Saturday, November 27, 2010


This time, I read an article by Barbara Andrew, “Psychology of Tyranny: Wollstonecraft and Woolf on the Gendered Dimension of War”. It’s an interesting article comparing and contrasting Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft and their thoughts on war and gender. Since both women were figures in the feminist movement, it is clear they have similar ideas on this particular issue. However, Andrew points out that their theories do differ in some aspects and that Woolf takes Wollstonecraft’s thinking, builds and expands upon it and sometimes arrives at a different conclusion. For evidence that Woolf was very well familiar with Wollstonecraft’s work, Andrew points out a line in Three Guineas, where Woolf quotes Wollstonecraft, but does not cite her; the quote is about there being no marriage in heaven.

Both women clearly abhorred war and both of them agree that the private tyrannies of a patriarchal society cause the public tyrannies that can lead to war and violence. The cultural valuation of heroic virtues and the culture of war also plays into this. This valuation is socially constructed, however, much like the gender roles of both males and females. Thus, both women insist on finding new ways to act out our genders. While Woolf calls for men to be man-womanly and women to be woman-manly, Wollstonecraft compares the positive manly virtues to the feminine virtues that are considered sins; she mocks the soldier by stating he acts womanly in his obeying orders (just as a woman learns to please), his cunning in war (just as cunning in seduction), lack of education (and thus, independent thought), and concern with medals (just as a woman is concerned with fashion and looks). Woolf focuses on the soldier’s internal motivation as well – the old thought of masculinity as aggressive, possessive and combative. Both women agree that soldiers and women are co-conspirators in their own enslavement in that they are both too concerned with being seen as virtuous rather than with truth and freedom. Both also make the distinction that women perhaps have different duties, but not different virtues. Here, Woolf is interested in the role of the professions and how they perpetuate war in that they provide exhibition for men’s possessiveness, selfishness and pride.

The notion of duties and virtues brings up Wollstonecraft’s notion of unnatural distinctions as opposed to natural distinctions. Unnatural distinctions in the family, the relations between men and women, where men are tyrants and women are slaves shape children and degrade both men and women and preclude the possibility of a free society. Wollstonecraft also believed that social hierarchies were connected to the system of oppression. Woolf, on the other hand, believed that sexism was the root of all oppression – in war, men “protected” women and country (alienating women into the bounty, the Other). Woolf rejected this as false.

Andrew also talks about Freudian concepts of the infantile fixation and Oedipus complex, as well as the Creon complex. Infantile fixation leads men to controlling/dominating women, while the Creon complex is the desire to dominate. Much like Creon from Antigone, Hitler and Mussolini desire to remain unchallenged in their authority, but this desire to dominate is present within all of man, according to Woolf (which I am not sure whether she means man as in male, or all people, regardless of gender?). The dictator is the patriarchal paradigm for the man, while the slave is the patriarchal paradigm for the woman. Thus, Andrew describes Ismene as the silenced, patriarchal paradigm of a woman, while Antigone is the non-patriarchal female, because she rebels. What comes of this is the cycle of the psychology of tyranny; women must participate in it by dominating men (illegitimate power through seduction) or by being silenced or killed (by rebelling).

Both women also call for the abandonment of possessive mothering. In their opinion, this leads men to dominate women (need for mother’s love, but hatred because of the power she wields). Men become tyrants out of fear of losing access to women and women that do not rebel become slaves trying to enslave. If the society can free itself from this and the desires for possession and domination, peace will be possible.

Andrew, Barbara. "Psychology of Tyranny: Wollstonecraft and Woolf on the Gendered Dimension of War." Hypatia 9.2 (1994): 85 - 101. JSTOR. Web.

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