In parts I and II of this series, I discussed how Virginia Woolf illustrated the variety of ways religion played a role, not only in forbidding women from attaining education and employment, but insisting that it was the “natural order” of things. Religion was one of the many tools by which men excluded women from positions of agency and authority, reinforcing patriarchal supremacy. Extolling this system as the “will of God” kept both men and women from seeing any other possibility of living. Woolf argues that any system built on exclusion, suppression, competition, and violence must be fascist, or at least, contain the germs of fascism. Now we see the question posed to our narrator at the beginning of Three Guineas—How are women to help men prevent war?—has become an admission of failure. Men, who wield nearly all the power and wealth, have not only failed to prevent war, they are actively fostering it at home and abroad. And yet, the male interrogator has asked the narrator to join his society, as an equal, to prevent war. Will she agree?
She mulls the question. On occasion, she has gestured to the underlying futility of women’s equality and suffrage movements—they are valiant, but there is irony in fighting for the right to participate in a broken system. For example, she highlights the ability of the new working woman, who is finally able to wield the “weapon of independent opinion based upon independent income.” (50) Women fight against staggering opposition for the right to work and earn a living, only to be caught in the absurdity of a capitalist system in which the influence of one’s opinion is commensurate with one’s wealth. Perhaps equality with men isn’t enough.
This men’s society for the prevention of war has a worthy enough cause, and the urgency is apparent, because fascism is finally starting to affect men as it molds over Europe in the 1930s. “You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women,” says the narrator. (122) The poisonous flowering of fascism is deeply rooted in patriarchal culture, and eventually, its vines and tendrils will grow to encompass even those at the top. What good will it do for women to join a society that is rotten from the inside out?
Instead, Woolf outlines the creation of an “Outsiders’ Society” that entails women working “by their own methods for liberty, equality, and peace.” (126) These women would employ the only power they have ever been granted: the power of passivity. They would refuse to fight with arms, make ammunition, or nurse the wounded. What does it mean for a woman anyway, to support the fight for a country that has only ever excluded her and made her an outsider, a country that denies her education, employment, and equality? Wouldn’t fighting for such a country be fighting for fascism? Their goal would be “not to incite their brothers to fight, or to dissuade them, but to maintain an attitude of complete indifference.” (127)
Indifference and passivity are surprisingly influential tools. The narrator says that “psychology would seem to show that it is far harder for human beings to take action when other people are indifferent and allow them complete freedom of action, than when their actions are made the centre of excited emotion.” (129) On the surface, this may seem counterintuitive, especially when our intuition is informed by a culture that values “fighting” for causes, that turns even inanimate objects and ideas, be it drugs or terrorism or Christmas, into “wars”. What earthly good will passivity accomplish? But it is a radical notion—one that requires us to scrutinize the very notion of power altogether.
What if we were to rethink the way we thought about power? What if we were to be careful in the way we use the word, and in our contemplation of what it really means? To have power is to have influence over people and circumstances. Power implies there is something or someone yielding to it. Wouldn’t power be one of the seeds of division, exclusion, and ultimately, fascism? But passivity allows for freedom of thought and agency in others. The cure for fascism and for war is not to assert power. It is to be passive. But being passive does not mean “doing nothing.” On the contrary, passivity is complicated, and it requires great courage and fortitude. To be passive is to denounce power.
This sounds like an impossible, or at least an abstract cause. But Woolf offers practical suggestions for denouncing power throughout Three Guineas in outlining her “Society of Outsiders”. It will have the same goals that men claim to aspire to, but it “seeks to achieve them by the means [of] a different sex, a different tradition, a different education…we, remaining outside, will experiment not with public means in public but with private means in private.” (134) In our everyday lives, we must “cease all competition,” we must research and work “for love of the work itself,” we must “refuse to take office or honour” from any institution that denies equality. We must diligently educate ourselves and question the institutions to which we pay taxes, and “reveal any instance of tyranny or abuse.” (132-133) These are all actions which women have taken for centuries, if only because they have been denied pay for work, denied a chance at competing amongst men, denied honors and equality, have had to educate themselves, and have been subject to tyranny and abuse at every turn.
The male interrogator’s question is ultimately as brilliant as it is absurd. Men should be turning to women for help in preventing war and fascism. Women have been railing against it all along, in the limited private sphere and with the only tool they have been granted—passivity. Woolf’s ultimate response to her educated male interrogator was this: “the answer to your question must be that we can best help you to prevent war not by repeating your words and following your methods but by finding new words and creating new methods.” (170) We must denounce power. To end war, we must throw off anything that serves to separate instead of unite. We must learn to live passively, the way women have always lived: without the ability to exert power over anyone else. Instead of authority, seek agency. Instead of power, seek freedom.
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas, and the Role of Religion in the Rise of Fascism
August 4, 2018
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Just in Time for the Holidays!