“So boasting of her capacity to surround and protect, there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by.” – Virginia Woolf, “To the Lighthouse”
I’d like to argue that the model of femininity sketched and critiqued by Virginia Woolf in her arresting novel, To the Lighthouse,” intersects with the provoking questions raised by the #MeToo movement. While Woolf does not explicitly address the problem of sexual assault in her novel, she strikes with remarkable prescience upon one of the central reasons why women submit to their powerful male superiors in silence. Woolf’s feminism, often characterized predominantly in the realm of female writers and professionalism, coincides directly with the concerns about the denigration of women and their bodies today.
Woolf identifies an aching, all-consuming duty women feel toward everyone around them, but men in particular. Women feel responsible for the emotion well-being of the people in their lives. Woolf explores this entrapment in “To the Lighthouse.” The novel features what, at first glance, appears to be the typical Victorian woman, the “angel in the home”: Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf, however, quickly makes apparent that this model of femininity will not remain upright in her novel.
Mrs. Ramsay presides over the activities of all eight of her children and helps nurture the intellect of her neurotic husband, Mr. Ramsay. Mr. Ramsay is the archetypal male intellectual with a delicate ego. He is incessantly preoccupied with affirming his own intelligence and importance and constantly asks Mrs. Ramsay to provide this emotional support.
Mrs. Ramsay, in contrast, is described chiefly in terms of her beauty. The rest of the characters seem to emanate from her. She is the epicenter, the molten core, the energy of all the other characters in the novel. But this centrality does not come without immense cost, a fact the Victorians did not want to acknowledge. Woolf unhinges this delusion of effortless pleasantness in her characterization of Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay, in her “immense capacity to surround and to protect” now has “scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by.” Mrs. Ramsay depicts an intense desire to please and to conform to the ideals of womanhood. Yet, in the process, she has redirected the energy that should rightly have gone to the formation of her own values and self to the emotional wellbeing of those around her. The nourishing of her husband’s fragile intellectual constitution has come at the expense of Mrs. Ramsay’s own selfhood.
All of this, while fine as an analysis of literature, may at first seem largely irrelevant to a society that has moved on from Victorian housewifery. Today, the problem for many women is no longer access to resources needed to pursue both a sense of self and a career. Instead, women now face the insidious hierarchical structure of a working world that permits powerful men to systematically violate their bodies. I am not saying that all men choose to wield this power, only that it is afforded to them.
How then, does an analysis of Woolf’s critique of Victorian femaleness coincide powerfully with the #MeToo movement?
When I first began thinking about this question, I thought about my own experience growing up female. I was a bit of a rebellious child. A person might say, “Don’t put dirt in your mouth,” and I would shove a handful of twigs in just because someone said I couldn’t. I didn’t follow directions well and I was perhaps too spirited in response when someone disagreed with me.
Recently, I have noticed in myself an incredible tendency to defer to the needs of others even at the expense of my own health or happiness. I would rather not displease them. In fact, it gives me anxiety every time I need to assert my own needs above another person’s. If I don’t absolutely have to, I won’t.
Where did the wonderfully recalcitrant, obstinate, immovable, autonomous child go?
The answer, I’ve started to realize, is a gendered one intimately connected to both Woolf’s portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay and the #MeToo movement. Quite frankly, I learned how to be a woman from all the other women around me. It happened slowly and subtly. I didn’t even realize it happened until it happened.
Currently, we inadvertently teach our girls that they need to become like Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is the Victorian and present-day ideal of womanhood, the paragon of all that femininity holds sacrosanct. In putting the archetype of Mrs. Ramsay on a pedestal, we erode the ability of our girls to act and think in ways that displease. In the fabric of daily life, the cracks in the model of femaleness do not readily appear. In fact, it is often helpful and comforting to live in a world where women are constantly in tune with the emotions of the people around them. It often means that people who are hurting or sad or angry are noticed and heard.
Yet in the moment when Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK or any other powerful male figure forces himself upon an unsuspecting woman, it becomes irrefutably dangerous. She has never been taught that it is okay to deviate from the norms of expectation around her. She has only been taught that her value to society is in the emotional and perhaps even physical servicing she can provide to men. She has been told to take Mrs. Ramsay as her model. Because of these internalized expectations, even if she does not accept the assault she experiences as a fact of womanhood, she will often remain silent anyway.
For who would listen in a culture which rewards silence and supplication above all else?
I do not blame the women who did not speak out in any way. They only acted within the confines of the femininity they have been forced to embrace. I am glad that many male perpetrators have seen a fall from grace. But I do not think their removal addresses the crux of the problem, not when the problem has burrowed deep within the bones of our culture and our definitions of maleness and femaleness writ large. Woolf’s insightful characterizing of Mrs. Ramsay shows us this.
What I am about to say may be paradoxical, crazy even, but it is the only way forward, if we want to dismantle the cultural status quo.
Our culture must allow women the space to displease. In order to create lasting change, women need to be unyoked from the chains of pleasant platitudes and emotional nourishment. Yes, they can still provide these things – but on their own terms, their own timelines. This nourishment should not be an expectation but instead a gift.
Contact Emily Elott at elotte ‘at’ stanford.edu.