Feminism in Mrs Dalloway: Development of Woolf’s Feminism

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About this sample


Words: 2202 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Aug 31, 2023

Words: 2202|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Aug 31, 2023

Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Mrs Dalloway: Feminism Struggles in Society
  4. A Radical Shift in Woolf's Feminism Discourse
  5. Examining Cultural Feminism
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


This essay will focus on Woolf’s approach to gender inequality and her relation with the feminist theory, with a specific focus on feminism in Mrs Dalloway, taking as starting points a glance on her biography and two of her works, both harshly feminist but totally different: Mrs Dolloway (1925) and Three Guineas (1938). Additionally, also a lecture from the cultural feminism’s perspective will be done, in order to try to find similarities and differences between both discourses.

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Adelina Virginia Stephen (Woolf’s birth name) was born in a well-situated family and had 7 siblings. Due to her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, who was a famous literate, Virginia was able to study at home, while her brothers visited formal school and university. During Woolf’s life, the patriarchal structure stopped her from achieving many milestones (just as the example above has shown) just for being a woman, and this repression kind of explains why Virginia was all her life against gender inequality and Patriarchy dominance. Some other examples of her subordination are her rape at the age of 6 or the fact that she was forced to stay during long “tea-table” meeting where women talked about rumours.

All her demands and thoughts were by first time freely expressed at the Bloomsbury Group, a set of highbrow that tended to meet at Virginia and her husband’s house. There, everyone differed from common XIXth century moral, and that’s how Virginia experienced more than one homosexual affair during her marriage with Leonard Woolf. Virginia also participated at the first glimmer of mainstream feminism and this was the suffragist movement, which claimed for women’s right to vote. Nevertheless, she used to dissociate herself from “feminism” and never felt comfortable with direct political action. Even though Virginia never stopped claiming for women’s rights, it is very enriching to see how her feminism changed over years. Therefore, a review of 2 of her works will be done, taking into account her feminist approach from an open-wide gender perspective. Those 2 contributions are one novel (Mrs Dolloway, 1925) and one essay (Three Guineas, 1938) and will be analysed chronologically.

Mrs Dalloway: Feminism Struggles in Society

Mrs Dolloway’s plot is about how Clarissa Dalloway prepares an important dinner party, which will include England's Prime Minister. During its launch, Clarissa remembers her girlhood, a young lover whom she rejected, a limousine which carries a member of the royal family and also thinks about her daughter’s future and about what might she had been if she had chosen other paths. Besides, she rejects Peter’s sexual offer when he visits her, even though they both desire each other. During all this thoughts, her positions are fragmented and tend often to contradictory temperaments. At the end of the novel, Clarissa receives the notice that Septimus has died, and, in a solitary internal monologue, we can sense her responses to both the terror and beauty of life, with death as its natural ending.

Woolf's general contribution to feminism is her notion that “gender identity is socially constructed and can be challenged and transformed”, becoming one of the first gender-based social constructivist, along with Simone de Beauvoir. As a result, Clarissa totally depends on others for self-definition, ever since women have been deprived of subjectivity by men. Just as the author once wrote, women serve “as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”. Although at first sight it might seem that Clarissa states against feminism and perfectly epitomises her social role as woman, it is truly pleasing to discover that she actually states against hierarchical roles, and always tries to subvert the indestructible order. Some examples of her resistance are when she rejects Peter proving her independence (especially when she receives apathy and disdain for doing it), when she constantly alludes to literary figures like Shakespeare, Huxley, Tyndall, Plato, Morris, Shelley… ranking herself with educated men, or even when she constantly throws incessant parties in spite of Peter’s and her husband’s harsh critique of them. Actually, the reason of that many parties is that Clarissa needs constant numerous relationships in order to develop her identity and subjectivity by masking her real disapproval and try to look as “the perfect hostess”. However, she finishes by accepting androcentric society when her relationships are frustrated and blocked and don’t lead to identification.

According to some critics, Clarissa is a masculine female as a political position of resistance, which means that her biological sex is female but her gendered attitudes are typified as manly. This perception also derives from social constructivism, which understands the link between sex and gender as something culturally constructed. But, actually, Clarissa constantly moves in the gender line between man and woman, reproducing woman matters such as caring about cosmetic pressure or envying hotter women than her (according to those-days canon). When we arrive to her essay Three Guineas (1938) it has been 13 years since she wrote Mrs Dolloway and, therefore, her perception of patriarchy has fully changed.

A Radical Shift in Woolf's Feminism Discourse

While Mrs Dolloway and even A Room of One’s own tried to expose with a seductive and ironic tone the troubles of a middle-classed woman in a masculine world, Three Guineas totally reflects Woolf’s radicalization, with a much more aggressive discourse against men and their power. During the whole period of creation, Woolf dedicated lots of hours to the task of searching, cutting and saving news where the journalist was being either sexist or antifeminist. In this way, we see how Virginia laughed at the patriarchal infantilism that doesn’t allow to work to women, and also at its megalomania. Nevertheless, Woolf doesn’t claim for a unitary typically-feminist movement, but for a movement of outsiders, subverting their marginality.

Ever since it was conceived during Hitler’s government in Germany, and the consequent Second World War, Three Guineas builds a thin bridge between fascist brutality and the British upper-classed society, where quotidian aggressions are accepted. She calls it “unconscious Hitlerism”. At the same time, the writing is a huge attack to militarism and its glorification of strength, becoming Woolf as one of the few socialist intellectuals that remained pacifist when Hitler took the power. Due to this threatening position, the work received very bad review from most of the (masculine) critics and friends of Woolf (while some of them even avoid their comment), but got a very enthusiastic lecture of the feminists and the suffragists. It was said that Woolf had been self-referred when talked about “the daughters of learned men” but in fact she had based her writing on hard research. Woolf claimed as well for critics inside the feminist movement: she fought for empowerment (to pay salary to the women whose job was marriage and maternity), and claimed that the struggle against Patriarchy had to be held by both genders.

Finally, Woolf proposes a re-education process in favour of social and economic cooperation in order to transform society (even though fascism is being fought around the corner). Feminist discourse in Woolf appears always inside plot, subtle. As Woolf argues, she never liked to state an explicit manifesto, until Three Guineas appears. The suffragist movement from that time, nevertheless, had been deeply explicit and ardent already from a long time ago. Since 1903 the suffragists had fought with direct action against meetings and hunger strikes inside jail. Maybe that’s why Woolf never felt 100% inside the movement. In spite of this name, the suffragists not only claimed for the vote, but also for free access to high education and to all professions, for civil rights and for being able to manage their own wealth. Just as Woolf. After the two world wars, in which women worked on typically-masculine jobs because men were at the front, women won the civil and legal rights for which they were claiming. In the 60’, a new way of feminism appeared, centred now on the progress and the social and cultural equality of women. This new movement will be called “second-wave”, taking and calling “first-wave” the moment in which Woolf lived.

Examining Cultural Feminism

The following piece has the porpoise of linking Woolf’s feminism with a feminism developed at the end of the XXth century called the cultural feminism, even though it has been found that no real connection or likeness can be stablished between the two discourses. This intention has its reasons in the Woolf’s approach on sex and gender issues, which might sometimes cause misunderstandings. During the whole research done to finish this article, some statements cultural-alike have been seed and saved, and will be exposed below. But first, a description about the cultural feminism theory will be needed, in order to prove how no link can be made. The cultural feminism, also called the feminism of the difference, has its pillar in the difference between biological sexes. In this way, it states that a truly female identity must be achieved leaving away de masculine model. “Not emancipated but free”. It is for that reason that it has listed a group of attitudes and feelings which are inherently feminine, such as the mutual understanding and the cooperation, and stated that, for example, if women ruled the world fewer wars would be performed. They also defended that difference doesn’t mean inequality, and that equality between sexes should be achieved but not within them because that would imply the acceptance of the masculine model. They also created the sorority concept (that is: the solidarity between women) worldwide spread nowadays.

And now, let’s go to Woolf’s way of thinking again: Woolf, on the one hand wrote in favour of the movement, but on the other was concerned about the changing roles of sexes in society and therefore focused on “a more generalized sense of cultural crisis”. This sentence seems to argue that achieving equality implies a future society without roles’ structure, which Woolf seems to see as a problem which will cause a generalized cultural crisis. Just as if Woolf was concerned about the fact that women and men were losing their patriarchal position inside society.

Women possess a particular richness of language, which is more indirect, unconscious and softer than men’s. This statement, again, seems to say that the softer and more indirect and unconscious language is a biological characteristic of women, which looks like a cultural feminism position. She links pacifism to the struggle against sexism and the discrimination of the strict gender roles, since she sees war as a masculine harm. This last fragment is a typically-cultural argument, as it has been seen above. Her valuation of sexual difference seems to fall into essentialists’ positions about masculinity: she sees ancestral and primitive masculine characteristics in the regressive attitude of Hitler and Mussolini. This sentence explains how Woolf tends to see gender roles as something everlasting, as if they were inherent to the male and female positions within society, and that’s also a typically-cultural argument.

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Finally, it will be very educative to show why a wrong path has been taken, and how has this led to a negative conclusion (that is, that no link can be made between Woolf’s feminism and the cultural feminism). According to author’s understanding, the problem resides in the fact that Woolf hadn’t been enough contextualized within the feminism of her days when first thinking the abstract in order to understand that her discourse was perfectly concordant with other feminists of the moment, such as Emmeline Pankhurst or Lucy Stone. For example, the author found very unusual the fact that Woolf always talks about sex and not gender, which might seem a cultural-alike biological determinism’s position. But, indeed, it has to be though that no transfeminism did exist in that time, and so it’s normal that authors link inherently sex with gender, ever since sex is the only factor that determined someone’s gender (because a baby is born with feminine reproductive apparatus and, immediately, the social construction about “how has to be a woman” starts to fall on her). But always from a social determinism’s position. Just as Simone de Beauvoir once said: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.


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Feminism in Mrs Dalloway: Development of Woolf’s Feminism. (2023, August 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
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