The Faithless Feminist

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


Karen Bridges

Part I: An Educated Man’s Daughter 

Three Guineas was the last major work that Virginia Woolf would publish before her death. Part scrapbook, part hypothetical epistolary, part polemic essay, it defies any rigid categorization and is remarkable in its premise. It begins simply enough: the anonymous narrator, the “daughter of an educated man,” sets out to answer a question that has been posed to her via letter – a letter from a (similarly anonymous) wealthy, educated man: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” From there, the narrator’s answer to this letter is anything but simple.

Woolf’s argument is complex, nuanced, ironic, and deeply sardonic and serious at the same time, which makes it difficult to summarize. In three long chapters, she makes it clear that she cannot dissociate the rise of fascism from the patriarchal institutions that govern 1930s England. She condemns the government, universities, military, and church as hegemonic institutions that restrict power and emphasize superiority, competition, and jealousy. Like many feminists of her time (and today), Woolf points out these institutions don’t just restrict women, they marginalize and manipulate men as well, especially poorer men. Patriarchal culture has succeeded in making people jealous, possessive, and combative—which, extrapolated on grand scales, leads to war, and is detrimental to all.

This series will focus on the parts of the text where Woolf calls out religion for its role in bolstering the patriarchy and the rise of fascism. In the first chapter, Woolf writes about education. Her narrator is incredulous that an educated man should ask an uneducated woman her opinion on such a significant subject as war. The fact that he is educated and she is not presents a “precipice, a gulf so deeply cut” (6) that she must first address this discrepancy before anything else. For centuries, education was encouraged for men and denied to women. But women weren’t simply left out—by staying at home, tending to innumerable domestic affairs, and being denied equal portions of fortune and income, they enabled men the time and money to focus on their education. Woolf writes that this injustice has resulted in such disparity between men and women, “that though we look at the same things, we see them differently.” (7)

Universities, although technically open to women in 1938 when Three Guineas was published, were greatly unbalanced in favor of men. They were still segregated, and there were only a handful of colleges for women, most of them controlled and restricted by the male-dominated Universities of which they were a part. The facilities where the women lived and studied were dilapidated. At the time Woolf was writing the book, women were still prevented from putting the letters “B.A.” after their names when seeking work, even though they paid tuition (and more of it, since there were fewer scholarships for women), passed the same coursework and exams that men did. At Newnham, a women’s college at Cambridge founded in 1871, women had been insisting on being able to use the titles and privileges of their educations for decades. In 1887, 1897, and again in 1921, mobs of male students resorted to violent protests against women being granted full degrees, damaging property as well as a gate that had been put up in honor of Nenham’s first principal. Women would not be admitted as full members of Cambridge until 1948.

Woolf then traces the struggle for equality in education to the vein of of religion. “The influence of religion upon women’s education, one way or another, can scarcely be overstated,” (180) she writes. She quotes one of her contemporaries, the writer Mary Butts, who wrote that “I was told that desire for learning in woman was against the will of God, so were many innocent freedoms, innocent delights, denied in the same Name.” (180) This struggle against religion for equality in education, however, was hardly a recent phenomenon. Woolf cites the case of Mary Astell, an early champion of gender equality and often cited as England’s first feminist. Although very little about her life is known, (throughout Three Guineas, Woolf repeatedly notes the lack of women’s biographies as another source of inequality—the number of women whose lives have been erased cannot be ignored while reading this text) some of her writings remain. In 1694 she published Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, and a second part in 1697, in which she proposed the funding of a college for women.

Astell’s intent was that women should have equal opportunities as men to education. Without education, without being able to understand the world, religion, and lived experience, she believed that women did not have the same opportunity as men at eternal life with God. She proposed a college where women could live and study together, beyond the influence of men and patriarchal society. The reception to this idea was mixed—she was derided by fellow authors, such as Jonathan Swift, but Woolf notes that Astell caught the interest of several wealthy female patrons, including the Princess Anne, who was willing to give £10,000 to her cause, an enormous sum, especially for the time.

Unfortunately, there were many, including a certain Bishop Burnet, who told the prospective donor he thought the plan of insulating women away from the world smacked too strongly of a nunnery and Catholicism. During a time when the conflict and division between the Church of England and the Catholic Church (not to mention the various sects of Protestantism) was broiling, Bishop Burnet’s influence could not be ignored. The college was never funded. Woolf speculates that the Bishop himself took the money, which she concedes “is an assumption, but one perhaps justified by the history of the Church.” (181) The issue the bishop took with Astell’s plans was not so much against the education of women, especially if it was by religious means. The issue was that it seemed to promote the “wrong” religion. For Woolf, this calls society’s perceived value of education into question: “it is only good for some people and for some purposes. It is good if it produces a belief in the Church of England; bad if it produces a belief in the Church of Rome; it is good for one sex and for some professions, but bad for another sex and for another profession.” (34)

This is an example of Woolf being deeply ironic and serious at the same time. Woolf understands very well the power of education—as do the men of the church. Bishop Burnett disapproved of Astell on the grounds of religion as an excuse, as a front, for the true fear. Education is empowerment, and the empowerment of women is a threat to absolute patriarchal control. In Woolf’s first chapter, she has deconstructed the hypocrisy of English patriarchy society, which touts the benefits of education even as it is denied women, which decries fascism abroad but perpetuates it at home.

In my next article, I will explore Woolf’s documentation of the methods and means in which the Church of England discriminated on the basis of gender in her own time, and the power in passivity.

Karen Bridges

July 22, 2018

Work Cited: Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Harcourt, 2006.


About the Author Karen Garst