Memories of a Working Women's Guild by Virginia Woolf.
Memories of a Working Women's Guild is an introduction to an anthology written by women involved in the Co-operative Women's Guild (founded in 1883 by Alice Acland; dissolved in June 2016). The anthology, Life as We Have Known It, was first published in 1931 by Hogarth Press (Virginia and Leonard Woolf's printing press) and it was edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies, who was elected General Secretary of the Women's Guild in 1899 where she remained until 1921. She is credited for its expansion in the years leading up to the First World War and, among other things, being instrumental in the National Insurance Act 1911, which included maternity benefits. Virginia Woolf's introduction was in fact first published in Yale Review in September 1930, but it was revised and then included in the 1931 anthology.
When you asked me to write a preface to a book which you had collected of papers by working women I replied that I would be drowned rather than write a preface to any books whatsoever. Books should stand on their own feet, my argument was (and I think it is a sound one). If they need shoring up by a preface here, an introduction there, they have no more right to exist that a table that needs a wad of paper under one leg in order to stand steady. But you left me the papers, and, turning them over, I was that on this occasion the argument did not apply; this book is not a book. Turning the pages, I began to ask myself what is that book then, if it is not a book? What quality has it? What ideas does it suggest? What old arguments and memories does it rouse in me/ And as all this had nothing to do with an introduction or preface, but brought you to mind and certain pictures from the past, I stretched my hand for a sheet of notepaper and wrote the following letter addressed not to the public but to you.
Skipping over that rather awkward first sentence (Woolf, quite evidently, did write the preface and very sadly did drown ten years later), she goes on to recall a meeting in Newcastle (in May 1913 she wrote to Violet Dickinson from Sussex, "We're down here, but come up [to London] for a few days, and then retire to New Castle on Tyne to join the Cooperative Women"): this was apparently Woolf's first meeting with Margaret Llewelyn Davies whose attention, Woolf writes, "was entirely absorbed by a green table, several sheets of paper, and a bell". The meeting begins, and speaker after speaker take the stand, "Determination and resolution were stamped on her face". These were women who had come to speak their mind and,
It soon became obvious that the mind which lay spread over so wide a stretch of England was a vigorous mind working with great activity.
Woolf goes on to list some of the achievements of the Women's Guild; maternity benefits, divorce laws, minimum wage, education for over-14s, and Adult Suffrage to name a few, and recalls, seventeen years later, what it was like to be present at such a meeting:
These women were demanding divorce, education, the vote - all good things. They were demanding higher wages and shorter hours - what could be more reasonable? And yet, though it was all so reasonable, much of it so forcible, some of it so humorous, a weight of discomfort was settling and shifting itself uneasily from side to side in your visitors' minds.
Woolf was an outsider at this meeting, "an outcast from the flock", all too aware that at this point, these demands were coming from people who didn't even have the vote. Furthermore these women were working women, not like Virginia Woolf who was the daughter of an upper middle class daughter writer.
We have baths and we have money. Therefore, however much we had sympathised our sympathy was largely fictitious. It was aesthetic sympathy, the sympathy of the eye and of the imagination, not of the heart and of the nerves; and such sympathy is always physically uncomfortable.This she attempted to explain to Margaret Llewelyn Davies, who responded by giving her a packet of papers:
It might be that we should find these papers interesting; that if we read them the women would cease to be symbols and would become instead individuals... And when at last I began to read, there started up in my mind's eye the figures that I had seen all those years ago at Newcastle with such bewilderment and curiosity. But they were no longer addressing a large meeting in Newcastle from a platform, dressed in their best clothes. The hot June day with its banner and its ceremonies had vanished, and instead one looked back into the past of the women who had stood there; into the four-roomed houses of miners, into the homes of small shopkeepers and agricultural labourers, into the fields and factories of fifty or sixty years ago.
From here the anger, the force, and the obstinate natures of the speakers of that June day make sense, and Woolf then is moved to write on the "vitality of the human spirit", and then begins to see similarities in her and the working women - a love of reading is, not surprisingly, the first thing she picks up on, and how the Women's Guild helped women who until its founding were perpetually pegged down by men, and by capitalists. Though this packet of papers, which has now become Life as We Have Known It, may be almost alien to the middle class reader, and though they are not written as eloquently (far from it, in some instances) as Woolf herself might write or at least expect, they are valuable.
Whether that is literature or not literature I do not presume to say, but that it explains much and reveals much is certain. Such then was the burden that rested on that sombre figure as she sat typing your letters, such were the memories she brooded as she guarded your door with her grim and indomitable fidelity.Woolf concludes:
But I will quote no more. These pages are only fragments. These voices are beginning only now to emerge from silence into half articulate speech. These lives are still half hidden in profound obscurity. To express even what is expressed here has been a work of labour and difficulty. The writing has been done in the kitchens, at odds and ends of leisure, in the midst of distractions and obstacles - but really there is no need for me, in a letter addressed to you, to lay stress upon the hardship of working women's lives. Have not you and Lilian Harris given your best years - but hush! you will not let me finish that sentence and therefore, with the old messages of friendship and admiration, I will make an end.
This essay / preface has left me rather ambivalent. Where to begin... On one had, I do feel that it rather missed the mark: this is not one of the great and luscious essays we see in The Common Reader where Woolf writes on literature, it is essentially on social class, and Woolf's writing on social class more often than not makes me wince. There is a very definite sense of "we and the other", and the struggle Woolf had to identify or find common ground with this "other" does show her snobbery, though it must be said there was a definite attempt to overcome it. That said, this "definite attempt" is recorded in detail, as though it was perfectly reasonable (which no doubt it was) to be unable to identify with 'these people', but she did it, however awkwardly. Another reason I wasn't so fond of this was the very easy blaming of men and the patriarchy, which I think shows little awareness of the other ways we humans come up with to oppress each other: I am a woman, and am oppressed by men, yet I am white and so I may oppress black women. I'm a cis-gendered woman, therefore may oppress transgendered women and transgendered men, I'm straight, so therefore I may oppress gay women and men, and I am able-bodied so am able to oppress both disabled men and women. As for men: a working class man may be oppressed himself by middle and upper class men, a black man may be oppressed by a white woman, and on it goes. One must not be blind to one's privilege, is, essentially, what I'm suggesting. It's my opinion that to blame the patriarchy alone is to be just that.
Everything I've said is, I dare say, a relatively new(ish) social awareness (no doubt individuals have known this for millenniums) based on some of the great new and fairly recent writers of the past decade or so. Feminism has changed since the first wave, of which Woolf writing, and indeed the second wave feminism of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Woolf was a white upper middle class woman who, at this point, was at the height of her fame (having already published Orlando, Mrs Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse) and she used her privilege for good. There was a book, Life as We Have Known It, with Virginia Woolf's name, potentially opening the readership up to a whole new audience and exposing the middle classes (who were so far unaware) of a new body of thought. I can't knock Virginia Woolf for her attempt to use her status to do something great. And so, though rather dated and though rather awkwardly expressed, Memories of a Working Women's Guild is a valuable read if only as an example of feminism of the early 20th Century, and it is thought-provoking and inspiring too for, as I keep saying, Woolf's effort to use her ability to draw attention to subjects that may hitherto have been ignored by many. For people with some degree of social standing in the world, for those deemed authorities to speak about such matters makes the ideas less radical and more normal.
And that was my third title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool by George Orwell.
|Margaret Llewelyn Davies and her assistant in the Guild's office at Kirby Lonsdale.|