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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: June 2018

5 - ‘None of That “My Good Woman” Stuff’: Outsider Observations

Summary

Factory wheels

In 1940, Virginia Woolf defended the Bloomsbury Group from an accusation of elitism by noting:

I never went to school or college. My father spent perhaps £100 on my education. When I was a young woman I tried to share the fruits of that very imperfect education with the working classes by teaching literature at Morley College; by holding a Womens Cooperative Guild meeting weekly; and, politically by working for the vote…. I did my best to make them [her books] reach a far wider circle than a little private circle of exquisite and cultivated people. And to some extent I succeeded. (Woolf, qtd in Snaith 2000a: 8)

As Anna Snaith suggests, Woolf's confidence in that ‘wider circle’ was probably based on the eighty-two letters she received from readers of Three Guineas (1938), which were eventually collected by Snaith and published in the Woolf Studies Annual. While only three correspondents explicitly identified themselves as working class, and another three said they were from a different class background to Woolf, the letters represented a diverse range of response and proof that working women could get hold of her books through libraries. They also indicate that the arguments of Three Guineas, which were driven by Woolf's own feminist and pacifist concerns, connected with women in society. Eight years earlier, Woolf had written in her introductory letter (dated May 1930) to Margaret Llewelyn Davies's edited collection of the autobiographical experiences of members of the Women's Co-operative Guild, Life as We Have Known It (1931), that:

These voices are beginning only now to emerge from silence into half articulate speech. These lives are still half hidden in profound obscurity. To express even what is expressed here has been a work of labour and difficulty. The writing has been done in kitchens, at odds and ends of leisure, in the midst of distractions and obstacles […] (Woolf 1975: xxxix)

In this letter, Woolf writes an account of her own interaction with the working women of the Guild beginning with her attendance at a Guild Congress in Newcastle in June 1913 and sitting through speech after speech in the knowledge that she was personally untouched and therefore only had an altruistic interest in ‘questions of sanitation and education and wages’.