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22 May 2024

Virginia Woolf’s politics of peace

Published between the wars, Woolf’s essay Three Guineas still has lessons for today’s conflict-ravaged world.

By Elif Shafak

The day I first encountered Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (in an edition with A Room of One’s Own), I was a young aspiring writer in Istanbul. It was a sweltering afternoon: the hustle and bustle of the ancient metropolis, the call to prayer spilling from the nearby mosques, the smells of fried mussels and sesame bagels wafting from the street vendors’ stalls, the seagulls picking through rubbish bins, the cats sauntering out of alleyways and the taste of salt in the wind.

And there I was, sporting a long hippie skirt, a green tote bag large enough to fit in several notebooks, and a terrible hairstyle, having made the mistake of visiting the hairdresser just the day before in the hope of magically obtaining naturally curly hair – something I had always wanted. What I got instead was a dreadful perm which had left parts of my head burned and my heart full of regrets. So in this confused state of existence, I walked out of a bookstore near Taksim Square, carrying Virginia Woolf’s words close to my chest. I hurried to a café, eager to dive in to the book. Little did I know that by the time I had finished it something would have shifted in me. Thus began my lifelong infatuation with Woolf, who was not only a remarkable novelist and storyteller, but also a feminist thinker and a public intellectual.

In the UK, and also to a large extent in the US, we have a problem with the word “intellectual”. This is not the case in other countries; for instance, in France where there is a long – albeit male-dominated – tradition of public intellectuals. It is not the case in Turkey, either. In my motherland, as populist authoritarianism continues to hold sway over society, intellectuals are attacked, arrested, exiled or even imprisoned – but their existence, if not importance, is also generally acknowledged.

History shows us that in times of political crisis or economic decline, in times of inflamed populism and nativism, a dormant anti-intellectualism can flare up, taking the form of hostility towards experts, scholars, scientists, journalists or people in arts and literature. In the Anglosphere, intellectuals are seen, as the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote, as “pretentious, conceited, effeminate and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous and subversive”. An intellectual is a dandified man who cannot be trusted – the antithesis of the image of strong and fearless manliness imposed on young boys as a model for male behaviour.

Let’s also consider the gender roles embedded in the word “intellectual”. There is a persistent patriarchal tendency that associates women with sentimentality and emotions while attributing rationality and analytical skills mainly to men. As a woman of letters, Virginia Woolf was acutely aware of this pattern. She questioned the cognitive segregation that patriarchy both created and thrived on. She railed against the way in which women were excluded from scholarly, cerebral, analytical work, and steered away from intellectually stimulating, interdisciplinary conversations.

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Much has been said about how Woolf underlined the importance of women having a space and an income of their own if they ever were to become writers or poets – but it is not always noted that she did not stop there. Taking the argument further, Woolf explained in A Room of One’s Own that even when a woman is lucky enough to be in possession of a room and £500, even when she has the time and freedom to write, the themes she deals with in her books will, in all likelihood, be regarded as trivial. To this day, a woman novelist is expected to write about domestic, “feminine” subjects. To this day, women’s writing is regarded as less intellectual.

A decade after A Room of One’s Own (1929) was published, Woolf wrote Three Guineas. She was writing in the shadow of one world war, with another looming. Between 1914 and 1918, many civilians across the UK did not immediately grasp the extent of the suffering on the battlefield. It would take time for people to fully comprehend the gruesome reality of life in the trenches, the unseen scars and traumas inflicted by combat. A committed pacifist and antifascist, Woolf saw the invisible and could not unsee it. Her nephew had been killed in Spain, where he had volunteered to be an ambulance driver in the civil war. She had lost dear friends to conflict. She wanted everyone to understand the ravaging consequences of violence. More importantly, she wanted to dismantle the patriarchal structures that had perpetuated jingoism, militarism and war throughout history.

In Three Guineas Woolf imagines an established, educated man asking her opinion as to how to prevent war. How bizarre! Women are outsiders in this debate, never included in decision-making and policy design. Wars are waged by and between men; women are simply expected to go along with it. Woolf bitterly arraigned the rise of fascism and the rhetoric of warmongering, questioning the roles patriarchy assigned to wives and sisters and mothers: dedicated, giving, selfless. She believed a solution could only come from outsiders. The call to peace could not originate from the centre; only from the periphery. “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Woolf’s pacifism was strongly linked to a transnational perspective in line with Kantian cosmopolitanism and universalism. Today she might be criticised for being a “citizen of nowhere”.

Three Guineas, composed as a series of letters and published in 1938, received hostile reviews even from Woolf’s friends. The essay was perhaps too subtle for its time. It came as a shock to many that in response to activists who were urging people to fight fascism before it was too late, Woolf was prioritising the need to defy patriarchy. Was she too naive and shortsighted? Was she wise to focus on the structures that perpetuated wars?

Today our world is plagued, once again, with wars, violence against civilians, collective displacement, even mass starvation. Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan… Can women ever create a peaceful alternative? We may or may not agree with Woolf’s answer, but the question remains universal and urgent. Someday, women must build an alternative narrative, which can only come from the margins, a place of in-betweendom where we can meet each other. As Woolf said, “Unless we can think peace into existence we – not this one body in this one bed but millions of bodies yet to be born – will lie in the same darkness and hear the same death rattle overhead.”

Another controversial aspect of Three Guineas was Woolf’s changing attitude towards feminism: “What more fitting,” she writes, “than to destroy an old word, a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete? The word ‘feminist’ is the word indicated.” This is puzzling. Here is a writer who pioneered feminist literary criticism, displayed a genuine awareness of gender discrimination and dared to question the link between militarism and patriarchy. A writer who inspired countless other women across the world, including the 20-something-year-old me in Istanbul – but now she calls feminism a dead, corrupt word. Why this contradiction?

The relationship between Woolf and feminism was neither static nor straightforward and it has been explored by various scholars. Some, like Elaine Showalter, have argued that Woolf abandoned her “troubled feminism” to move towards a notion of androgyny. Others, like Toril Moi, offer a more affirmative reading, underlining how the novelist tried to find an alternative approach outside binary constructs and fixed identities. This is also where I stand. Not because everything Woolf said or wrote was consistent with feminism, but because feminism itself is not a homogeneous whole composed of undifferentiated voices. It is an immense landscape, a vast queendom, with multiple pathways, some well known, others yet to be discovered. Questioning previous waves of feminism, trying to transcend its precedents while deeply caring about gender equality, is an essential part of feminist theory and practice.

Writing in an experimental style, challenging literary conventions, following the fluidity of memory, perception and subjectivity, reshaping the narrative form through stream of consciousness, Woolf was consistently in love with freedom. Hers was a deliberate and radical departure from linear structured storytelling. She was a political writer. She understood that power is not necessarily based on force and coercion, long before second-wave feminism popularised the phrase “the personal is political”. Woolf was a pioneer of feminist literary criticism, an extraordinary storyteller and a cosmopolitan public intellectual.

Today our world is being rapidly reshaped by smartphones, algorithms, AI, widening inequalities, populist demagoguery, xenophobia and warmongering. We are encouraged to become info-maniacs, never intellectuals. Clickbait has evolved into rage-bait.

We live in a society in which there is too much information, but very little knowledge and even less wisdom. Drawing on sentiments and ideas, empathy and intelligence, the sensual and the cerebral, literature is the great synthesiser, the antidote to the age of hyper-information. Today, just as when Virginia Woolf was writing, a new literature is needed for a new world.

A longer version of this essay was delivered as the “A Room of One’s Own” Lecture at Cambridge Literary Festival in April 2024. To watch the full lecture on the CLF Player visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

[See also: The lure of the English garden]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024