Volume III (Summer 2008)
ISSN 1934-4324

Karenne Saylor


Virginia Woolf as Feminist Rhetorician

Virginia Woolf, in “Women and Fiction” proposes that women have hope that their writing will be strengthened through their experiences and that it will be of value to readers. Woolf encourages women to think of their writing as an art that persuades audiences to rethink, rewrite and transform. Women had diaries that ended up in attics. When such diaries are found, they are of utmost historical and societal value. Women had much to say throughout history, even though their voices were not heard and their thoughts were not of import in both ancient and traditional patriarchal societies. Her essay, which was “read to the students at the women’s colleges Newnham and Girton in 1928”, was a rhetorical speech. In the speech, she explained to the female students that women’s writing, even if it be in the form of a novel or poem, is rhetorical. Woolf’s essay is rhetorical in the way that she asks questions that invite her readers to think on a deeper (rhetorical) level. Woolf asks, “why…was there no continuous writing done by women before the eighteenth century?” and “…of our mothers, grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, what remains?” (Bizzell 1256-7) Woolf points out that every woman throughout history has had a voice and she has always found a way to express herself, even indirectly. Often a female author would use a character in a novel to express the true feelings of the author, such as George Eliot did in with Dorothea in Middlemarch and Charlotte Bronte did in Jane Eyre (1258). Woolf encourages women to reformulate ‘the sentence’, since it was formulated by men and, therefore, can only express a man’s thoughts. She writes that “this a woman must make for herself, altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing it or distorting it” (1258-9). Woolf points out that women are not only emotional, but “are intellectual, they are political”. Indeed, women are rhetorical (1259). She wrote that “[o]ne of the motives that led them to write was the desire to expose their own suffering, to plead their own cause”, but then adds that women are “no longer pleading and protesting” as they write (1259). She further stated that “women are coming to be more independent of opinion… [and] are beginning to respect their own sense of values” (1259).

Woolf ends the essay, “Women and Fiction”, by stating that even though women will continue to write novels, those novels will contain more meaningful plots. Gone are the days that all a woman could write about was what took place in her own little domestic world, for that was the only reference point she had. Women have persevered, and in doing so, have penetrated the world too long dominated by men. Woolf wrote that in the future “literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied” and that from novel writing, “it is a short step to the practice of the sophisticated arts…to the writing of essays and criticism, of history and biography” (1261). Virginia Woolf wrote this essay and read it to young female students in order to persuade them to be the female writers of the future. Woolf hoped that she might encourage those young women to break the barriers that had yet to be broken. Her essay was a well written rhetorical work. In many ways, it can be considered the beginning of a new genre; feminist rhetoric. This essay, along with Woolf’s other non-fiction writings helped to pave the way for other women writers, including those in our day. Her essay is startling in the way she asks questions that make the reader think, “Yeah, why is that?” Woolf believed, and helped others to believe, that women are as capable of rhetorical thinking as are men. By her careful composition, Woolf “simply and efficiently reduced her message to its essential rhetorical character” (Hart 65). It is a fairly short essay, but rich in content. Three years later, in 1931, Virginia Woolf was invited to speak at a meeting of the Junior Council of the Women’s Service League. Her speech, in the form of an essay, is titled “Women and Professions.” She spoke to women, both young and middle-aged, about her experiences as a female writer, in a patriarchal society, and the dilemma that she experienced when trying to write. As a woman living in Victorian society, Woolf struggled with her literary voice. Women at that time were expected to be keepers of the home and would certainly not be taken seriously as critical thinkers.

She describes her dilemma by using a metaphor: the angel in the house. A poem titled “The Angel in the House” was written by Coventry Patmore in 1876. In that poem, he described the ideal domestic woman. The poem was embraced by Victorian women who were eager to be the ideal ‘angel in the house’. Queen Victoria’s undiluted devotion to her husband Prince Albert served to cement the idea of attaining ideal domestic womanhood in Victorian society. In her speech, Woolf describes the ‘angel in the house’ sitting beside her every time she would attempt to write, saying “Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure” (Woolf ).

Woolf described the inner conflict she had between wanting to freely express herself in her writing, but feeling obligated to be what society expected of her: an angel in the house. She was left feeling stifled. She told her audience, “I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self–defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing” (Woolf). Woolf went on to tell the young women of the Women’s Service League that “killing the Angel of the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer” (Woolf). Indeed, it is the only way for a woman to find her own literary voice.

She asked the young women, “…if this is so in literature, the freest of all professions for women, how is it in the new professions which you are now for the first time entering?” (Woolf). Back in the 1930’s when this speech was given, careers for women were few. The barriers were still being broken and much still needed to be done. Of this, Virginia Woolf said:

“You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort,to pay the rent. You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning—the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are what the answers should be” (Woolf).

Seventy-five years later, we can be thankful for Virginia Woolf and the woman who came before and after her. They paved the way for the women of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Against great opposition, the woman of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wrote essays and spoke about the social injustices that women endured. These women did not stop writing, or speaking at rallies and conventions, even though they were challenged, both in person and in Letters to the Editor. Due to the diligence and fortitude of Virginia Woolf and others, opportunities for women in the Western world abound. We now have voices of our own.


Works Cited

Bizell, Patricia and Herzberg, Bruce. Ed. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Bedford: Boston 2001.

Hart, Roderick P. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown, 1990.

Woolf , Virginia. The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942.