Essay: Professions for Women

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¶ … Professions for Women," in which she talks about "killing the Angel in the House," is an ideal artifact for ideological criticism, because Woolf is interested in simultaneously destroying a specific ideological product while creating one of her own. As Sandra Foss discusses in her book Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, the goal of any ideological critique is to identify those traces of ideology that make themselves known in a rhetorical artifact, and to determine not only how the particular rhetoric supports this ideology, but also who this ideology affects and why (Foss 248). In the case of Woolf's "Professions for Women," it will become clear that Woolf is advocating an ideology of gender equality that takes as its target both the linguistic embodiments of repressive gender ideologies in the form of specific "ideographs," such as the Angel of the House, as well as the physical realities those ideographs perpetuate and advocate. This critique will provide valuable insights into both the way ideology presents itself in rhetoric as well as how rhetorical criticism in general can benefit from a more precise accounting of the methods and functions of ideology above and beyond traditional divisions and genres of rhetorical device.

Woolf's essay "Professions for Women" is adapted from a 1931 speech she gave to the London and National Women's Service (now named the Fawcett Society after its founder, Millicent Fawcett), and although the actual text of the speech is a bit longer than the eventual essay, it seems fair, at least in the context of ideological criticism, to discuss the essay rather than the speech, because (as would be expected) the essay represents a refinement of Woolf's overall argument and rhetoric that retains the ideologically important aspects of the original speech without the unnecessary inclusion of "canceled passages and alternative wordings" (Woolf, Women and Writing 57). The London/National Women's Service began a suffragist movement, but expanded to include issues of equal pay, political representation, and other issues surrounding the public life of women. By 1931, Woolf had already published many of her most famous works, including the novels Mrs. Dalloway and to the Lighthouse, as well as her long essay a Room of One's Own, establishing herself as an outspoken voice for gender equality, especially relating to professional and economic opportunities. In fact, one of her most famous lines regarding economic and professional equality can be found in a Room of One's Own, and helps to illuminate her well-established ideological background prior to her 1931 speech: "a woman must have money and room of her own if she is to write fiction" (Woolf, a Room of One's Own 4).

That Woolf was ideologically and politically active prior to her speech in front of the London/National Women's Service is evidenced not only by her written works, but also her biography. In 1910 she became a vocal supporter of women's suffrage, and as a result of her efforts (along with countless others) a variety of reforms made their way through the British Parliament (Woolf, a Room of One's Own xxvii). First came the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which granted the right to vote to women over thirty; then, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act "opened many professions and public offices to women;" finally, in 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave the right to vote to women over twenty-one, giving them the same voting rights as men (Woolf, a Room of One's Own xxviii, xxxi). Having occasionally lectured at Cambridge previously, it is in this context of dramatic social reform that Woolf was asked to speak at the London/National Women's Service, specifically about her "own professional experiences" (Woolf, Women and Writing 57).

Woolf begins her essay by noting the difficulty of the topic, saying "it is true I am a woman; it is true that I am employed; but what professional experiences have I had? It is difficult to say" (Woolf, Women and Writing 57). She regards this as difficult not because she faced any substantial institutional difficulty as a writer, but rather, on the contrary, she suggests that:

When I came to write, there were very few material obstacles in my way. Writing was a reputable and harmless occupation. The family peace was not broken by the scratching of a pen. No demand was made upon the family purse. For ten and sixpence one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare -- if one has a mind that way. [….] the cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they succeeded in the other professions. (Woolf, Women and Writing 57-58).

She completes this picture of an almost idyllic "professional" experience by telling her audience "to show you how little I deserve to be called a professional woman, how little I know of the struggles and difficulties of such lives, I have to admit that instead of spending that sum upon bread and butter, rent, shoes and stockings, or butcher's bills, I went out and bought a cat" (Woolf, Women and Writing 58). Thus, by her own account, Woolf's entry in the professional world was not met by many of the same difficulties and prejudices faced by women in other professions, difficulties that the Women's Service was specifically created to confront. Instead, as in a Room of One's Own, she describes facing a difficulty that was simultaneously deeply personal and unarguably social, because while she describes it as a personal battle, she is describing a particular notion of women that grew to prominence over the course of the nineteenth century and still holds some sway today, albeit far less that it once did (Fernald, "A Room of One's Own" 165).

Woolf describes how she realized that "if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom," which she names "the Angel in the House" after Coventry Patmore's 1854 poem that served as the basis for the Victorian ideal of the same name (Woolf, Women and Writing 58). In both the poem and the social ideal it inspired, the Angel in the House is an image of an idealized woman, who "was intensely sympathetic, [….] immensely charming, [….] utterly unselfish, [….] excelled in the difficult arts of family life, [and] sacrificed herself daily" (Woolf, Women and Writing 59). According to Woolf, "in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others," and it is this tendency that represented the greatest challenge Woolf had to overcome in the course of becoming a professional writer (Woolf, Women and Writing 59). When Woolf began her first professional work, a book review, the Angel in the House "slipped behind [her] and whispered: 'My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure" (Woolf, Women and Writing 59). The Angel in the House represents the variety of "invisible presences' that shape our responses" to everyday experience, and what psychologists have occasionally referred to as "phantom communities" made up of our voices, both real and fictional, that inform decision-making (Zwerdling 184). Subsequently, Woolf "turned upon her and caught her by throat," doing her "best to kill her," although as evidenced by Woolf's fiction, "this process was more complicated and protracted" than one might hope (Woolf, Women and Writing 59, Hussey 157).

The Angel in the House represents the first major obstacle Woolf faced, but she also recounts how "telling the truth about my own experiences as a body" continues to vex her, because she believes that "the obstacles against her are still immensely powerful -- and yet they are very difficult to define" (Woolf, Women and Writing 62). While the assumptions and social restrictions inherent in the Angel in the House were overcome precisely because they were bound up in a singular figure, Woolf argues that there remain "many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome" that are not so easily identified (Woolf, Women and Writing 62). These latter "ghosts" and "phantoms" represent the topic she is most interested in, both for herself and her audience, because she sees these as the primary factors hindering women even as the official, explicit, institutional barriers are demolished through legislative reform (Woolf, Women and Writing 62-63). She ends, then, not with a succinct conclusion, but rather by asking a number of questions of her audience, entreating them to consider how, after having gained access to "rooms of [their] own in the house hitherto exclusively own by men," they will go on to "furnish" and "decorate" these metaphorical rooms (Woolf, Women and Writing 63).

The first step to identifying and analyzing the implicit and explicit ideologies at work in Woolf's essay is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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