Virginia Woolf: Women Should Stop Going ’Round the Mulberry Tree

I’m about half-way through Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. It’s a book I haven’t decided yet whether I want to finish (it’s getting a little monotonous) but it did have a passage I thought was worth sharing here.

She’s been thinking over the question of how women, as they begin to escape from patriarchal domination and to compete on the same playing field as men, can avoid the vices that playing on this field seems to impart to men. She says that a woman ought to vow that “in the practice of your profession you refuse to be separated from poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties,” things which, in the past, have been the crucial informal education of women who have been denied formal education.

Here is how she defines these things:

By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge, and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.

By chastity is mean that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing. But directly the mulberry tree begins to make you circle, break off. Pelt the tree with laughter.

Going “’round the mulberry tree” is a metaphor she’s been using to describe professional people who are running a treadmill because of the apotheosis of private property and the warfare state.

By derision — a bad word, but once again the English language is much in need of new words — is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity, and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise. Directly badges, orders, or degrees are offered you, fling them back in the giver’s face.

By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride, and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. Directly the seducers come with their seductions to bribe you into captivity, tear up the parchments; refuse to fill up the forms.

Throughout the book Woolf relies heavily on irony, so it is not clear to me (at least yet) to what extent she is endorsing this advice or perhaps offering it as the logical outcome of some point of view she doesn’t endorse. But from this she slides quickly into an earnest discussion of Sophocles’s Antigone, so I lean toward thinking she means this to be taken at least somewhat seriously:

You want to know which are the unreal loyalties which we must despise, which the real loyalties which we must honour? Consider Antigone’s distinction between the laws and the Law. That is a far more profound statement of the duties of the individual to society than any our sociologists can offer us. Lame as the English rendering is, Antigone’s five words are worth all the sermons of all the archbishops.*

* The five words of Antigone are: Οὓτοι συνέχθειν ἀλλά συμωιλεῖν ἕωυν. ’Tis not my nature to join in hating, but in loving (Antigone, line 523 (Jebb).) To which Creon replied: “Pass, then, to the world of the dead, and, if thou must needs love, love them. While I live, no woman shall rule me.”