Still seeking answers to Woolf's questions

March 27, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I can't imagine what Virginia Woolf would have made of the Oscars, though surely she would have turned up her pointed nose at the proboscis worn by Nicole Kidman in the role that won her an Academy Award.

But wouldn't Ms. Woolf have loved the irony: a Hollywood version of a novel based on her novel has ushered in her own revival. The Hours has returned Mrs. Dalloway to the best-seller list about 78 years after Ms. Woolf sent that London woman out to buy flowers for her party.

It was a pleasure to reread this novel as a woman of Clarissa Dalloway's age rather than a college student. But after putting aside both Clarissa and Nicole, I dived back in time for the Virginia Woolf I most admired - the tough-minded essayist and feminist. I picked up Three Guineas again, that elegant, layered argument that she penned as the war clouds gathered over Europe.

The 1938 essay was prompted by a letter from a man looking for money and support for his society, as well as an answer to the question: "How, in your opinion, are we to prevent war?" On her desk were two other letters asking her to help a women's college fund and a women's employment fund. Skillfully, she braided three responses into a treatise on women, equality and war.

Ms. Woolf raised questions that not only echo back through generations but forward to our own time. How do women change society if they don't have equal status and power? If they win equal status do they still want to change society?

She declined to join the man's group. "For by doing so," she wrote, "we should merge our identity in yours; follow and repeat and score still deeper the old worn ruts in which society, like a gramophone whose needle has stuck grinding out with intolerable unanimity, `Three hundred millions spent upon arms."'

She promoted instead a group based on ways in which women were different. "The Society of Outsiders," she explained, "has the same ends as your society - freedom, equality, peace; but that it seeks to achieve them by the means that a different sex, a different tradition, a different education and the different values which result from those differences have placed within our reach."

How much easier it was to think of women as outsiders in 1938. What would she say now in this war on Iraq? Women as different? Now about 15 percent of the troops at war are females. Now Shoshawna Johnson is a prisoner of war shown on TV. Now our national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is a member of the inner circle who believes that the way to prevent war is preventive war.

At the same time, women have been leaders in the anti-war protests from Code Pink to the Lysistrata Project. And in the run-up to the war there was a recurring gender gap of more than 10 points between men and women.

Insiders? Outsiders? One foot in, another foot out? Women were less supportive of pre-emptive war, more likely to believe there would be casualties, less likely to want to go it alone. Before the war broke out, said pollster Anna Greenberg, "American women looked like Europe."

In 1925, the year Ms. Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway, an American rear admiral disparaged women's "seemingly insatiable desire to interfere in matters they do not understand." He went on to say, "War they understand least and from it they instinctively recoil. ... In spite of themselves, we must protect the ladies!"

Now "the ladies" in the military protect themselves and our country side by side with men. Yet on the home front there is still a sustained and measurable difference.

I am impatient with the idea that women are genetically programmed to be more nurturing or peaceful. We share with men an equally strong desire for personal and national security - evidenced after Sept. 11 - but the polls suggest that women have a measurably different definition of security and a real reluctance to act unilaterally.

Over the past three decades of change, female outsiders have come inside - to the military, to the government. Yet Virginia Woolf's wonderings linger:

As we break down the double standard, do women rally to the old single standard, which was male? Or can we help create a new one? And if the differences between men's and women's lives disappear, will it make a difference?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at

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