Militarism and Gender (part 5). Three Guineas

image courtesy of occupy patriarchy
By Lynn Koh
Jun 12, 2013

This is another post in an ongoing series dealing with the relationship between militarism and gender.  I plan to also review 'What Kind of Liberation.'  Let me know if you have suggestions on what to write about.

Easier to compose a precis of 'Three Guineas' than to convey the experience of reading it.  The essay sets off in one direction, pauses to consider a statistic or quote a biography, meanders or doubles back to the point of departure with renewed vigor.  It is an argument more akin to a dance than a fencing match.

The essay begins, ostensibly, as a reply to a letter Woolf has received from a man, asking her opinion on how to prevent war.  "To fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's," Woolf writes.[1] At the time -- the late 1930s -- women were unable to serve in the military.  Less than two decades had passed since Britain's "Sex Disqualification Act" of 1919, which abolished male-only civil professions.  The marginalization of women within British society afforded them a unique perspective on the spectacle of militarism, and in fact on the social order as a whole.  I quote at length:

"Your world, then, the world of professional, of public life, seen from this angle undoubtedly looks queer... Your clothes in the first place make us gape with astonishment.  How many, how splendid, how extremely ornate they are--the clothes worn by the educated men in his public capacity!

If you will excuse the humble illustration, your dress fulfills the same function as the tickets in a grocer's shop..."This is margarine; this pure butter; this is the finest butter in the market"... Obviously the connection between dress and war is not far to seek; your finest clothes are those that you wear as soldiers...If then we express the opinion that such distinctions make those who possess them ridiculous and learning contemptible, we should do something, indirectly, to discourage the feelings that lead to [contribution] that a different training and a different tradition put more easily within our reach than within yours."

A different training and a different tradition -- the unpaid-for education of the middle-class woman[2] and her exclusion from the public sphere, are here turned to advantage.  But, at the same time the material realities of patriarchy bind her to the imperial system.   Because marriage is the only profession realistically open to the average middle-class woman, she then must support the system that provides her, via her husband, with carriages, clothes, and parties.  Not only that, but any escape from the confines of domestic servitude will be experienced as liberatory -- even when that escape is taking up the jobs left behind by male soldiers leaving for the battlefront:  "How else can we explain that amazing outburst in August 1914, when the daughters of educated men who had been educated thus rushed into hospitals, some still attended by their maids, drove lorries, worked in fields and munition factories, and used all their immense stores of charm, of sympathy, to persuade young men that to fight was heroic" (39).

Middle-class women are a potentially powerful force against war, but cannot actualize that potential under patriarchy.  We might call this tension -- between political insight derived from the experience of oppression, and the debilitating effects of that oppression -- more generally the dilemma of marginality, and it is one that is familiar to all organizers. 

It provides the motive force for Woolf's essay, because one implication of this dilemma is that the movement from margin to center may put women's critical perspective at risk.  As Woolf considers the two other letters she has received -- one asking for money to rebuild a women's college, another for an organization supporting women in the professions -- this is her main concern.

Here we are, observing once again the male public sphere:

“a procession, like a caravanserai crossing a desert.  Great-grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers, uncles -- they all went that way, wearing their gowns, wearing their wigs, some with ribbons across their breast, others without…trapesing along at the tail end of the procession, we go ourselves.  And that makes a difference….Who can say whether, as time goes on, we may not dress in military uniform, with lace on our breasts, swords at our sides, and something like the old family coal-scuttle on our heads, save that that venerable object was never decorated with plumes of white horsehair…

Do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we?  On what terms shall we join that procession?  Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?  The moment is short; it may last five years; ten years, or perhaps only a matter of a few months longer.”

Five years, ten years, or only a few months -- a small window of time which will be decisive in determining the course and significance, indeed the price, of women’s equality.  How to take advantage of this historical juncture?

The solutions that Woolf improvises are not particularly convincing, although her thoughts run in surprising directions.  Towards the end of the essay, she advocates for “a wage to be paid by the State to those whose profession is marriage and motherhood” (110).  The claim is not simply that it provides a measure of independence and economic power for women, but that it also would lessen the pressure upon male wage-earners to remain enslaved to their careers.  In this startling turn, she anticipates the arguments made by Selma James and the “Wages for Housework” campaign decades later.

Otherwise, Woolf sends a guinea to the treasurer of the women’s college, provided that the institution maintain some sort of continuity with the unpaid-for education women have traditionally received:  poverty, or the rejection of affluence; chastity, or the refusal to sell one’s brainpower for money; derision, or the shunning of markers of hierarchy; and freedom from unreal loyalties, nationalism first of all.  And, rather than join the anti-war society promoted by the male author of the first letter, Woolf proposes a female Outsiders’ Society, operating secretly in its refusal to lift arms for war, and its promotion of “complete indifference” in the face of jingoistic militarism:  “For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country’” (109).

Finally, Woolf suggests, there is an underlying inherent unity between the dismantling of patriarchy and the prevention of war:  “the public and private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other…We are both determined to do what we can to destroy the evil which that picture [of fascism] represents, you by your methods, we by ours” (142-143).  There is a certain sense of relief in reaching this point of convergence, after 140 pages in which the issues of public and private spheres have been slowly bending towards each other. 

“Three Guineas” highlights not only our contemporary alliance between patriarchy and neo-conservatism, but also -- by way of contrast -- the welding together of a certain kind of feminism and imperialism.  She judged a window of opportunity -- a few months or years -- in which to defeat both types of militarism.  That one has closed; is a similar one opening for us?


[1]  p. 6.  Page numbers refer to the Harcourt Brace edition, San Diego, 1938. 

[2]  Woolf is very clear that her subject is middle-class women, which is not to say that she universalizes from their particular social position.  Of working-class women, she is certain of their ability to challenge war-making, using the strike. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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