Virginia Woolf, Professions for Women, 1931

Virginia Woolf

Author and Journalist

In January 1931, Virginia Woolf addressed an audience from the Women’s Service League, and a version of her speech was later published in the posthumous collection, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. By the time she delivered ‘Professions for Women’, on the subject of work and women, the English author had already produced some of her best-known novels: Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and Orlando. She had also published A Room of One’s Own, a landmark feminist essay in which she outlines, in lyrical language, the importance of an independent income for women. Woolf, who had a small inheritance, argued that financial independence allows the space and freedom for creative work.

In ‘Professions for Women’, Woolf examined the subtle ways in which women self-censor. She describes sitting down to write and bumping up against something hard: an ideal of Victorian womanhood, pervasive at the time, which she nicknames ‘The Angel in the House’. In soothing tones, Woolf’s ‘Angel’ advises her to flatter and to charm; to be gentle and self-sacrificing and to avoid, above all, telling the truth. Later, Woolf reflects on this inner struggle – a battle she had to win in order to write honestly. On the outside, she notes, there seem to be no obstacles which would make writing a book more difficult for a woman than for a man. But inside the mind, where phantoms like Woolf’s ‘Angel’ lurk, it’s a different story. A woman must overcome the prejudices she has internalized in order to find her voice, Woolf suggests.

Professions for Women 1931

What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits? But wait a moment. Articles have to be about something. Mine, I seem to remember, was about a novel by a famous man. And while I was writing this review, I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her—you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House.

I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all—I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty—her blushes, her great grace…. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” And she made as if to guide my pen…. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.

… I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.

Virginia Woolf