Virginia Woolf


Virginia Woolf was a novelist and critic, an integral part of the unconventional
Bloomsbury Group in early
twentieth-century London.
She founded the Hogarth
Press with her husband,
Leonard Woolf.

Woolf was said by some to
have 'uncovered a new
realm of literary perception'.
Her work is of particular
significance to feminists -
A Room of One's Own
dealt with the subjugation
of women and the
importance of women's
education, and Three Guineas was a political essay on the cultural and sociological implications of women's
oppression and isolation from
positions of any political
significance in Woolf's era.

Virginia Woolf on  St. Paul

by Virginia Woolf

The question of chastity, both of mind and body, is of the greatest interest and complexity. The Victorian, Edwardian and much of the Fifth Georgian concept of chastity was based, to go no further back, upon the words of St.Paul. To understand their meaning, we should have to understand his psychology and environment - no light task in view of his frequent obscurity and lack of biographical material. From internal evidence, it seems clear that he was a poet and a prophet, but lacked logical power, and was without that psychological training, which forces even the least poetic or prophetic nowadays t osubject their personal emotions to scrutiny. Thus his famous pronouncement on the matter of veils, upon which the theory of women's chastity seems to be based, is susceptible to criticism from several angles. In the Letter to the Corinthians, his argument that a woman must be veiled when she prays or prophesies is based upon the assumption that to be unveiled 'is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.' That assumption granted, we must ask next: what shame is there in being shaven? Instead of replying, St Paul proceeds to assert, 'For man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God': from which it appears that it is not being shaven in itself that is wrong; but to be a woman and to be shaven. It is wrong, it appears, for the woman because 'the woman is the glory of the man.' If St Paul had said openly that he liked the look of women's long hair, many of us would have agreed with him, and thought the better of him for saying so. But other reasons appeared to him preferable, as appears from his next remark:'For man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man; for neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman have the sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.' What view the angels took of long hair we have no means of knowing, and St Paul himself seems to have been doubtful of their support, or he would not think it necessary to drag in the familiar accomplice, nature. 'Doth not even Nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair, it is a dishonour to him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.' The argument from nature may seem to us susceptible of admendment; nature, when allied with financial advantage, is seldom of divine origin, but if the basis of the argument is shifty, the conclusion is firm. 'Let the women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law.' Having thus invoked the familiar but always suspect trinity of accomplices, Angels, nature and law, to support his personal opinion, St Paul reaches the conclusion which has been looming unmistakably ahead of us: 'And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.' The nature of that 'shame' which is closely connected with chastity has, as the letter proceeds, been considerably alloyed. For it is obviously compounded with certain sexual and personal prejudices. St Paul, it is obvious, was not only a bachelor, and like my bachelors, suspicious of the other sex; but a poet and like many poets preferred to prophesy himself rather than to listen to the prophecies of others. Also he was the virile or dominant type, so familiar at present in Germany, for whose gratification a subject race or sex is essential. Chastity then as defined by St Paul is seen to be a complex conception, based upon the love of long hair; the love of subjection, the love of an audience, the love of laying down the law, and, subconsciously, upon a very strong and natural desire that the woman's mind and body shall be reserved for the use of one man and one only. Such a conception, when supported by the Angels, nature,law, custom and the Church, and enforced by a sex with a strong personal interest to enforce it, and the economic means, was of undoubted power. The grip of its white, if skeleton, fingers can be found on whatever page of history we open from St Paul to Gertrude Bell. Chastity was invoked to prevent her from studying medicine, from painting the nude, from walking down Bond Street alone.

(Virginia Woolf, notes to Three Guineas, 1938)

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ArtemisWorks 1997