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Feminist Woolf: New Perspectives on Woolf’s Resistance to Feminism


Feminist Woolf: New Perspectives on Woolf’s Resistance to Feminism
Nicolas Pierre Boileau

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  • 1 In France, this acclaim is made visible in the fact that Woolf is one of only 11 women writers whos (...)

1Virginia Woolf is not only one of the most famous women writers in the English language,1 she is also notorious for her so-called feminist essays and views. A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, was followed in 1938 by yet another so-called feminist text, Three Guineas, and the critical and public acclaim of these were to classify Woolf amongst the leading feminist artists for a long time. The 1983 book edited by Jane Marcus, Virginia Woolf: The Feminist Slant and Rachel Bowlby’s Feminist Destinations 1988 (second edition 1993) contributed to fashioning a certain reception of Woolf’s feminine writing and her inclusion in the feminist canon throughout the 1980s, during what is now referred to as the second wave of feminism in critical theory. In the wake of the publication of many personal writings, essays and collections by Woolf during that decade, many academic works of the 1990s and early 2000s focused on Woolf’s gender politics, its sponsoring of écriture féminine, her female characters and the political understanding of her art. Even outside Woolfian circles, it was customary for discussions of ‘women and fiction’ to start with an acknowledgement of Woolf’s contribution to the field of feminist thinking. With Naomi Black’s Virginia Woolf as Feminist (2004) and, in France, Frédéric Regard’s La Force du féminin (2002), it seemed that this aspect of Woolf’s writing had now been covered, leading many critics to turn to other questions, such as the possibility to include Woolf in the philosophical tradition; the analysis of her ideas about memory, historiography or the writing of history; and comparative approaches that expand our knowledge of her close ties with the 19th century—which might have been neglected initially – not to forget her even stronger links with more contemporary writers that she influenced, inspired or challenged.

2As is often the case in critical thinking, it took some time before these initial readings were deemed worthy of re-consideration. Current debates about a new form or revival of feminism after #metoo and other such activist ideas advertised on social media make it necessary to return to Woolf as a feminist, in order to delineate what her feminism means and to better understand how she is going to be read by new generations. Teaching Virginia Woolf nowadays certainly helps. In a Feminist book club I run with Marc Calvini-Lefebvre at Aix-Marseille University, and in an optional course on Woolf, I was struck by how often the students’ interpretations of Woolf’s now canonical texts, Mrs Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own and ‘Professions for Women’, challenged commonly accepted critical views, not so much by offering competing ideas or contradicting established visions, but by introducing qualifications and nuances that in turn call for a renewed understanding of Woolf’s inscription in a world that is now largely regarded as post-feminist. Many students rightfully pointed out that some of Woolf’s female characters remain subservient to the patriarchal system; they discussed her vision of domesticity and claimed that having a room of one’s own could very well be a means of keeping women safely away from more public activities. Moreover, students with no background knowledge of Woolf tended to be alarmed by some proposals that reveal Woolf’s ambiguity, if not reservations, regarding feminism in general, and her understanding of the place of women in relation to men in particular. In other words, without neglecting the historical context in which Woolf’s texts were written, students still see Woolf as a writer that is challenging norms and prejudices but some are less convinced by her proposals for women, thereby reminding us of Woolf’s own admission that she had qualms about her involvement in a movement that would be called ‘feminism’: ‘What more fitting than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word “feminist” is the word indicated’ (Woolf 101–102). So speaks Virginia Woolf as she gradually brings her anti-Fascist, anti-patriarchal polemic, Three Guineas, to its rallying closing pages.

3And yet, although Woolf supposedly consigned ‘feminism’ to the bonfire, critics since the 1970s have been engaging specifically, even devotedly, with the feminine and feminist significance of Woolf’s work. The question proved a critical minefield. For Showalter, Woolf was a ‘saint’ in women’s literary historiography who fled from the political arena of feminism (Showalter 4); for Toril Moi, on the contrary, Woolf was the figurehead of sexual/textual politics. Resistance from within schools of Women’s Studies, together with the opening up of Gender Studies, shed light on the necessity to reconsider any unqualified judgement regarding Woolf’s relation to ‘feminism’ or ‘feminisms.’ Debates thus shifted from feminine poetics or female empowerment to larger concerns with gender, sexuality and the cultural constructions of sexual relations—to the extent of proclaiming her a feminist ‘icon’ (Silver) or ‘a lightning rod for reactions to feminism’ (Snaith 111). In France, meanwhile, the enduring influence of ‘écriture féminine’, psychoanalytical theory and close textual reading meant that the more powerfully political or gender-rethinking perspectives on Woolf’s writing—and indeed on Modernist writing in general—remained on the sidelines. Some French critics did address Woolf’s feminism (Regard, Manonni, etc.), but her work has never been addressed specifically in terms of its problematic relation to feminism by the French Society for Woolf Studies at their annual events (SEW,​).

4Fifty years after the call for ‘Women’s Lib’ therefore, and nearly seventy years since Simone de Beauvoir famously omitted to mention Woolf in her iconic Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), the time seems ripe to reconsider Woolf’s feminism, in all its contradictoriness, slipperiness, and enduring—but perhaps misleading—relevance. Two of the subsequent articles were originally presented at a conference held in the Maison de la Rercherche of Aix-Marseille University, co-funded by the UFR ALLSH and the Société d’Études Woolfiennes (SEW,​). This one-day conference was organised within the more general “Horizon” Project, a research project funded by A*MIDEX and the LERMA, which looks at women’s resistance to feminism(s) in the Anglophone world (​).

5In the first article of this special issue on Woolf’s resistance to feminism, Marie Allègre reviews Woolf’s critical historiography in relation to the concept of androgyny, the figure Woolf refers to at the end of A Room of One’s Own. For her, androgyny is presented as a way out of the conundrum of the battle between the sexes. Marie Allègre sees androgyny as standing at the intersection between psychoanalytic readings of Woolf’s texts and feminist readings. She takes issue with the commonly-accepted logic of Woolf’s androgyny which is often interpreted as a slant towards a form of neutrality, for this neutrality would in turn become criticised for being a sign of the internalisation of the patriarchal system. Allègre opposes these feminist readings by resorting to a psychoanalytic school of criticism that places the definition of ‘androgyny’ as a dialectics between gender roles that enables the author to constantly acknowledge their shifting definitions and prompts constant re-contextualisation. In the second article, Valérie Favre reviews the conflicting, if not contradictory, interpretations of A Room of One’s Own in order to try and define what Woolf’s feminist stance would be, or could be, if ever the author would have wanted to be associated with or identified to a more general movement. However, Favre uses this ambiguity of the reception of Woolf’s text to suggest that its narrative strategy might be the ultimate feminist component of her project, inasmuch as Woolf’s essays resist definite interpretations and set up a strategy of indirection. In the third article, I raise the question of why Woolf’s so-called feminist stance failed to materialise in her fiction, most notably in one of the two novels in which the plot revolves around the question of the suffrage. Night and Day, despite current re-appraisal, stands as an exception in Woolf’s work both for its structure and style and for the lack of critical interest it has attracted. I argue that the novel fails to revolutionise the narrative strategy, norms and conventions of the comedy of manners in which women remain confined to the private sphere, unless they accept to lead a life of celibacy that is defined purely and solely by political action. However, I also argue that this failure should not blind us to the fact there is a more subterranean strategy which consists in underpinning the very binary structure of the text and which sows the seeds of disobedience: the questions raised about the difficulty for men and women to unite, for night and day to form a whole, are an intimation that the world’s order is threatened with new places for each of the sexes, although this is not realised yet within the limits of the text itself. Lastly, Claire Davison interrogates post-suffrage and inter-war militancy by analysing and comparing the works carried out by Smyth and Woolf in order to show the artistic, personal and political ties that the two women established during the 1930s, despite their belonging to different generations and their development as artists in very different fields. She thus shows how they mutually influenced each other towards a form of feminism that was not entirely defined by the question of the vote.

6These four essays show that Woolf’s feminism and her own reluctance and resistance to being defined as a feminist constantly need to be replayed, especially now that the initial, ground-breaking work of feminist criticism is sufficiently established to allow for qualifications of statements that may appear as unambiguous in hindsight. These articles show that Woolf’s texts are never established, that they contain the possibility of their own contradiction, their lack of direction and even their potential for subverting that which they seem to sponsor. In other words, Woolf continues to force us to think critically about everything and to use fiction as an instrument of destabilisation and defamiliarisation. She is the source of critical debates and the inspiration of questions that will find no easy answer. Being a feminist is not as simple as ‘to be or not to be’, unless ‘or’, in Woolf’s case, is understood as inclusive rather than exclusive.

7Beauvoir, Simone de, Le Deuxième Sexe (I et II), Paris: Folio Essais, 1976.

8Black, Naomi, Virginia Woolf as Feminist, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

9Bowlby, Rachel, Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997.

10Mannoni, Maud, Elles ne savent pas ce qu’elles disent, Paris: Delanoël, ‘L’espace psychanalytique', 1998.

11Marcus, Jane, ed., New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, London: Macmillan Press, 1981.

12Marcus, Jane, Virginia Woolf: The Feminist Slant, Lincoln: UP of Nebraska, 1983.

13Moi, Toril, Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), New York: Routledge, 2002.

14Moi, Toril, What is a Woman?, Oxford: OUP, 1999.

15Regard, Frédéric, La Force du féminin, Sur trois essais de Virginia Woolf, Paris: La Fabrique, 2002.

16Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady, London: Virago Press, 1987.

17Silver, Brenda, Virginia Woolf Icon, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

18Snaith, Anna, Palgrave Advances in Virginia Woolf Studies, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

19Woolf, Virginia, Three Guineas (1938), New York: Harcourt, 1966.

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1 In France, this acclaim is made visible in the fact that Woolf is one of only 11 women writers whose complete works have been published in the prestigious collection « La Pléiade », together with George Sand, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters (one volume for all) and the soon-to-be-published George Eliot ( Exemplaire-Marguerite-Yourcenar).

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Electronic reference

Nicolas Pierre Boileau, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [Online], 58 | 2020, Online since 01 March 2020, connection on 23 November 2020. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Nicolas Pierre Boileau

Aix Marseille University, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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