In 1983, someone finally put a name to an issue that had been stalking women for generations: Emotional Labor. Her name is Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor at UC Berkeley.

She created the term Emotional Labor to denote a requirement in certain professions, like flight attendant or nurse, where the professional must put themself and their needs second to the emotional needs of the client.

The term Emotional Labor soon crossed over to the mainstream to define that same work and behavior carried out by a person in a social situation. Emotional Labor is now the catchall label for work that is invisible, undervalued and silently assumed to be the work of women.

Emotional Labor includes household chores, keeping the calendar of the family, childcare, ironing out conflict and helping others process their emotions or emotional baggage. It is a role where one person takes responsibility for making sure everything is running smoothly and everyone is happy.

Studies show that in heterosexual partnerships the bulk of this work still falls on the woman.

Whether or not one is in a hetero partnership, people who identify as female will encounter this dynamic in other settings, including work, family and community groups.

In recent years an effort to call out this imbalance has included bringing forward these invisible, unspoken assumptions.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) recently, I was shocked to see Woolf address this issue head on, in a powerful way, through the character of Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe is 44 at end of the novel. Virginia Woolf was 44 when she finished it, indicating there was some resonance for Woolf between herself and this fictional character.

Woolf (1882-1941) admitted to both celebrating and separating from her mother,  the inspiration for the character of Mrs. Ramsay — the perfect “angel in the house”—with this novel.

Read Nasty Women Writers piece: Virginia Woolf’s “Angel in the House” and What it Takes to Be a #NastyWoman

Lily Briscoe is a painter who wishes to continue to paint and put her art first. Though her elder friend, Mrs. Ramsay, wishes she would marry and tries to set her up with an older man in the first section of the novel, Lily has no intention of seeing it through.

Both Lily Briscoe, the woman artist, and Virginia Woolf, the woman writer, experience the passion to create as “expressing a vision.” Woolf’s descriptions of Lily’s relationship to painting are similar to her experience of writing as documented in her journals, the blank canvas standing in for the blank page. Lily ponders as she studies her blank canvas:

“Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her”(32).

The character of Mrs. Ramsay

The first section of the novel, “The Window,” focuses on Mrs. Ramsay and her family spending time in their summer home on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Mrs. Ramsay has eight children and many invited guests. Lily is one such guest.

To the Lighthouse, cover design by Vanessa Bell

One could say Mrs. Ramsay is doing all the emotional labor for her family and friends and fully believes that is her role. Though she puts on a good show of it and convinces herself she is happy with her life, shadows sneak in from around the edges. There is often an air of melancholy about her, and other times even anger. She is “unquestioningly beautiful” and though Lily does not wish to become her, she admires her and appreciates what she creates with all her hard work: a beautiful, nurturing home and exquisitely designed dinner parties.      

Her scholar husband, Mr. Ramsay is a bit of a brute. Mrs. Ramsay is constantly having to manage his outbursts and temper tantrums. She is perpetually worried about his ego, thinking about ways to soothe his worries that people will stop reading him and that he will cease to have importance and influence in his field.

In the first section of the book Lily Briscoe is painting a picture of the house and the sea which also includes an abstract image of Mrs. Ramsay and her six-year-old son, a sort of Madonna and Child form. But something is wrong with the picture and she cannot get it right.

That evening, in the middle of Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party, while sitting at the table listening to the conversation, Lily discovers what she needs to do to the make the painting work. She must put a tree in the foreground to balance out the subjects. She places a salt cellar in a location above her plate on the dinner table to remind herself to do this.

“For at any rate, she said to herself, catching sight of the salt cellar on the pattern, she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation. She was saved from that dilution. She would move the tree rather more to the middle”(154).

But she leaves the island without completing the painting.

Lily Briscoe’s invincible “no”

Fast forward ten years and they are back at the house on the Isle of Skye. But in that ten years, WWI has occurred, Mrs. Ramsay has died, as well as two of her children.

Lily has returned with part of the Ramsay family. She decides to start the painting over  and finish it this time. She locates the exact same spot for her easel and begins.

“Yes, it must have been precisely here that she had stood ten years ago, there was the wall; the hedge; the tree. The question was of some relation between those masses. She had borne it in her mind all these years. It seemed as if the solution had come to her: she knew now what she wanted to do”(221).

At this point she is ignoring Mr. Ramsay, who is pacing back and forth near her and taking up all the space. She is avoiding eye contact.

She knew “if she gave him the least chance, if he saw her disengaged a moment, looking his way a moment, he would be on her, saying, as he had said last night, “You find us much changed”(221).

And so Virginia Woolf begins her portrayal of a woman perceiving a man wanting her to take care of him and resisting that request. As Lily begins to paint, she can feel him loitering, asking, imploring, expecting. It is killing her concentration and she is annoyed.

“Let him be fifty feet away, let him not even speak to you, let him not even see you, he permitted, he prevailed, he imposed himself. He changed everything.  . . . he’ll be down on me in a moment, demanding —something she felt she could not give him. . . . That man, she thought, her anger rising in her, never gave; that man took. She, on the other hand, would be forced to give. Mrs. Ramsey had given. Giving, giving, giving, she had died,—and had left all this. Really, she was angry with Mrs. Ramsay. With the brush slightly tumbling in her fingers she looked at the hedge, the step, the wall. It was all Mrs. Ramsay’s doing. She was dead. Here was Lily, at forty-four, wasting her time, unable to do a thing, standing there, playing at her painting, playing at the one thing one did not play at, and it was all Mrs. Ramsay’s fault”(224).

This is Woolf’s warning to women: If you agree to do all the emotional lifting and take care of other people’s needs while ignoring your own, you will never be able to achieve  your vision, your desire, your dreams. And even though women before us did this, and act as though we should too, don’t do it.

Yet Mr. Ramsay persists, standing close, even loudly groaning and sighing and Lily is beginning to feel guilty for her lack of response. She thinks to herself:

“Surely, she could imitate from recollection the glow, the rhapsody, the self-surrender, she had seen on so many women’s faces (on Mrs. Ramsay’s, for instance) when on some occasion like this they blazed up—she could remember the look on Mrs. Ramsays’ face—into a rapture of sympathy…”(224).

But Lily still cannot make herself give it to him.

He moves closer thinking, “Look at me; and indeed, all the time he was feeling, Think of me, think of me,” but Lily’s refusal,

“provoked his horror; a woman, she should have known how to deal with it. It was immensely to her discredit, sexually, to stand there dumb…. But, no. They stood there isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner that she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet. In complete silence she stood there, grasping her paint brush”( 228).

Ladies and Gentleman: Lily Briscoe is holding a boundary. Is this the first time we have witnessed a woman do this in English literature? She is consciously saying no to the subtle, manipulative demands of Mr. Ramsay.

And as Lily does this, Woolf has the reader feel all the discomfort one feels when one holds a boundary and it is hard for them to do so because they have been trained to do the opposite. The reader experiences the inner battling one undergoes to stay true to their own needs when one has been taught to give themself over to narcissists, patriarchs, or anyone whom they do not want to give to when they are told they must give.

Read Nasty Women Writers other pieces on Virginia Woolf:

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: Being, Non-Being, and the Spiritual Continuum Holding Up the World–A Woman Writer on Writing

Virginia Woolf’s The Year’s: Time, Presence and the “Conversational Nature of Reality”

Virginia Woolf’s Far Reaching Network within the Web of Women Writers 

Women Writers on Writing: Virginia Woolf and a Room of One’s Own (First published in London, 1929)

Woman Writer Virginia Woolf: A Bench of Her Own With Room For You

Lily Briscoe is under no obligation to take care of Mr. Ramsay. But he assumes she is and will because she is a woman. But Lily holds firm and it is a thing to witness.

I was absolutely shocked when I arrived at this section of the novel. I don’t think I have ever read such an overt description of this phenomena and of a woman saying no. I thought to myself: It is true that Virginia Woolf is actually not only speaking about, but illustrating, a woman holding a boundary to a man who assumes she must take care of him and his feelings? A man who wants to hand her his grief and sorrow? A man who wants her to feel it for him, express it for him, take care of him around it so he does not have to feel it, take responsibility for it, process it himself and all that comes with that?

Because what comes with feeling one’s emotions but taking responsibility for one’s participation in and culpability of events and actions that precipitated those feelings. If we don’t have to take responsibility for our feelings then we don’t have to take accountability for our actions. It is this work that women have been doing for men for generations. It is more than emotional labor. It is helping the other not take accountability.

Mr. Ramsay, and the rest of the culture at the time this book was written in 1927, believed  that Lily must submit her wishes and desires to his gaping void of endless need.

Mrs. Ramsay did. She was the perfect woman. She fulfilled the role as did Virginia Woolf’s mother. But Lily Briscoe and Virginia Woolf are saying no and they are encouraging others to say no as well. Here in our literary canon, stands an example, the model of a woman saying no, set there deliberately by a woman writer who changed the world.

After some time of fumbling, Lily is finally able to compliment Mr. Ramsay’s boots. That is one thing she can give to him. He eats it up eagerly like so many scraps thrown to a hungry dog. And she is for a moment released from his vampirish sucking.

“She had only escaped by the skin of her teeth though, she thought. . . and it had flashed upon her that she would move the tree to the middle, and need never marry anybody, and she had felt an enormous exultation”(262).

On the last page of To the Lighthouse, in the final paragraph, Lily Briscoe does just that. She moves the tree, herself, to the center of her life, and thinks, “I have had my vision”(310).


Virginia Woolf is a Nasty Woman Writer indeed.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2023

Works Cited:

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1927.