It’s Time to Reread Virginia Woolf’s 1931 ‘Professions for Women’ Speech

Virginia Woolf illustrations © Nathan Gelgud

Last weekend, a record number of demonstrators showed up on America’s streets for the nation-wide Women’s March, holding signs declaring their commitment to women’s rights. RESISTANCE IS FERTILE. GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS. Some sentiments were particularly frustrated: MY ARMS ARE TIRED FROM CARRYING THIS SIGN SINCE THE 1960s.

Of course, the struggle goes back much farther than the sixties, and a certain literary-minded protester who wanted to pay tribute to Virginia Woolf could have evoked a feminist sentiment from the 1930s: KILL THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE. Maybe not the most playful or immediately clear slogan, but appropriate. It is, after all, Woolf’s birthday on January 25.

In “Professions for Women,” a paper read to the Women’s Service League in 1931, Woolf said that the duty of the woman writer is to kill the Angel in the House. She was borrowing an idea from Coventry Patmore’s 18th-century poem, in which the poet pays tribute to his wife, but in doing so, creates the image of the perfect woman as little more than someone who makes life easier for men.

woolf professions for women illustrationWoolf is perhaps most famous for advocating on behalf of a specific fundamental right of women writers in A Room of One’s Own. In “Professions for Women” she covers some of the complexities of what happens once a woman has that room with that space to write. In one particularly vivid passage, illustrated here, she explains the way that the patriarchy invades a woman’s ability to write freely, to simply explore her own thoughts without editing them.