Part II: The Archbishop’s Commission and the Power of Passivity

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, and the Role of Religion in the Rise of Fascism

By Karen Bridges


In Part I of this series, I discussed Virginia Woolf’s writing on the role of religion in preventing women from getting an education. I will now turn to Three Guineas’ examination of the state of employment for women in the 1930s. Since World War I, the concept of women in the workplace was not new, but it remained a contentious issue.

The narrator unravels the prevailing arguments of men against women in the workplace. I mentioned in Part I that Three Guineas is part scrapbook. Much of Woolf’s project is to question authority, even the authority of sources, (especially when access to “official” sources are denied to women) and she pulls a chorus of male disapproval from several opinion pieces of The Daily Telegraph. One man says that women did fine work, but were overly “praised and petted.” Another laments the “thousands of women doing work which men could do.” Yet another man does not mince words: “Homes are the real places of women who are now compelling men to be idle.” (63) The familiar “they’re stealing our jobs” refrain.

A common thread of these arguments is that men seem to claim that women are capable workers, the “problem” is that they are taking jobs from men. Competition, jealousy, and the fear of loss of money fuel anger. To illustrate the mechanics of this mentality in depth, Woolf turns to another source, the “Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on the Ministry of Women” and considers the profession of religion.

Despite vehement disapproval of men, women sought ordained employment with the Church, and in 1935 the Archbishops of Canterbury and York published a study on the “theological or other relevant principles which have governed or ought to govern the Church in the development of the Ministry of Women.” (143) The methods and results of the study provide insight into the patriarchal rationale. Additionally, the church is wealthy, owns a great deal of property, and has an organized and restrictive hierarchical order, much like other professions, but Woolf chose the Church of England as an example because it is the “highest of all professions,” noting that both Archbishops outrank the Prime Minister. Therefore, whatever the study could clarify about the subject of women’s employment must be translatable to other professions.

The commissioners first consulted the New Testament on the role of women in the church. They found that “our Lord regarded men and women alike as members of the same kingdom,” and quoted Gal. iii, 28: “There is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (145) The study also conceded that in the early days of Christianity, women were prophetesses, and that training was not needed for the profession. Christ “chose his disciples from the working class from which he sprang himself.” (145) However, within a few hundred years, Christianity had gone from a radical, democratic, and organic belief system to an organized, hierarchical, wealthy institution. And when this happened, “when the Church became a profession, required special knowledge of its prophets and paid them for imparting it, one sex remained aside; the other was excluded.” (147) The commissioners cited St. Paul’s interpretation of the gospel, which “regarded woman as being debarred on the ground of her sex from the position of an official ‘teacher’ in the Church, or from any office involving the exercise of a governmental authority over a man.” (146) One must wonder how the commissioners accounted for the discrepancy between the intentions and practices of the original founder of the religion, and the state of Christianity in modern times.

The tenacious commissioners also consulted Professor Grensted, a professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, to weigh in. Grensted acknowledged that “strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women should be admitted to the status and functions” of the Church, “clear evidence of the presence of a powerful and widespread subconscious motive.” (149) Grensted indicates that the fear and anger stirred by the prospect of female equality are irrational, and that the only difficulties he can see with women being allowed into the church are “emotional and practical only.” (151) But the commissioners were decided. The “irrational, subconscious motive” won over, and the Church of England declined to ordain women. It would be nearly 60 more years before legislation was passed in 1992 allowing women to be ordained as priests.

Woolf never names this “subconscious motive,” but points out that women have known of its existence all along. “An egg we called it; a germ. We smelt it in the atmosphere; we detected its presence in Whitehall, in the universities, in the Church.” (151) Readers must figure out the motive for themselves. Is it jealousy? Sexism? A need to control resources, money, and power? Are these not “germs” of fascism? Whatever the roots of the fear and anger, Woolf eviscerates them. She notes that the very same arguments used by the church and in the opinions sections of the newspapers are the ones used by dictators to justify their absolute authority. The notion that men should inhabit one world (the public life—employment, education, authority) and women another (private, domestic, submissive) was perpetuated by both Hitler and Mussolini. “The emphasis which both priest and dictators place upon the necessity for two worlds is enough to prove that it is essential to their domination.” (214)

By now, the original question posed to our Three Guineas narrator, of how women can help men prevent war and the rise of fascism abroad, begins to appear ridiculous. The narrator asks a striking counter-question: “Should we not help her to crush him in our own country before we ask her to help us crush him abroad?” (65) Indeed, how can women help men at all, home or abroad, when men have always had all the power, all the money, all the influence to prevent war themselves? And yet, women have been fighting against fascism, or at least the “germs” of it, all along, in their own way. So what can women glean from their lessons; what can they teach men?

Woolf again turns to her scrapbook of newspaper clippings, in which a local vicar lamented the dwindling number of women attending church, fearing they were drifting away from Christianity. This “experiment in passivity,” as she calls it, seemed to be what was drawing the most attention from men. It shows that “to be passive is to be active… by making their absence felt their presence becomes desirable.” (141) When women spoke up, men responded with anger and ridicule. Protesting provoked violence. But absence—passivity—incited thoughtful concern.

In my final article, I will further examine the idea of passivity, and explore Three Guineas’ radical conclusion on power and the prevention of war.

Karen Bridges

July 28, 2018

About the Author Karen Garst


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