Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart

Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3

Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.

With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?

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Featured Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

In a world so determined to dictate its standards onto one’s person, it’s always refreshing to find literary works—essays, poems, short stories, and novels—that encourage the celebration of one’s individuality. And if said works could be both empowering and entertaining, then all the better.

For over a decade, my ‘feel-good poem’ has been Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. It’s a poem that I like to write down in all my journals. That way, if I was having a lousy day and needed a quick pick-me-up, all I had to do was reach into my bag and give the piece a swift read. Instant mood and confidence boost! But now that my current journal is down to its final pages, I’m thinking that for my next one, Maya Angelou’s famous poem will have to learn to share the spotlight. See, I think I’ve found the perfect accompanying piece to Phenomenal Woman, and that’s Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top.

Just like Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a poem that’s built to be said out loud in a tone oozing with sass, good humor, confidence, and cocksure conviction. It’s a piece that positively thrums with joy. Just watch how Lucille Clifton delivers it, and tell me that you didn’t crack at least one smile throughout her reading.

Much like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a celebration of womanhood. It is a poem that urges women to take ownership of their bodies—to love themselves, just as they are. Big hips and all.

Now, at first glance, the poem itself appears to be very straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that Clifton cannot be bothered with capitalizations and multitudes of metaphors, flowery language and line breaks that are pregnant with meaning. The poet knows what she wants to say and says it directly to her audience. She leaves no room for argument or even the possibility of discussion. She says everything as fact—and rightfully so. Who better to know the effects of one’s body than its wearer?

Clifton starts the poem with the simple but effective declaration: these hips are big hips. Now, even in 1980, when the poem was published in Clifton’s award-winning book of poems, Two-Headed Woman, big hips weren’t exactly de rigueur. In fact, the body ideal during this period had just begun shifting from the soft and slight curves of the 1970s dancing queens to the leggy and athletic Amazonian proportions of the 1980s supermodels.

During that period, there was hardly any room for women with big, bold hips in fashion magazines. But that didn’t really matter to Clifton. See, her hips need space to move around in. Her hips don’t fit into little petty places. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that her how her body was supposed to look like, because her hips are free hips. Those are hips that were never enslaved by something as petty as convention or the standards of fashion. She didn’t care about measuring herself by anyone else’s specifications—and why would she, when she had her own yardstick to measure herself against. She knew perfectly well that her big hips were mighty and magical hips, powerful hips that have put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

Now, it’s interesting to note how Clifton had zeroed in and written an homage about a very specific body part. It begs the question, (for this reader, at least), of Why the hips? If Clifton’s point was to urge women to celebrate their bodies as a way of celebrating their entire selves—for, really, try as we may to separate the physical from the spiritual/mental, our bodies are the tangible representations of our inner selves—why stop with that one bit? Why not talk about breasts, waists, hands, and so on and so forth?

For example, in Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou enumerated and exalted in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the bend of her hair, and even the curl of her hips. In doing so, Angelou had painted a complete portrait of a woman. You could imagine this phenomenal woman and slip into her shoes easily. And to be fair, the same could be said about Lucille Clifton’s big hips. Any woman could identify with, wear, and sashay in those hips. And I guess that’s what makes Homage to My Hips so amazing—and maybe that’s also the answer to my previous question.

Why the hips? It’s because much of a woman’s identity in history is actually tied to her hips. Maybe I’m over-reading or overreaching here, but the way I see it is that the hips are home to what a lot of writers like to refer to as the woman’s core. Personally, I think vagina works just fine, but potatoes, po-tah-tos. The hips are the center of a woman’s sexuality. And for a long time, what those hips could produce—a child!—was also seen as the largest measure of her worth and her identity. Why else would our ancestors be so obsessed with child-bearing hips?

And I’d like to believe that the poem, more than celebrating a woman’s form, whatever that form or shape may take, is also a way of urging women to take charge of their sexuality and their identity. Buck the body trends, and more importantly, create your own definition of who you are as a woman. Don’t let society impose its standards on your person. Instead, create, and more importantly, live your own story.

That, and of course, big hips (no matter their actual size) are fabulous and beautiful hips.

Featured Poem: Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Her Kind

Back in college, quite some time ago, there was this little game I used to play called “100 steps.” I would pace around the university library, meandering through the maze of towering shelves, one hand lightly touching the fabric, paper, and leather spines of the books I would walk past. I would mentally count each step, only stopping on the hundredth mark. Then, I’d pull out and peruse whatever tome I ended up touching last. Not the most fun game around, sure. But it was a great way to find new and interesting reads.

Through this little game, I learned quite a bit about a variety of random but fascinating topics. We’re talking South American courtship practices, the history of polygamy, modern-day bigamy, and my personal favorite—the rise of eating disorders in women during the Victorian era. This little practice also made it easier for me to discover amazing poets like Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, and the genius behind today’s featured poem, the controversial and unforgettable Anne Sexton.

A Few Words on the Poet

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a Pulitzer-winning American poet known for her incredibly potent and oftentimes dark verse. Like my favorite poet of all time, Sylvia Plath, most of Sexton’s works comprised of confessional poetry that touched on difficult and deeply personal themes like mental disorders, suicide, depression, social stigmas, the struggles faced by women during that period, and the complex and sometimes scarring relationships between the writer and her loved ones.

And just like Plath, Sexton had no trouble mining, exhuming, examining, and using her experiences to say what was generally unsayable. No topic appeared taboo to Sexton—although she did request that The Awful Rowing Toward God be published only after her death. And she really did have a very deep well of experiences to draw from. Throughout her short life—sadly shortened by her own hands, no less—Sexton struggled against multiple episodes of severe manic and depressive attacks.

It was during her second spiral into mania in 1955 that she met her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne. During their therapy sessions, Dr. Orne began encouraging Sexton to take up writing. The poet attended John Holmes’s poetry workshop, where it was discovered that she had an incredible knack for poetry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Her Kind: A Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Anne Sexton’s famous poem, Her Kind, explores the struggles of its persona to conform to the societal expectations and norms levied against women during the early to mid-20th century. During this period, women were expected to live a certain way—to grow up to be future wives, mothers, and homemakers, with little wiggle room to be anything else. In other words, a woman’s path was paved but incredibly narrow, bright but harshly lit, with a lobotomy waiting at the end of it. But the voice of Her Kind is unwilling, or maybe even unable, to minimize herself to fit the strict confines of society’s definition of woman. She cannot and will not be boxed in.

Now, to illustrate the character’s defiance, Sexton divides the poem into three sections, with each stanza showing a specific side of the persona. In the first stanza, the persona presents herself as a lonesome suburban witch. The next stanza, she’s a lonely housewife or mother. And finally, in the last stanza, the persona paints herself as a defiant adulteress about to face her execution. Written in the first person, Her Kind reads more like a declaration of self, an affirmation of identity, rather than a simple retelling of the character’s life. It is the persona’s rebellion against the dictates of a society seeking to restrict her identity by telling her who, what, and how to be.

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Featured Poem: Woman to Man by Ai

Powerful, violent, gritty, gut-wrenching, and polarizing—these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of Ai Ogawa’s poetry. The narrative poet is known for her short and intense dramatic monologues, her chilling offerings of a slice of someone else’s life. The fact that her poems are also told in first person narrative allows both Ai and the reader to step into her characters’ shoes. And bear in mind that these shoes are far from comfortable.

When Ai chooses her characters, she does so from the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the country—the outsiders, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the racially profiled, and the voiceless. She probes and exposes the underbelly of American culture and society, choosing to write about ‘taboo’ topics like abortion, child abuse, murder, and spousal abuse. Ai then, gifts her narrator with a voice so violent and so strong the reader cannot unhear it. The echo of her stories stick with you and into you like invisible needles, long after you’ve forgotten the actual words.

Now, for today’s poetry review, we’re doing an analysis of the poem, Woman to Man. The poem was first published in 1973 in Cruelty, Ai’s first collection of poetry. When Cruelty first came out, it did so in the midst of the second wave of feminism, and in the same year, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

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Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

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Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.

Featured Poem: Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

(The mess I call my journal) In the process of copying Phenomenal Woman
(The mess I call my journal) In the process of copying Phenomenal Woman

In terms of impact, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou might just be one of the most empowering poems ever written for the fairer sex. This work was originally published (and copyrighted) in Dr. Angelou’s 1978 autobiography, “Still I Rise.” With its flowing rhymes and straightforward wording—this poem is a breeze to read and a joy to be heard when read out loud.

Now, I’m not particularly well-versed when it comes to copyright laws, so I’m linking you guys to the full poem instead of posting it on this blog. (Read Phenomenal Woman in full here.)

In this poem, the writer attempts to explain her ‘inexplicable’ allure. First, to the “pretty women” puzzled by her magnetic charms, then to the men who are drawn to her like a “hive of honey bees.”

Strangely enough, she starts out with a strong disclaimer: “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” It’s an admission that sums up the confusion felt by the men and women who are drawn to the writer. Then, as if to drive the point even further, she lists a number of purposely vague reasons behind her appeal. In the first verse, she says:

 “It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.”

The rest of her explanations are just as nebulous—“the fire in my eyes, the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet…” and so on and so forth. Now, read carefully, dear reader and you’ll find that these are all qualities possessed by the everywoman. There are no race-restrictive, size-specific, or socioeconomically exclusive terms to be found here. Just a general description of your everyday woman. And therein lies the beauty of this poem. Rather than alienating a large chunk of its readers, the poem seeks to be inclusive. It revels in its inclusivity.

Another striking feature of this poem is the repetitive nature of a particular phrase. The words:

“I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”

Figure beautifully at the end of every stanza. Beyond bridging the persona’s thought process, this acts as a celebration of her womanhood. The secret of the Phenomenal Woman is that she is her own woman. Her magnetic nature doesn’t lie in anything outside of the ordinary. She is phenomenal because she is herself.

Now, as far as analysis goes, that’s just us scratching the surface. While Phenomenal Woman remains an empowering and relevant piece of literature, to truly understand its impact and gravity, we need to delve into historical context.

There’s no denying that Maya Angelou was a very beautiful woman—physically, mentally, and emotionally. She was the complete package. But for an African-American girl growing up in the 1930s—a time when racist ideals and actions ran rampant in the Land of the Free—the standards of beauty excluded anything outside the ‘white.’

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou remembers a moment of insecurity when she was a child. She thought, “Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take the place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn’t let me straighten?”

We’re not going to delve into how wrong, cruel, and painful it is for a child to have such thoughts—that’s for another discussion—but it’s important that we also look at the unconventional nature of Maya Angelou’s beauty. Unconventional for that period, at least. When she reached adulthood, Angelou’s brand of beauty continued to challenge the norms. Unlike the petite, fair-skinned lookers of the 1950s, Angelou grew to be a voluptuous, 6-foot-tall woman.

These days, we look up (for some, like myself, quite literally) to those modelesque proportions. But bear in mind that during that period, even Sylvia Plath who purportedly stood tall at 5’9”, felt some semblance of insecurity over her height.

Now, simply put, there was a period when Angelou struggled with accepting her looks and sexuality. And putting that struggle into perspective makes Phenomenal Woman even more poignant because it speaks of the writer’s acceptance and celebration of her unique and magnetic beauty. It’s speaks of her triumph in transcending the norms to embody what is truly beautiful in a woman.

All in all, this poem is a glorious, timeless, and inspirational work. It is poetry at its finest, folks.

 

On a Personal Note:

The first time I encountered the poem, Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou, it was through my mother’s copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul. (Or was it “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul?”) Though only 16, and by no means a woman at that point, my teenage self was immensely moved by Dr. Angelou’s words. I immediately wrote down the poem in my high school journal, thinking, “Here is the type of woman I want to be.”

Now at 30, the poem remains an inspiration to me. It spans a page of every journal I’ve ever had. And every time I feel a pang of insecurity, I read the poem out loud and I tell myself—“Now, that’s the type of woman I ought to be.” Reading this poem never fails to put a smile on my face. Hopefully, it will have the same effect on you.

Book Review: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
My tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays

Title: Three Guineas

Author: Virginia Woolf

Genre:  Essay

First Published:  1938

“Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered…” And thus begins Three Guineas–Virginia Woolf’s powerful essay on how the practices of the Victorian patriarchal system could be likened to the unarguable evils of tyranny and fascism. The essay is drafted as a response to the letter of an educated gentleman seeking Woolf’s opinions on how war could be prevented. Though many answers have suggested themselves to Woolf, the gentleman’s letter went unanswered for over three years.

Woolf clarifies that this is because none of these answers could be left without ample explanation. The differences in the psyche of the educated man and his sister had created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm that made immediate understanding of the reasonings of each sex near impossible. So, to answer the gentleman’s question, Woolf had to delve into the root of this ‘misunderstanding’ and find what unique and effective solutions could arise from it.

To illustrate the differences between the ways of thinking of the educated man and his sister, Woolf offers the reader the AEF or Arthur’s Education Fund. The AEF, as seen in the Pendennis, figures into household ledgers as the educational funds set aside for the sons in the family. This fund is designed to pay for more than man’s schooling, it also pays for all the other ‘essential parts’ of his education–including travel, leisure, lodging, and society. According to Woolf, the account has been in existence since the 13th century, and the educated man’s sister has paid her dues to the AEF for just as long. Though monetary contribution was out of the question–for the daughter of an educated man had no money of her own to contribute–she paid her dues through the sacrifices she was forced to make for her brother. For centuries, women were barred, not just from the professions but also the universities.

For a long time, Psychology became the only unpaid-for education available to women. This is, of course, going with the assumption that choosing a husband and making a marriage work are forms of practical Psychology within themselves. For a long time too, up until 1919 in fact, marriage was the only ‘profession’ open to women.  So you can understand how the social, physical, and educational limitations imposed on women during this period could affect her understanding of the necessity of war and violence. While a great majority of men saw war as either the ultimate manifestation of machismo or the natural expression of patriotism, out of their own shared experience under patriarchal rule, women were more inclined to question the need for war. Having been brought up to submit to fathers, brothers, and husbands, these women found no glory in violence. Faced with the possibility of war, they were more inclined to ask, “Why fight?”

Even the need for patriotism was questioned; for how has patriotism directly benefited the educated man’s daughter? During Woolf’s period, when a woman married a foreigner, she was asked to relinquish her citizenship and take on her husband’s. How then was she to form loyalties with a country that was not her own once she married outside of it? What did she owe a society that had caged her for as long as she could remember? But the possibility of war must be fought–as is made evident by the abundance of pictures laid out before Woolf. Images of homes torn asunder by bombs, the countless and faceless dead… But how to effectively prevent it?

While answering the gentleman’s letter, Woolf turns to two other documents that lie open on her desk. One is a request for funds to rebuild a women’s college, the other asks for financial support to help women gain a more secure footing within the professions. Woolf then uses these letters to illustrate how supporting these causes can, in fact, also be considered support for the anti-war movement. She addresses the gentleman:

“…But we have sworn that we will do all we can to help you to prevent war by using our influence–our earned money influence. And education is the obvious way. Since she is poor, since she is asking for money, and since the giver of money is entitled to dictate terms, let us risk it and draft a letter to her, laying down the terms upon which she shall have our money to help rebuild her college.”  – excerpt from Vintage Classic’s A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas. p.129

And that is exactly what Virginia Woolf does. She imagines this experimental college founded on youth and poverty. This cheap college that focuses not on segregating and specializing, but a college that offers freedom from ‘the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid…’ (p.133) It was, by all means, a college that did not breed vanity, competition, jealousy, and unreal loyalties. Instead, it was there to educate women, to help them earn their livings, and more importantly, to give them the freedom to have an opinion that is other than what is taught in the household, in church, or in whatever institution demands their blind loyalty…To the treasurer of the women’s college, Woolf relinquished her first guinea.

Then, it was time to look at the other letter. This one was from the honorary treasurer of a society designed to help women find employment in the professions. Here is where Woolf discusses the politics of economy as seen in the household. As Woolf puts it, ‘It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary should be spent…’ (p. 155) Marriage, by all descriptions, is just as noble as any other profession–but it is one that is unpaid. Woolf posits that without power over her own finances, a woman is robbed of the right to participate in such noble causes as that of the gentleman writer’s, if her husband disagrees with it. And so goes Woolf’s second guinea. As she puts it:

“…It was necessary to answer her letter and the letter from the honorary treasurer of the college rebuilding fund, and to send them both guineas before answering you letter, because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their living in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you to prevent war…” (p.182)

Finally, after much meandering–though it was justified meandering–Woolf addresses the gentleman fully. To his cause, she offers her third and last guinea. She explains that while she supports his anti-war effort, she cannot become a member of his society. For the fundamental differences between the male and female perspectives must remain for continued (mental, political, societal, cultural, et al.) progress to be attained.

The Verdict: A+.

Although Three Guineas was written almost 80 years ago, this supercharged polemic from Virginia Woolf is just as moving as it was back in the day. It certainly isn’t what you’d call a ‘quick read.’ In fact, if it took Woolf three years to draft this letter, it took me three months (and several shots of tequila) to write this review. Well, technically, I wrote this in one go, but the ideas have been simmering in the back burner for months.  So while it isn’t an easy read, it is one that is ‘necessary.’ There is much to glean from Woolf’s writings. That is why I’m putting this up as a ‘must-read’ for everyone. Believe me, it will do you a world of good.

Read my review of Virginia Woolf‘s “A Room of One’s Own.”