I've heard Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas (1938) called the unofficial companion to A Room of One's Own. While in that earlier book, Woolf connects systematic sexism to economics and art. She famously contends that a sister of Shakespeare, equal in the Bard's talent, would never write a word. All people deserve a living wage and private space, or else their potential will never be reached. It's not an act of charity to dole this out either; our very society depends upon it. Where would we be without the works of Shakespeare? What has been lost because creative geniuses who were female lived in societies that limited them?
In Three Guineas, Woolf extends her ideas on gender and economics to include the prevention of war. Written during the Spanish Civil War, and as Hitler and Mussolini moved to extend their dominion, Woolf receives a letter from a pacifist organization asking for her membership, her financial donation, and her opinion on how our society can prevent the brutal violence that the enclosed photos of murdered Spanish children and burnt homes indicate.
Woolf's response, in the form of a series of letters, is this book.
Her reflection is still timely, of course. As Woolf lays out the evidence for donating to "causes," and about the responsibilities of being a son or daughter of an educated man, she has such a thorough hand, it borders on satirical; I can imagine her bemused smile as she wrote. Woolf makes an airtight case for the deep connections of political domination (Hitler, et. al.) and patriarchal domination. Her critique of education and religious systems that implicitly guide our society to militarism and war strikes true.
Particularly fascinating, Woolf illustrates her text with photographs: a clergyman in full regalia leading a procession; a military man in a parade wearing a jacket heavy with medals and ribbons; academics in a commencement ceremony, draped with robes and wearing tasseled hats; a judge with wig and robes moves down the courtroom steps. Her selection of images reflects her narrative style: she is presenting objective evidence of the authoritative positions she discusses in her essay, and at the same time, she pokes fun at the costuming of hierarchy. Though, Woolf is too dismissive of what she might have to gain from the 'daughters of working class man,' whom she alludes to only briefly and not with much respect … a curious gap for this sharpest of critics of hierarchy and economics.
My annotated Harvest Books edition also includes facsmiles of Woolf's extensive notebooks, where she pasted letters, news clippings, and the like; much of it is her source material for Three Guineas. Of the articles reprinted, a sampling of headlines includes "Equality of Sexes Only a Myth," "A Nation of Men: Speech to Nazi Old Guard," and "Girls' Football Just Too Popular." Curious reads, all.
Now, I usually appreciate annotated editions, particularly of books that are so embedded in their time and place as this one. The facsimiles from Woolf's notebooks was invaluable, and so were the notes on some of the public figures and writers that Woolf discusses. But these annotation-happy editors took it far too far: overwraught explanations of the simplest things are ridiculous. Especially in juxtaposition with Woolf's style: her exhaustive research and clear-as-crystal reflection is carried forth with a smile and an intent.
The Harvest editors of my edition come off as desperate to sound smart and it made me a bit crazy.
Consider an endnote that defines the word "manifesto":
manifesto (102) A manifesto is an open expression of one's tenets, goals, and plans, particularly with respect to politics, but also a form used for declarations of artistic intent. Readers in the late 1930s would invariably have connected the word with Karl Marx whose Communist Manifesto (1848) championed the rights of the working class and encouraged the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie.
Seriously? I turned to the back of the book to read this bit among the many, many other notes to "aid the American reader"? Isn't manifesto pretty well initiated into mainstream English? Do the editors think only 1930s-era readers have heard of Karl Marx?
More bothersome than overexplanation is the editors' tendency to make specious conclusions. Woolf advocates to burn the word "feminism" (because women's rights should be incorporated in the full scale of human rights). The endnotes say that "this surprisingly violent remark puts us forcefully back in the thirties, when Hitler and Mussolini were banning and burning books and issuing commands to women to 'retire once more to the kitchen.'"
Does it? I don't think so. The extended metaphors that Woolf uses with her device of burning buildings and words are diluted by being extended too far in the interpretation of the readers. Woolf doesn't ever discuss book burning in Three Guineas. I rather think this is a case of the editors themselves being troubled by Woolf's frustration with the word "feminisim" (I am too, actually), and they made a cheap effort to justify it on terms that reconciled with their pre-existing worldview.
But don't let the editors of the Harvest edition overshadow what Woolf has to say for herself! My edition was plumped up with the editors' Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Appendix, Suggestions for Further Reading: Virigina Woolf, and Suggestions for Further Reading: Three Guineas. But standing true in the center is a solid piece of work, written in a genre that's diminishing but invaluable (the long-form essay), one that holds innovative thinking, impressive reasoning and sympahty with alternative points of view, and, yes, that bemused smile.
It seems right to finish by with Woolf's own words:
… atmosphere is one of the most powerful, partly because it is one of the most impalpable, of the enemies with which the daughters of educated men have to fight. … We shall find there not only the reason why the pay of the professional woman is still so small, but something more dangerous, something which, if it spreads, may poison both sexes equally. There, in those quotations, is the egg of the very same worm that we know under other names in other countries. There we have in embryo the creature, Dictator as we call him when he is Italian or German, who believes that he has the right whether given by God, Nature, sex or race is immaterial, to dictate to other human beings how they shall live; what they shall do. Let us quote again: ‘Homes are the real places of the women who are now compelling men to be idle. It is time the Government insisted upon employers giving work to more men, thus enabling them to marry the women they cannot now approach.’ Place beside it another quotation: ‘There are two worlds in the life of the nation, the world of men and the world of women. Nature has done well to entrust the man with the care of his family and the nation. The woman’s world is her family, her husband, her children, and her home.’ One is written in English, the other in German. But where is the difference? Are they not both saying the same thing? Are they not both the voices of Dictators, whether they speak English or German, and are we not all agreed that the dictator when we meet him abroad is a very dangerous as well as a very ugly animal? And he is here among us, raising his ugly head, spitting his poison, small still, curled up like a caterpillar on a leaf, but in the heart of England. … And is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity? And must not that fight wear down her strength and exhaust her spirit? Should we not help her to crush him in our own country before we ask her to help us to crush him abroad? And what right have we, Sir, to trumpet our ideals of freedom and justice to other countries when we can shake out from our most respectable newspapers any day of the week eggs like these?