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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Three Guineas

Relates to: 

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), c. 1908. (Wikimedia Commons) The British political movement became known informally as “the suffragettes.”Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), c. 1908. (Wikimedia Commons) The British political movement became known informally as “the suffragettes.” Written in 1938, Three Guineas should be read in the context of women’s rights, the rise of fascism, and Woolf’s intellectual commitments at that time.  The first thing to understand is the fragility and newness of women’s rights when Woolf wrote Three Guineas.  Only a little more than a hundred years earlier, in 1832, Parliament passed the Great Reform Act, which was intended to renovate the electoral system and expand suffrage.  Though it succeeded in doing so for men, it legally debarred women from voting by specifically limiting suffrage to men.   Despite protests and reforms movements in response,  the women’s suffrage movement did not get going in earnest until forty years later.  As Woolf notes in Three Guineas, the movement's progress was incredibly slow.   Women gained the right to vote only in 1918, and that was in a highly provisional fashion, open only to women over the age of thirty who had a university degree, were householders or married to householders.  Only in 1928 did Britain grant universal suffrage to all adults over the age of 21.

Women had only won an equal right to vote ten years before Woolf wrote Three Guineas.  Woolf, who had campaigned herself in the years around 1910 for suffrage, was acutely aware of this.  The events in Germany only heightened her anxiety.  German women had gained a number of rights and an unprecedented degree of freedom in their social roles during the Weimar Republic.  With the rise of fascism, many of those rights disappeared as women were forced back into more traditional roles of homemakers, mothers, and wives, all as part of the rhetoric of patriotism or of renewing the traditions of the nation.  Woolf saw that women could very easily lose their new freedoms and feared that the swell of patriotism in England at the time, often tied to reactionary positions toward women’s rights, could very easily turn into full-blown fascism.  As a feminist, avant-garde artist, and wife of a Jew, this possibility worried her tremendously.

While history and current events inspired Woolf to write Three Guineas as an anti-fascist treatise and to tie the problem of conflict to gender roles, her pacifist, cosmopolitan conclusion can be read as the outgrowth of the politics of the Bloomsbury Group.  The Bloomsbury Group was less a movement than an informal set of friends, many of whom initially met through Woolf’s brothers at Cambridge.  Many of them went on to become famous authors, like Woolf and E.M. Forster, or painters, as with Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell.  Their work was often highly experimental, as were their lives.  As a group, they were interested in sexual liberation, pleasure, aestheticism, and personal relations over public interests.  It is possible to read Woolf’s final vision of women as freed from narrow national interest and the lure of patriotism as the logical conclusion of the Bloomsbury Group’s politics, though not all of the members necessarily agreed with this view.   


Written by Liane F. Carlson, Department of Religion, Columbia University 


Works Cited:

Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory

The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2nd Edition)

“Bloomsbury” by Andrew McNeillie, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2nd Edition)

“Virginia Woolf, Modernism, Modernity” by Michael H. Whitworth, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2nd Edition) 

“Woolf’s Feminism and Feminism’s Woolf” by Laura Marcus, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2nd Edition) 

“Virginia Woolf and the Public Sphere” by Melba Cuddy-Keane, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2nd Edition)