Born 136 years ago today, Virginia Woolf was a pioneering feminist thinker who rejected the label “feminist”; she supported the Labour Party while showing little solidarity with her own servants. Her politics, in short, can be as hard to pin down as her lilting, lingering sentences — but both, make no mistake, were revolutionary.
In her 1938 anti-war book Three Guineas, framed as a series of letters to male-run organizations that had asked her for donations, she makes a case for women’s empowerment as the route to pacifism. A follow-up to her more famous A Room of One’s Own, the epistolary essays mix earnest outrage with cutting satire, at once a call to arms and laugh-out-loud funny.
And in one section, almost as an aside, she advocates wages for housework, 35 years before the launch of a global Marxist feminist movement that would make the same demand.
Anti-war women, she writes, must “press for a money wage for the unpaid worker in her own class — the daughters and sisters of educated men. … But above all she must press for a wage to be paid by the State legally to the mothers of educated men.”
(Woolf has been criticized, perhaps justly, for focusing on the relatives of “educated men.” And there is an important distinction between “wages for housework” and wages for “those whose profession is marriage and motherhood” in a milieu where much housework was done by underpaid servants. But her repeated use of “educated men” throughout the book can also be interpreted as a tongue-and-cheek jab at the self-importance of those men, her intended audience.)
The anti-war case for these wages is based on who “educated men” are most likely to listen to: In a class society, the opinions of those who earn their own living are treated as more valuable than the opinions of those who do not. So if women were no longer forced to be dependent, they might be more respected. But she realizes the effects of economic independence go deeper:
[Wages are] the most effective way in which we can ensure that the large and very honourable class of married women shall have a mind and a will of their own, with which, if his mind and will are good in her eyes, to support her husband, if bad to resist him, in any case to cease to be “his woman” and to be her self. You will agree, Sir, without any aspersion upon the lady who bears your name, that to depend upon her for your income would effect a most subtle and undesirable change in your psychology.
In other words, economic independence creates space for political independence.
As she is making the case to a male audience, she then turns her eye to where a two-income marriage might liberate the husband, too:
If your wife were paid for her work, the work of bearing and bringing up children, a real wage, a money wage, so that it became an attractive profession instead of being as it is now an unpaid profession, an unpensioned profession, and therefore a precarious and dishonoured profession, your own slavery would be lightened. No longer need you go to the office at nine-thirty and stay there till six. Work could be equally distributed. … Culture would thus be stimulated. You could see the fruit trees flower in spring. You could share the prime of life with your children. And after that prime was over no longer need you be thrown from the machine on to the scrap heap without any life left or interests surviving to parade the environs of Bath or Cheltenham in the care of some unfortunate slave. No longer would you be the Saturday caller, the albatross on the neck of society, the sympathy addict, the deflated work slave calling for replenishment; or, as Herr Hitler puts it, the hero requiring recreation, or, as Signor Mussolini puts it, the wounded warrior requiring female dependants to bandage his wounds. If the State paid your wife a living wage for her work, … the old mill in which the professional man now grinds out his round, often so wearily, with so little pleasure to himself or profit to his profession, would be broken; the opportunity of freedom would be yours; the most degrading of all servitudes, the intellectual servitude, would be ended; the half-man might become whole.
(She goadingly admits that politicians will find this proposal “impracticable,” as paying for war must remain a higher priority than paying women.)
This does not mean Woolf thought women should confine themselves to the home. She calls on women to enter “all the professions now open to her sex,” though advises “to remain outside any profession hostile to freedom, such as the making or the improvement of the weapons of war.”
She even flirts with a break from capitalist labor, calling on women “to cease all competition and to practise their profession experimentally, in the interests of research and for love of the work itself, when they had earned enough to live upon.”
A vision it’s easy to get behind — though not for many men of the time. Three Guineas was controversial even to some in her inner circle. According to her nephew Quentin Bell, Woolf’s friend John Maynard Keynes “found it difficult not to lose his temper with a production that seemed to him so shrill, so foolish, so muddleheaded.”
But 80 years later, the book stands among the best of her oeuvre, and battles for economic independence, childcare support and an end to militarism remain important realms of feminist struggle.