits the fact that she had an independent income and that she didn’t have to rely on the money from her writing with the fact that she had the freedom to kill the Angel of the House. I think this is important because she’s acknowledging her privilege. She’s in a unique position to kill the Angel in the House, whereas women without her financial means, her social position, or the safety of her class and race, may not have been able to do so. (Although a bigger question is whether non-white women were even protected by the image of the Angel ot he House in the first place). But this alludes to a frequent criticism of mainstream feminism. White, upper middle class and wealthy women, Western women in particular, often have the freedom to take a liberated stand on theoretical or artistic points because they have the economic freedom and space to do so. 

That’s such a great point, Rachelle. Woolf does make that important caveat that she was only able to do that psychological and emotional work because she didn’t need to get a job to pay the bills. And most women - and most men, for that matter - don’t have that luxury. Also, you made such an important point when you said that not all women were “protected” by the image of the Angel in the House. Even though being trapped in the domestic sphere and not allowed participation in anything other than selfless service really was oppressive, we have to be careful not to claim universality for that experience. Because a lot of women would say “what are you talking about? I’ve never had a day off of work in my life, let alone had anyone call me an ‘angel.” So we need to be careful of that.

But with that said, if we are addressing Woolf’s experience, and any women who can relate to that feeling of being, as Thomas Paine said, “both adored and oppressed, then that reminds me of another point.

  • It’s what Sophie and I talked about in the episode about the Virgin Mary - men create these “goddess” figures of what they think the ideal woman should be, and then we women get these complicated psychological relationships with these embodiments of men’s ideal women, trying to be like them, but knowing we will never measure up and then feeling a mixture of reverence and striving and resentment. It’s also like Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy - he’s always talking about the divine Beatrice, and it’s only Beatrice who can lead Dante to Heaven, so some people talk about how awesome it is for women that Dante worships this woman. But the woman is a creation of the author’s own mind. She’s not a real person, with her own personality, her own goals.

Exactly. The Beatrice of Dante’s poetry is an idealized construct that serves as a muse to inspire Dante’s work. She’s a complicated melding of the traditional romantic object of courtly love in La Vita Nuova, and the embodiment of divine love and God’s grace, and a representative of the Christian Church in The Divine Comedy. More importantly, Dante never writes about her as a real, fully-realized woman. She exists only to serve a purpose in Dante’s life and spiritual journey. In real life, Dante claimed to have met the real Beatrice only twice: once when they were nine, and then again when they were 18. They both married other people and had children. Dante loved an idea of Beatrice and what that idea inspired in his own art; he had no understanding-- perhaps not even any real interest-- in the actual personhood of Beatrice Portinari. 


  • This quote struck a deep chord in me: “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.” I really, really relate to this quote. Not only is this what was modeled for me in my life, but I also feel like my natural traits are actually quite aligned with this. I am naturally a very nurturing person. I love taking care of other people, I love cooking for people, I love comforting people when they’re sad, I love being a nurse to people when they’re sick and writing them little notes. And my kids tease me because if a cookie falls off the cookie sheet and gets mangled, I always take that cookie because I don’t want it to feel rejected and unloved. My automatic response is to take the worst thing so no one else has to. And to be honest I actually do like that about myself. I think those are positive traits.

However, what I object to is making those traits gendered. Because as Mary Wollstonecraft and Sarah Grimke and John Stuart Mill and others have said, if it’s a positive trait, it’s a positive trait, and so it’s good for men as well as women. 

I have a friend who is a man who subscribes to the “Angel in the House” ideology, and he always says that self-sacrifice is the most noble thing a human being can do, and that this is the woman’s role. He calls himeself a feminist because he “worships women,” because of their “noble self-annihilation.” He really believes that women are supposed to do this, and that it makes them goddesses. We have spent hoooooouuuuuurrrrs debating this, and I have never yet been able to help him understand why it’s not fair for men to require women to sacrifice themselves perpetually, and why I don’t want to be worshipped, I just want to have the same rights of self-determination as he has. Any advice on how to help him see why this is a problematic paradigm? 

Ugh. First of all, I don’t think he gets to self-define as a feminist when he’s arguing with a woman who is telling him her actual thoughts and feelings and he doesn’t listen to those thoughts and feelings about her experience of being a woman because they don’t fit in with his pre-conceived notion of what she should think and feel about being a woman. The whole point of feminism is that there isn’t just one way to be a woman (or a man for that matter). Positive traits aren’t gendered, and neither is perpetually expecting women to sacrifice themselves at the expense of everyone else is; that’s a cop-out that has historically been used to excuse bad behavior in men and force women into the role of being moral gatekeepers of male behavior while simultaneously shaming us for traits that allow men to wield power in society. So I’m going to call “shenanigans” on that BS. You and I are both people who feel things very deeply, but our modes of caring are different. While I am a generous, kind, caring person, I don’t love taking care of other people in the ways that you do, for instance. My love and care shows up in different ways. I often put others before myself when I think it’s appropriate, but there are times when I draw a boundary and just won’t do that. And if I see someone being bullied or hurt, I will go barrelling in ready to cut someone, whereas you are so much calmer and gentler (and probably less crazy, lol). Neither way is better than the other. But I suspect your friend would make some type of value judgement about women like me who aren’t Angels in the House. So I’m also calling BS on the “but I worship women” line. The term “worship” implies idolatry, as if women are some type of deity. On the surface that seems complimentary, but in reality, it’s another way of defining women in a one-dimensional manner and refusing to accept that women are fully-realized, three-dimensional human beings with positive and negative traits, wants, and needs, just like men. It’s another type of gilded cage. You’ll worship women as long as they fit into your imaginary, idealized vision of womanhood, but the minute we’re human and messy, you’re going to punish us for falling short of your expectations. 

  • Woolf describes the angel as standing over her shoulder whispering in her ear, making her constantly aware of how she will be perceived by men. Do you ever feel that way? Do you think many women do?

Oh, all the time, and unfortunately, it’s not just men who buy into the perception. I’ve been on an interview panel with a female administrator who didn’t like an extraordinarily qualified, confident, talented woman candidate because she “seemed like a bitch.”  I’ve told you this story, but when I was in college, I took an ethics class, and it was a really traumatic experience. There were a pair of boys in the class who constantly made horrifically homophobic, racist, and sexist comments in class--not just in the arguments they were making about whateve topic we were discussing, but also in ad hominem attacks against the other students. During the course of the quarter, I kept pushing back against the truly awful things they said, which by the way, were completely illogical and idiotic in addition to being offensive. In the response journal the male professor asked that we keep for the course, I wrote that it was really upsetting to be called names and to have to argue with people who weren’t arguing in good faith. The professor’s response was, “If you talked less, people might listen to you more.” It never once occurred to me that the professor was wrong and a misogynist. I took what he said to heart. I didn’t speak again for the rest of the semester, and that haunted me for years until I went to teaching credential school and learned that what happened to me was something that frequently happened to women in academia who dared to speak out. I’m 48 years old, and I still have to consciously tell myself that if I talk less all I’m doing is silencing myself. And even though I’ll speak up, I’ll feel anxiety about it for days afterward. 

I thought about that while watching Christine Blasey Ford’s calm, careful testimony during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings as she related the trauma she endured. Compare that to Brett Kavanaugh’s absolutely petulant, belligerent, unprofessional melt down. I honestly couldn’t remember seeing a man at that level of public life behave so poorly. His response alone should have been disqualifying for the Supreme Court, but of course, it wasn’t. No woman would be allowed to show that level of anger, immaturity, and belligerence in public, no matter how righteous her cause, and expect to escape unscathed, let alone get a job. 

Kamala Harris’ performance in the vice presidential debate was a master class in what women have to do to navigate public perception. Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Mike Pence could interrupt each other and the moderators -- especially the female moderators; they could lie with impunity; they could be angry and petulant. But Harris had to remain calm and keep a smile on her face as she asserted her right to speak, politely. Afterwards, women all over the country recognized both her experience and her strategy-- that need to be palatable and genial in order to make the fact that we have a mind and a voice easier for some people to swallow. And still, Trump called her “nasty.” 

Woolf writes about the emotional labor it takes to kill the Angel of the House. She says “the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar, or in roaming the word in search of adventures.” Yeah - exactly. So much energy is expended by women to make themselves socially palatable to others. It’s exhausting to always strategize not just about the content of our words, but about the delivery because we know that our message will be received through the filter of the misogyny around us. But as Woolf writes, that’s a battle you can’t win, and all that happens is you kill yourself in the end. I return again to the point that no matter how small and inoffensive you make yourself, it will never be small enough for those who think women should be invisible all together. 

  • When I read the sentence “I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me,” I cried. “She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” Honestly I have lived in that wrestle with the angel my entire life, and I felt myself dying. This podcast project is me claiming my own voice. I am constantly haunted by what men will think of this project, and I am just choosing to ignore it. Is there anything you have ever not done because you were too afraid of what the angel (and the male control she represents) would think?

Too many things to name. And often I thought something was wrong with me because my instincts told me something else. That therapist I told you about told me something really amazing -- and I was about 45 at the time. He said, “You’ve been taught by almost everyone who shaped you to distrust your own experiences and your own thoughts and feelings.” It was hands down, the single-most mind blowing realization of my life. I started to think back on all those times I hadn’t done what I really wanted or needed to do and instead did what I was told I “should want” to do. Every time it was a huge mistake and I was miserable. I’m only now learning to trust myself and my voice, and I still feel enormous anxiety for days about it. I will say that as I get older, I have genuinely stopped caring about what men think about me, for the most part in terms of whether they like me as a person or as a woman. You can like me or not, but that’s not my problem. 

But to continue my story. The Angel was dead; what then remained? You may say that what remained was a simple and common object – a young woman in a bedroom with an inkpot. In other words, now that she had rid herself of falsehood, that young woman had only to be herself. Ah, but what is ‘herself’? I mean, what is a woman? I assure you, I do not know. I do not believe that you know. I do not believe that anybody can know until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill. That indeed is one of the reasons why I have come here – out of respect for you , who are in process of showing us by your experiments what a woman is, who are in process of providing us, by your failures and successes, with that extremely important piece of information. (1-5)


This again echoes earlier writers who say there is no way to know what/who/how a woman really is, because she has never enjoyed her full range of motion. We are definitely getting closer… in 2020/2021, but are we there yet?

[Woolf describes the woman writer poised with her pen over the paper, waiting for an idea to come to her. She thinks of an idea, and it starts to take her somewhere productive, but then her momentum crashes into something hard – some resistance.] The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. The trance was over. Her imagination could work no longer. This I believe to be a very common experience with women writers – they are impeded by the extreme conventionality of the other sex. For though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt that they realize or can control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women. (7-8)

Men acted with sexual freedom; women could not. Men could write about sexuality; women could not. This is definitely still true, though huge progress has been made. I wonder what Woolf would think of “The Vagina Monologues.” :)

I think the big sticking point for real equality is always going to be sex and sexual expression. Our society is terrified of women who own their sexuality and aren’t embarrassed about it. Woolf comes to a point in her writing where she is blocked because she wants to say something real, something honest about the body and sex, but she is inhibited from doing so because she knows that men can’t handle women being that real and honest. It’s too shocking and offensive to them. It reminds me of the absolute meltdown conservative men had about WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Ben Shapiro -- who calls himself a free-speech advocate-- literally released a video reading from the lyrics (but refusing to say the word “pussy”, instead referring to the song as “Wet-ass P-word, P-word is female genitalia” clutching his pearls because it was the end of civilization. He then followed it up by tweeting, “As I also discussed on the show, my only real concern is that the woman involved--who apparently require a “bucket and a mop--get the medical care they require. My doctor wife’s differential diagnosis: bacterial diagnosis: bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, or trichomonis” thus demonstrating his own lack of understanding of basic female anatomy and the sad state of his marital bed. 

Woolf points out the double standard that men allow themselves total freedom to discuss the body and sex, but react with “extreme severity” and condemnation when women exercise the same freedom. It’s okay for male musicians to rap and sing about their penises for the last 50 years, right? It’s okay for Donald Trump to brag about grabbing women by the same female genitalia that Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson can’t bring themselves to say out loud, but women can’t discuss their own bodies. 

I’ll paraphrase Arwa Mahdawi from The Guardian, here. Some men are fine with female sexuality as long as they control it. Women’s bodies are policed in so many ways-- both literally and figuratively. This is another type of policing. We’re not even allowed to talk about the lived realities of those bodies without being shamed  or judged. We’re even taught that our bodies themselves are gross -- we remove our hair, try to cover up our natural odor, we’re shamed over our periods, we’re shamed for breastfeeding in public. We’re shamed for feeling sexual desire and for not feeling sexual desire. And we’re definitely shamed if we discuss any of it.  


***These then were two very genuine experiences of my own. These were two of the adventures of my professional life. The first – Killing the Angel in the House – I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful – and yet they are very difficult to define. Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. And if this is so in literature, the freest of all professions for women, how is it in the new professions which you are now for the first time entering?

This feels so true to me!!!

  • What are the ghosts that women fight inside ourselves? What are our own prejudices? (I can share one: one time, years ago, I was watching a movie trailer for the movie “Unbroken,” and I was thinking that it looked like a great movie, and then at the end it said it was directed by Angelina Jolie. And my feeling didn’t have words attached to it, but if it had, the words would have been “oh shoot, it’s by a woman. It won’t be good then.” I caught myself feeling that and I was so saddened and so angry at the sexist prejudices that I have internalized. And I also, all the time, catch myself being quiet and careful and deferential around men in a way that I am not, even around the most accomplished women. I have definitely absorbed the message from my culture that men are in charge of women, and I am working really hard to dismantle that in my own mind.)

  • Woolf is right that women don’t encounter as much resistance in literature and other Arts forms as they do in other fields. In this speech she’s talking to room full of bright-eyed young women who are entering the work-force for the first time in the “modern” age of 1931. What fields are women still struggling in? 

I don’t know if it’s true that women don’t encounter resistance in the Arts. I think the resistance is just different. In literature, in particular, women writers are often relegated to “genre fiction” and their work isn’t taken as seriously. I think that’s changing, but there has been the idea for a long time that men write deep, important literature and women write “women’s fiction.” Outside of the arts, I think the fact that education is as poorly paid as it is despite the fact that teachers routinely have master’s degrees and more is that it’s a profession dominated by women. And in a profession that is 76% women, it wasn’t until the 2010s that the majority of school principals were women (54% in 2018). Still, only 24% of superintendents are women. And we could write an entire thesis on gender bias in STEM. The last few years has seen a raft of articles exposing the sexism, sexual harrassment, and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. A survey in 2015 of 200 senior-level women in SV showed that 84% had been called “too aggressive,” 66% were excluded from important company events because they were women, 60% had received unwanted sexual advances at work, the majority of which were from someone at a higher level than), which accounts for the fact that 40% of the women didn’t report the incidents for fear of retaliation. One female tech exec recalled being referred to as a “booth babe” at a trade show. I was called that in 1990 when I was working in high tech PR. It’s disheartening to know so little has changed in 30 years.



Those are the questions that I should like, had I time, to ask you. …Even when the path is nominally open – when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant – there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved. But besides this, it is necessary also to discuss the ends and the aims for which we are fighting, for which we are doing battle with these formidable obstacles. Those aims cannot be taken for granted; they must be perpetually questioned and examined. The whole position, as I see it – here in this hall surrounded by women practicing for the first time in history I know not how many different professions  - is one of extraordinary interest and importance. You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent. You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning; the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it/ With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are able to ask them; for the first time you are able to decide for yourselves what the answers should be. (7-9)

That’s how Woolf ends that lecture, and I think we’ll let it stand.

Amy: So let’s turn now to “The Intellectual Status of Women.” This reminded me of a super tense debate you would see on Facebook or Twitter. So to me it felt very relatable.

Virginia Woolf had a friend named Desmond MacCarthy, who was a part of her literary circle “The Bloomsbury Group.” He had been educated at Cambridge and he was the editor of the magazine “The New Statesman,” where he wrote a weekly editorial under the pen name “Affable Hawk.” (that’s partly why it felt like a Twitter thread). 

“Affable Hawk” had written a review of a nonfiction book by Arnold Bennett, Our Women,  which had a chapter called ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’ that might just have well have been titled ‘Men Are Superior to Women’. MacCarthy favourably quoted sections from the book in his weekly ‘Books in General’ column, which Virginia Woolf read in The New Statesman. So she wrote in and responded, and she and Affable Hawk, (her friend Desmond MacCarthy) had a debate about whether women were intellectually inferior to men.

If you want to check out this conversation, it’s on our website, Breaking Down Patiarchy.com. We don’t have time to go through it, so let’s just share one takeaway each. Rachelle, do you want to go first?

Rachelle: The sass in her response to Affable HawK! Yes, queen!

The ridiculous logic of the male reviewers: As a man, I’m going to set up a set of criteria re: what constitutes artistic genius based solely on my lived experience alone. I’m also going to appoint myself and others like me as the sole arbiters of who can be considered an artist.. I’m then going to institute a set of social, economic, and educational conditions that make it nearly impossible for people unlike me to create any kind of art by denying them education, training, freedom, autonomy, or intellectual space. When those “others” do manage to create art despite these hurdles, I’m going to routinely make it nearly impossible for any one to access the art that’s been created by refusing to publish it, display it, perform it, etc. based on the argument that it’s inferior because 1) it’s either been created by an “other” and thus cannot be genius, or 2) arguing that no one (i.e. people like me) is interested in seeing, reading, listening to art created by “others.” If that art still manages to sneak into the public consciousness, I will then either dismiss its value and worth because it doesn’t conform to the narrow definitions of what I have decided art should be, or I will dismiss its success as a fluke, no matter how great it is, and argue that art by others, in general, is inferior because more people weren’t able to accomplish the same thing, thus proving that my own art is inherently superior. 

Then when one of the genius others points out the flaws in my logical argument, I will pretend that I’ve done none of these things, that the playing field has been equal all along, and dismiss anyone else’s lived experience as invalid and hysterical because it’s not my lived experience, so it can’t be real. 


Totally true. It’s such a frustrating conversation because he has all the power - he literally got to go to Cambridge, while Virginia was denied a Cambridge education. It’s so not fair, and he seems quite oblivious to his power. “Privilege is invisible to those who have it,” right? 

So a “yes, and….” comment, I want to end on a hopeful note. And that is the very end of this exchange, after MacCarthy keeps arguing that women are inferior and she keeps - in her brilliant and salty way - defending herself.

My difference with Affable Hawk is not that he denies the present intellectual equality of men and women. It is that he, with Mr. Bennett, asserts that the mind of woman is not ...affected by education and liberty; that it is incapable of the highest achievements; and that it must remain forever in the condition in which it is now. I must repeat that the fact that women have improved (which Affable Hawk now seems to admit) shows that they might still improve; for I cannot see why a limit should be set to their improvement in the 19th century. But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience; that they should differ from men without fear and express their differences openly; that all activity of the mind should be so encouraged that there will always be in existence a nucleus of women who think, invent, imagine, and create as freely as men do, and with as little fear of ridicule and condescension. These conditions, in my view of great importance, are impeded by such statements as those of Affable Hawk and Mr. Bennett, for a man has still much greater facilities than a woman for making his views known and respected. Certainly I cannot doubt that if such opinions prevail in the future we shall remain in a condition of half-civilized barbarism. At least that is how I define an eternity of dominion on the one hand and of servility on the other. 

Yours, etc., 

Virginia Woolf

So she’s saying that women’s intellectual capacity does keep improving the more education they are allowed to have, that women need to feel free to imagine and create without fear of ridicule and condescension from men, and that men’s voices are so much louder than women’s in society so every time a male author writes that women are inferior, it makes it impossible for women to get any traction to start to believe in themselves and rise above the limitations that men have created. So it’s this exact type of conversation that holds women back.

Affable Hawk replies:

If the freedom and education of women is impeded by the expression of my views, I shall argue no more. (30-33)

It’s hard to know from that short of a response what he really meant, but it’s possible to read it that he heard her, and that he recognized that he was part of the problem and was making things worse for women… and that he learned from her and cared about women enough to stop impeding their progress. That’s how I’m going to read it. Which gives me hope and reminds me that the vast majority of men I know personally are really, really good men who really don’t want to do any damage to women. If we have men in our lives who are willing to listen and willing to learn, it’s important to keep having conversations, even if they’re frustrating or uncomfortable. 

And that wraps up our discussion! Thank you again so much for being here, Rachelle!!

Rachelle: Thanks for having me, etc. :)


On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy,  we will be talking about two documents by Eleanor Roosevelt: First, “An Open Letter to the Women of the World,” read at the first United Nations convention in 1946, and second, the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN in 1948. Produced in the aftermath of World War II, these documents are unique in that they are international declarations, and have been touchstones for Women’s health and human rights ever since. Look them up online - they’re easy to find and not long to read, and you can even see original video footage of both speeches on YouTube! The Open Letter can be found by looking up “Women’s Resolution at UN 1946” and just search “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” to find the video of that one. So either read these speeches or watch them, and then join us for the discussion, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Notes we didn’t have room for 

The Feminine Note in Fiction

A review of W.L. Courtney’s The Feminine Note in Fiction, published in the Guardian,  January 25, 1905

Mr. Courtney is certain that there is such a thing as the feminine note in fiction; he desires, moreover, to define its nature … though at the start he admits that the feminine and masculine points of view are so different that it is difficult for one to understand the other. (10)

Women, we gather, are seldom artists, because they have a passion for details which conflicts with the proper artistic proportion of their work. ...Women again, excel in ‘close analytic miniature work’; they are more happy when they reproduce than when they create. …[only two women authors which he reviews] possess a strength which in this age one has to call ‘masculine,’ (11)

[Mr. Courtney claims that because more women are writing novels for women], the novel as a work of art is disappearing. [Woolf says, tongue-in-cheek]: It is, at any rate, possible that the widening of her intelligence by means of education and study of the Greek and Latin classics may give her that sterner view of literature which will make an artist of her, so that, having blurted out her message somewhat formlessly, she will in due time fashion it into permanent artistic shape. (12)


Women Novelists

A review of R. Brimley Johnson’s The Women Novelists, first published iThe Times Literary Supplement,  October 17, 1918

[Fanny Burney’s] first manuscripts were burnt by her step-mother’s orders, and needlework was inflicted as a penance, much as, a few years later, Jane Austen would slip her writing beneath a book in anyone came in, and Charlotte Bronte stopped in the middle of her work to pare the potatoes. But the domestic problem, being overcome or compromised with , there remained the moral one. Miss Burney had shown that it was ‘possible for a woman to write novels and be respectable,’ but the burden of proof still rested anew upon each authoress. Even so late as the mid-Victorian days George Eliot was accused of ‘coarseness and immorality’ in her attempt to ‘familiarize the minds of our young women in the middle and higher ranks with matters on which their fathers and brothers would never venture to speak in their presence.’ (16)

The effect of these repressions is still clearly to be traced in women’s work, and the effect is wholly to the bad. The problem of art is sufficiently difficult in itself without having to respect the ignorance of woung women’s minds or to consider whether the public will think that the standard of moral purity displayed in your work is such as they have a right to expect from your sex. The attempt to conciliate, or more naturally to outrage, public opinion is equally a waste of energy and sin against art. (16)

This is like “A Room of One’s Own,” where she analyzes the places in Charlotte Bronte’s work where her writing gets warped by her own frustration about the sexist rules restricting her life.

[Quotes from Brimley Johnson about women writers] “Women are born preachers and always work for an ideal.’ ‘Woman is the moral realist, and her realism is not inspired by any ideal of art, but of sympathy with life.’ For all her learning, ‘George Eliot’s outlook remains thoroughly emotional and feminine.’ Women are humorous and satirical rather than imaginative. They have a greater sense of emotional purity than men, but a less alert sense of humour.’  (16-17)

Woolf says it’s insulting for men to constantly be telling women what their traits are, whether the man means it as a compliment or an insult.


The Intellectual Status of Women

In the autumn of 1920 the successful novelist Arnold Bennett published a collection of his essays, Our Women: Chapters on the Sex-discord.  (already I’m bristling. Our women??) Woolf found herself ‘making up a paper on women, as a counterblast to Mr. Bennett’s adverse views reported in the papers.’ 

Virginia Woolf’s friend Desmond MacCarthy, whose pseudonym was “Affable Hawk,” published a response to Arnold Bennett, and then Woolf replied to them both. This conversation between Desmond MacCarthy (Affable Hawk) and Woolf is extremely rich and extremely relatable as I think about frustrating conversations I’ve had in the past.

Affable Hawk says this about Arnold Benett’s essays: 

He finds it difficult to say, yet say it he does, that women are inferior to men in intellectual power, especially in that kind of power which is described as creative. Certainly, that fact stares one in the face; and he admits that ‘no amount of education and liberty of action will sensibly alter it.’ 

Following are Arnold Bennett’s comments, interspersed with “Affable Hawk’s” responses in italics:

‘The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet…’ ‘With the possible exception of Emily Bronte, no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men.’ (On the whole that is true: assent is in this case a little more doubtful.) ‘No woman at all has achieved either painting or sculpture that is better than second-rate, or music that is better than second-rate.’ (True: remember the standard is the masterpieces of the world.) ‘Nor has any woman come anywhere near the top in criticism.’ (True.) ‘Can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher; or a woman who has made a first-rate scientific discovery; or a woman who has arrived at a first-rate generalization of any sort?’ (No: I remember the standard again.) I cannot conceive anybody who considers facts impartially coming to any other conclusions. Though it is true that a small percentage of women are as clever as clever men, on the whole intellect is a masculine speciality. Some women undoubtedly have genius, but genius in a lesser degree than Shakespeare, Newton, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Tolstoy. The average intellectual power of women also seems a good deal lower. If you transferred the intellect of a clever but not remarkably clever man to a woman, you would make her at once into a remarkably clever woman, and I expect the same is true of general organizing capacity: a feminine Ford would be one of the world’s wonders. (21-22)

Remember: this was a well-known, respected author publishing this, and her own friend responding, saying he was right - it was true!!!. How does this make you feel as a listener? How might it have made Virginia Woolf feel, as she herself was a novelist? What is the impact on the female psyche to be told this over and over and over?

Also, lest we think this sexist public analysis doesn’t happen anymore, remember the Google manifesto in August 2017?

A Google engineer named James Damore posted a document titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” to an internal online discussion group. His memo was a calm attempt to point out all the ways Google has gone wrong in making gender representation among its employees a corporate priority. He argued that men and women have psychological differences that are a result of their underlying biology. Those differences make them differently suited to and interested in the work that is core to Google. Yet Google as a company is trying to create a technical, engineering, and leadership workforce with greater numbers of women than these differences can sustain, and it’s hurting the company. 

How has that impacted the women who are trying to become engineers, computer scientists, tech executives?

Now Affable Hawk continues his summary of Arnold Bennett:

And what then? Well, intellect means in the long run, and on the whole, domination.

It is indubitable that if women were a nation instead of a sex, their country would not be considered to have contributed much to the world’s art of discoveries. Is that a very depressing conclusion for women? I do not see why it should be; we most of us have got used to the idea that we are not going to be Aristotles or Rembrandts, and are quite satisfied to be in the running for the sixth or seventh places, let alone the second or third which women have reached. 

This is weak logic. He is arguing that most men are incapable of reaching the pinnacle of human achievement, due to their various individual weaknesses. And then he argues that ALL women are incapable of reaching the pinnacle of human achievement, by virtue not of individual weakness, but of the weakness of being women. That is not the same thing. 

Affable Hawk then says:

There is a passage worth drawing attention to on p. 105: 

I shall continue to assert not only that even in this very advanced year women as a sex love to be dominated, but that for some thousands of years, if not forever, they always ewill love to be dominated. This desire to be dominated is in itself a proof of intellectual inferiority. It is distinctive and survives, despite a general impression in certain quarters that recent progressive events have in some mysterious way put an end to it. (22)

Affable Hawk argues that men of inferior intellect do not desire to be dominated, so the two have nothing to do with each other. What do you think, Rachelle? Do women desire to be dominated? 

About twelve years ago a book called Sex and Character, by Otto Weininger, was published, which created some stir. ...It began with a general characterization of Woman,which was then divided into two main types, the Courtesan and the Mother, (this is an old, old story: men dividing women into the madonna or the whore.) differentiated by their preoccupation with lovers or with children. It ended with discourse upon abnormal types of women and a definition of hysteria as ‘the organic mendacity of women.’ In every human being there were mixed the two elements, “M” for Man and “W” for Woman, just as theses characteristics appear physiologically in each sex. To “men” Weininger attributed all the admirable moral and intellectual qualities and to women all the bad ones. Women therefore came out badly, for there was by hypothesis more “W” in them than in the great majority of men. (24)

Virginia Woolf then responds in a letter to the editor of the paper where Affable Hawk wrote his review. She writes:

To the Editor of the New Statesman,

Sir, Like most women, I am unable to face the depression and the loss of self-respect which Mr. Arnold Bennett’s blame… would certainly cause me if I read [his book] in the bulk. I taste them, therefore, in sips at the hands of reviewers. But I cannot swallow the teaspoonful administered in your column last week by Affable Hawk. The fact that women are inferior to men in intellectual power, he says ‘stares him in the face.’ He goes on to agree with Mr. Bennett’s conclusion that ‘no amount of education and liberty of action will sensibly alter it. ‘ How, then, does Affable Hawk account for the fact which stares me, and I should have thought any other impartial observer, in the face, that the seventeenth century produced more remarkable women than the sixteenth, the eighteenth than the seventeenth, and the nineteenth than all three put together? ...the advance of intellectual power seems to me not only sensible but immense; ...the effects of education and liberty scarcely to be over-rated. In short, though pessimism about the other sex is always delightful and invigorating, it seems a little sanguine of Mr. Bennett and Affable Hawk to indulge in it with such certainty on the evidence before them. Thus, though women have every reason to hope that the intellect of the male sex is steadily diminishing, it would be unwise, until they have more evidence… to announce it as a fact. ...Naturally I cannot claim I know Greek as Mr. Bennett and Affable Hawk know it, but I have often been told that Sappho was a woman, and that Plato and Aristotle placed her with Homer ...among the greatest of their poets. That Mr Bennett can name fifty of the male sex who are indisputably her superiors is therefore a welcome surprise, and if he will publish their names I will promise, as an act of the submission which is so dear to my sex, not only to buy their works, but so far as my faculties allow, to learn them by heart.

Yours, etc.,

Virginia Woolf

I love this reply so much!!

Then we get into it more - it’s like Facebook arguments, but 500 times more intelligent and civil.

[Affable Hawk replies that Sappho was indeed a great poet, but if women were as smart as men, there would have been more women poets in the 2,500 years between Sappho’s time and the 1920’s. He says]: There was nothing else to prevent down the ages, so far as I can see, women who always played and sang and studied music producing as many musicians from among thir number as men have done. Of the millions who led the contemplative religious life surely, otherwise, one or two might have equalled the achievements of Aquinas? And when later painting was within their reach what great names can they show? (John Stuart) Mill that that [his wife] was his superior in every respect, but no friend agreed with him. Newton was a small farmer’s son. ...Nothing will persuade me that if among their contemporaries a woman, more favourably placed than they, had shown the same instinctive intellectual passion and capacity, she could not hae done their work.  I maintain Mrs. Bennett’s case is strong. Mrs. Woolf asks how I account for the 17th century producing more remarkable women than the 16th, the 18th than the 17th, the 19th than all three put together, if education is not the cause, and therefore the explanation also, of the smallness of women’s achievement when education was withheld from most women. Of course it is education which has increased the number of remarkable women adn the merit of their work, but the facts remain 1 that unfavourable in many respects as the conditions of women have been in the past, they have not been more unfavourable than many men possessing extraordinary intellectual powers have overcome (2) that … they have hardly attained, with the possible exception of fiction, the highest achievements reached by men; (3) that, in spite of education, in pursuits requiring pure intellect they have not rivalled men. This does not imply, however, that a small percentage of women are not just as clever as any clever men, just as good artists just as good correlators of facts, only that it seems that they fall short of the few men who are best of all. 

Woolf’s response:

[She replies with details about Sappho, then says]: To account for the complete lack not only of good women writers but also of bad women writers I can conceive no reason unless it be that there was some external restraint upon their powers. Why, unless they were forcibly prohibited, did they not express these gifts in writing, music, or painting? 

...There are no great women painters, says Affable Hawk, though painting is now within their reach. It is within reach - if that is to say there is sufficient money after the sons have been educated to permit paints and studios for the daughters and no family reason requiring their presence at home.... And this is in the twentieth century. 

But, Affable Hawk argues, a great creative mind would triumph over obstacles such as these. Can he point to a single one of these great geniuses of history who has sprung from a  people stinted of education and held in subjection? ...It seems indisputable that the conditions which make it possible for Shakespeare to exist are that he shall have had predecessors in his art, shall make one of a group where art is freely discussed and practised, and shall himself have the utmost freedom of action and experience. 

[Apparently it was this exchange with Arnold Bennett and Affable Hawk that led Woolf to write certain parts of “A Room of One’s Own,” including the passage about what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a genius sister.]

Affable Hawk then names several men who have triumphed over poverty and ignorance. His first example is Isaac Newton. Newton was the son of a farmer; he was sent to a grammar school; he objected to working on the farm; an uncle, a clergyman, advised that he should be exempted and prepared for college; and at the age of nineteen he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge. 

Woolf’s brothers got to go to Cambridge; she did not.

Putting that aside, my point is that you will not get a big Newton until you have produced a considerable number of lesser Newtons. Affable Hawk will, I hope, not accuse me of cowardice if I do not take up your space with an inquiry into ...the lives and achievements of Aquinas and St. Theresa, nor decide whether it was Mill or his friends who was mistaken about Mrs. Mill. The fact, as I think we shall agree, is that women from the earliest times to the present day have brought forth the entire population of the universe. This occupation has taken much time and strength. It has also brought them into subjection to men. ...My difference with Affable Hawk is not that he denies the present intellectual equality of men and women. It is that he, with Mr. Bennett, asserts that the mind of woman is not ...affected by education and liberty; that it is incapable of the highest achievements; and that it must remain forever in the condition in which it is now. I must repeat that the fact that women have improved (which Affable Hawk now seems to admit) shows that they might still improve; for I cannot see why a limit should be set to their improvement in the 19th century. But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience; that they should differ from men without fear and express their differences openly; that all activity of the mind should be so encouraged that there will always be in existence a nucleus of women who think, invent, imagine, and create as freely as men do, and with as little fear of ridicule and condescension. These conditions, in my view of great importance, are impeded by such statements as those of Affable Hawk and Mr. Bennett, for a man has still much greater facilities than a woman for making his views known and respected. Certainly I cannot doubt that if such opinions prevail in the future we shall remain in a condition of half-civilized barbarism. At least that is how I define an eternity of dominion on the one hand and of servility on the other. 

Yours, etc., 

Virginia Woolf

Affable Hawk replies:

If the freedom and education of women is impeded by the expression of my views, I shall argue no more. (30-33)