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Was Virginia Woolf a feminist? Sometimes she identified as such. And sometimes she didn’t. But Google searches on her name today, International Women’s Day, make it clear that in the eyes of today’s world, she was, indeed, a true feminist.

London’s feminist mural featuring Virginia Woolf

Eight hours ago, from the other side of the pond, Woolf scholar and novelist Maggie Humm reported that there were 27.7 million references to Woolf on Google today, International Women’s Day, a day first celebrated in 1911, during Woolf’s lifetime. A few moments ago, that number had risen to 29.2 million. Those numbers are nearly double those of less than two years ago.

No wonder. Online references to quotes and books for the day include Woolf’s, and blog posts mention her as well. The Norwegians have even named her a tail fin hero in honor of the day. 

Woolf search results on the rise

The number of search results for Woolf’s name varies over time and has been on the rise since I began noting it in 2007.

That year, a Google search on Woolf’s name resulted in 2.4 million hits, according to Jane Wood in “Who’s Afraid That Feminism is Finished? Virginia Woolf and Contemporary Commodification,” published in the Virginia Woolf Miscellany 73 (2008) (22-24).

My search two and a half years later, on 27 June 2009, came up with 2.7 million results. Three years down the road, on 10 May 2012, nearly 4.1 million hits resulted. And five years after that, on 12 May 2017, my search showed a whopping 14.9 million hits, a 520 percent increase in 10 years. And now 29.2 million hits less than two years later. I can’t help wondering how high that number will go.

Woolf as feminist icon

Interest in Woolf on a day identified with feminism is fitting, as Woolf has become an iconic feminist in both pop culture and academic circles, despite the fact that she had contradictory feelings about identifying as such.

Woolf’s changeability

Her views about feminism — as a concept and as a label — were changeable. Woolf herself did not consistently identify as a feminist. The word “feminist,” for example, shows up infrequently in her private and public writing but it does appear just often enough to indicate her complicated and changeable attitudes about identifying as one.

And when the word does show up in her diaries and letters, it always appears in connection with politics and war, paralleling the way feminism and anti-militarism are linked throughout the history of the women’s peace movement.

In a 23 January 1916 letter to lifelong friend and fellow feminist and pacifist Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Woolf notes her growing feminism in response to the Great War and its coverage in the popular press:

I become steadily more feminist, owing to the Times, which I read at breakfast and wonder how this preposterous masculine fiction [the war] keeps going a day longer—without some vigorous young woman pulling us together and marching through it (L2 76).

In a 17 October 1924 diary entry, she considers making a feminist response to a political brouhaha covered in the popular press. But this time she speaks of her own feminism in the past tense. She notes,

If I were still a feminist, I should make capital out of the wrangle” (D2 318).

Woolf’s conflicted feelings about her feminist polemics

Five years later, in the same month that she publishes her openly feminist polemic, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf clearly expresses the conflict she feels about being identified as a feminist.

While her text bravely makes a long public argument about the inequities between the sexes – and makes it with what she describes as “ardour and conviction” – she is privately insecure about how the book will be received if she is identified as an advocate for womankind. She frets that her friends will respond with only evasion and jocularity. She worries that the book has a “shrill feminine tone.”

She is concerned she “shall be attacked [by critics] for a feminist” (D3 262). If she is subject to such attacks, though, she has a self-protective strategy steeped in stereotypically feminine behavior at the ready. She will simply dismiss the book as “a trifle” (262).

In a letter to pioneering suffragette and composer Ethel Smyth dated 15 April 1931, Woolf mentions listening to “two love lorn young men” who “caterwaul—with an egotism that, if I were a feminist, would throw great light on the history of the sexes—such complete self-absorption: such entire belief that a woman has nothing to do but listen” (L4 312).

Woolf’s reluctance to be branded as a feminist even while she is writing a feminist tome shows up again in 1932 as she is working on Three Guineas. In a diary entry dated 16 February, she speculates about a title for a book that she is “quivering & itching to write.” What should she call it, she wonders? She suggests a title, “Men are like that.” But she immediately scraps that idea as “too patently feminist” (D4 77).

For more on this topic, see my essay, “Taking Up Her Pen for World Peace: Virginia Woolf, Feminist Pacifist. Or Not?” in Virginia Woolf Writing the World: Selected Papers from the Twenty-fourth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, 2015, edited by Pamela L. Caughie and Diana L. Swanson, and published by Clemson University Press.


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What Would Virginia Woolf Do? That’s the name of a Facebook group and a book. And I have to wonder what Woolf would do if she saw either one. 

Would she be flattered? Would she be horrified? Would she be angry? Would she be disgusted?

Critic Daphne Merkin, a memoirist and cultural critic who is a non-posting member of the group, told The New York Times that Woolf would be mortified.

I know I’m mortified for her. Let me explain why.

The Facebook group that misses Woolf

First came the Facebook group started by Nina Lorez Collins, a former literary agent, writer and mother of four grown children, while she was going through a self-admitted midlife crisis.

She saw the group as a safe and private space for women to talk about their problems and propose solutions with which Woolf might agree. She describes it on Facebook as:

“A closed, confidential, forum for women over 40 with a bent toward the literary, witty, and feminist. A place to discuss, support, and share things that we may not care to share with the men and children in our lives.”

According to a March 28 story in the “Style” section of the New York Times, the group has more than 7,600 followers across the country.

A Woolfian lurking among the Woolfers

Members of Collins’ Facebook group call themselves Woolfers. I became one of them this week so I could see for myself what the group was all about. I had to attest to the fact that I was over 40, submit a list of books I had recently read, and give my email address in order to submit my name for membership.

Once approved, I was able to view the group’s members — numbering 8,419 as of today — its posts, photos, videos, book lists, etc.

Only two of the posts I scrolled through mentioned Woolf and a few unidentified photos pictured her books or her home at 29 Fitzroy Square. Of the two book lists I skimmed, one included To the Lighthouse and another recommended that novel, along with A Room of One’s Own, Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.

The posts I scanned were about sunscreen, teenagers, college tours, vaginal dryness, fasting, colonoscopies, tinted eyebrows, traveling to Hawaii, poetry, a writing contest, Mary Magdalene, furry slippers and wearing bejeweled sandals with a chipped pedicure.

Recommendations on the site included such things as restaurants, hotels, spas, shops, universities and museums, but I saw nothing connected to Woolf.

I also noticed that the instructions to group members mentioned Woolf only once: “For the Love of God, Please spell Woolf Correctly!” I would also say: For the love of Woolf, please punctuate and capitalize correctly, particularly in an admonition invoking her name.

Collins herself mentions Woolf in a couple of her posts — one noting the anniversary of her death and another including two phrases from “On Being Ill,” although she doesn’t cite the source.

Note: Within a few hours of this post going live, Collins or one of her administrators kicked me out of her Facebook group. Thank you for the honor, Ms. Collins.

The book title without a punchline

Now Collins has parlayed the private Facebook group into a book, coming out in hardcover this month, whose official title is What Would Virginia Woolf Do?: And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology.

The book, said to include personal essays, is billed as “Part memoir and part resource on everything from fashion and skincare to sex and surviving the empty nest” and “a frank and intimate conversation mixed with anecdotes and honesty, wrapped up in a literary joke.” The website describes its title as “ironic.”

But where’s the irony and what’s the joke? If it’s connected to Woolf’s suicide, I consider that an obvious cheap shot. If it’s connected to something else, that connection is not apparent or explained.

Where’s the Woolf?

The book’s title sends the message that Collins consults Woolf’s writing and life for answers to questions raised by group members. But that isn’t the case.

If the book’s content reflects the Facebook group, it will be focused on the kinds of things a frank women’s magazine for women over 40 that is supported by advertising would discuss — skincare, diet, weight loss, fashion, and relationships — all centered on aging. I don’t see Woolf in this.

The New York Times agrees. It described the book as “a sometimes wince-inducing primer on fashion, sex, marriage, divorce, money and health.” Nevertheless, the book and the group have grabbed headlines. News of both has spread to the UK and Australia.

Wince-inducing Woolfers

The NYT winced at the book, but I am wincing at more than that. The Times says some (insert wince here) “Woolfers” do more than complain and kvetch. They have also formed subgroups that focus on philanthropy, activism, business networking and writing.

That’s nice. But take a look at Collins’ website and you’ll find more to wince at. It includes the wince-inducing word “Woolfer” so frequently that I could barely continue reading, and it has a blog rife with predictable alliterative topic headings such as “Woolfer Wins” and “Woolfer Wisdom.”

There’s a “Shop” tab on the site with this sales pitch: “From t-shirts to tote bags to vibrator necklaces, we’ve got what you need to get decked out like a true Woolfer.”

The “Resources” tab on the site includes a long list of recommended books by women, but only one — To the Lighthouse — by Woolf.

Collins’ characterization of Woolf? “[A] brilliant feminist I admire, a woman who chose to end it all in her late 50s.”

Collins links us to her own published writing, including her tale of how she was arrested three times in connection with domestic abuse against her ex-husband.

Would Woolf use cheap alliteration, hawk vibrator necklaces, exploit the suicide of another writer, and abuse her husband? I think not.

Just read the real deal

Virginia Woolf was an intelligent and thoughtful writer who valued her readers, as well as the importance of language and history and literature. Her thinking, along with her writing, was brilliant and precise, groundbreaking and timeless.

There are self-help books that do a wonderful job of invoking Woolf to give advice about writing and about life. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons and The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing by Danell Jones, come to mind.

Collins’ book is not in the same league. Not by a long shot.

And although I am not embarrassed by vaginas — indeed, I celebrate them — it pains me to see Woolf’s name in the middle of a hot pink vagina graphic on the cover of a cheesy self-help book that exploits her iconic status.

While Collins has every right to age without apology and write whatever she wants without apology, too, she owes Woolf a huge apology for using her name to sell this cheap work. Why? Because it reflects the sad shallowness of pop culture, not Woolf.

The website calls it “A must-have handbook for modern-day women aged 40-100.”

I say the must-have handbook for women of any age is anything by Woolf, starting with A Room of One’s Own.

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The late Jane Marcus, a revered feminist scholar whose seminal work established Virginia Woolf as a major canonical writer, was honored Sept. 9 with a day-long event organized by her former students and dubbed Jane Marcus Feminist University.

The day included breakout workshops, plenary roundtables and a reception in Marcus’s honor with time for sharing reminiscences and memories. It was held at The Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Topics included:

Jane Marcus memorial at the 25th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf and Her Female Contemporaries

  • Modernist Women Writers and Activists
  • The Spanish Civil War
  • Feminist Digital Pedagogy
  • Jane’s Scholarly Legacy
  • Jane’s Reading List

Speakers included:

  • Amanda Golden
  • Margaret Carson
  • Conor Tomás Reed
  • Cori L. Gabbard
  • J. Ashley Foster
  • Blanche Wiesen Cook
  • Jean Mills
  • Meena Alexander
  • Mary Ann Caws

For the full program and list of speakers, visit the event website.

According to Vara Neverow, who attended: “I felt very privileged to be able attend. Of the 50 or so people who came to the event, most were Jane Marcus’s former students or her long-term colleagues and friends in the world of scholarship and of them, many were Woolfians (and many of the Woolfians were members of the IVWS). Also attending the event were Michael Marcus, Jane’s husband, and Ben Marcus, her son. Her daughter, Lisa Marcus, was able to participate via a live feed. I wish that everyone who had known Jane, had met Jane even once or had been inspired by her work could have been able to attend.

“I was very glad to discover that Jean Mills is working directly with Michael Marcus on organizing and reviewing Jane’s unpublished work. Thus, we can hope that some of Jane’s scholarly endeavors will be published posthumously. Jane’s contributions to Woolf studies brought into focus the Virginia Woolf we know as a feminist, a pacifist, and a socialist. Jane’s scholarly impact was both immeasurable and invaluable,” Neverow added. 

She also provided these links:

Marcus, distinguished professor emerita at CUNY and author of so much ground-breaking scholarship on Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, feminism, modernism and other topics, died May 28, 2015, at the age of 76. At the time of her death and at the 2015 Woolf conference in Bloomsburg, Pa., scholars and students paid tribute to Marcus for her scholarship, her feminist integrity and the relationships she nurtured with students and colleagues.

Here’s an update posted today by organizer Ashley Foster:

image

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Conference organizers J. Ashley Foster, Cori Gabbard, and Conor Tomás Reed . Photo by Vara Neverow.

 

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to the lighthouseI first read Virginia Woolf as a college junior. I started with Mrs. Dalloway for a class and moved on to The Years on my own. My love for Woolf was immediate, but I knew my readings were only scratching the surface.

Over the years, I dipped into more Woolf — To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Orlando — all just for fun. It wasn’t until I enrolled in a master’s program and made Woolf my focus that I truly took an in-depth approach to her and her writing.

But that doesn’t mean Woolf can’t be instructive for the common reader, as evidenced by my own experiences and those indicated by three recent pieces I found online. An article in Bustle, “18 Books Every Woman Should Read When She’s 18 (Because I Sure Wish I Had),” argues that every 18-year-old woman should read To the Lighthouse. And in Sydney’s Daily Life piece, “The Truth About Feminism,” Annabel Crabb cites A Room of One’s Own as an explicitly feminist piece she read as an 18-year-old, while a current-day college students cites the book as a feminist classic as well.

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51stories

Comedy as a vehicle to illuminate gender inequity: I think Virginia Woolf would have approved.  In her article (Heard the one about how the web put the spark back into feminism?)  in today’s Observer Anna Holmes reflects on the influence of Jezebel (an online feminist magazine) when it pioneered a new wit in women’s journalism.  Yes, I’m sure that  Virginia Woolf would have approved.  After all she wrote one of the first feminist tracts ‘A room of one’s own‘, which I have just read again.

It’s a brilliantly written early feminist text, in which Woolf argues that what a woman (writer) needs is a room of her own and £500 a year annual income (she wrote this in 1928 – I don’t think we’d get very far on 500 nowadays).  The gist is clear: the reason why there have been so very few women writers, painters…

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