In 1931 Virginia Woolf was asked to give a speech to the London National Society for Women’s Service on the topic of the employment of women. Would she speak about her own professional experiences? In the speech and subsequent essay, “Professions for Women,” culled from it, Woolf openly admits that though she is a woman and employed, she has not had what many might consider “professional experiences” since she works at home, alone, writing in a room of her own.
However, she continues, there have been obstacles in the profession of writing that she has had to overcome as a woman writer, one of which she calls the voice of the “Angel in the House.” Initially she calls this presence a phantom but then decides to name her after the heroine of the famous 1854 poem, The Angel in the House. This “angel” came into her writing room often while she was engrossed in her work.
“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”(58).
She is hopeful in this essay that younger women writers have never, and will never, encounter this phantom. Would that it were so, Virginia, yet I think most of us alive today can attest to the fact that we are still dealing with this phantom in one way or another, if not in the exact form she takes for a white woman of European descent like Woolf.
“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 the family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a 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. In those days—the last of Queen Victoria—every house had its Angel. 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 your 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”(59).
This description is so astute and amazing. Even for all our strides forward, I wonder if there is any woman who had not met this angel not only while writing, but while speaking, indeed while expressing oneself in a boardroom, at a meeting, in phone calls, and emails, in professional and unprofessional settings, in politics, heck, even at dinner parties (am I talking too loud?).
Who among us has not has this phantom voice in our ears. It is she we decide to kill when decide to act, be, or write #Nasty. When we own our voices, when we dare speak our minds, when we decide not to care “what men will think.” Even when we dress ourselves, eat that piece of cake, anytime we are out in the world of the patriarchy, this little corrective and warning phantom is lurking around us.
For all the diversity of women, the angels are equally diverse. What does the phantom of an African American woman say to her that will deem her acceptable? To act more white? What about a Hispanic woman or a Chinese woman, or an Iranian woman? These angels I am sure come in all different versions according to where a woman is born and lives, her experiences, her sexual orientation or gender identification. But she is there, this angel or phantom, for all of us saying in some form, ”my dear….above all, be pure.”
So what does Virginia do and what shall we all do?
“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-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me”(59).
Oh how I love that line: Had I not killed her she would have killed me.
A whole book could be written by women of all different races, religions, classes and countries about what they had to kill to not be killed by it. And if you have not done it yet, I suggest you do it. For the angel or phantom is not serving you but rather some culturally acceptable version of you which must be a radically reduced version of you.
Woolf goes on:
“She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must—to put it bluntly—tell lies if they are to succeed”(60).
Y’all! This was written in 1931. It terrifies me to think that it is still true and yet I do believe that it is. We must still take this advice from Virginia Woolf and kill those phantoms that lurk in our ears and minds and psyches, there only to appease the culture at large.
“Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the ink pot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her”(60).
Yes, the fictitious voices, mores, values, cultural norms are much harder to kill than the reality, because they are internalized, subliminal, hinted at, given to us in harsh or disapproving glances, a look up and down saying, “Make yourself smaller.” We will be sidelined and erased if we continue to be #Nasty. We will be further marginalized or disappeared, not to mention abused and mishandled.
Because to be deemed #Nasty is to risk all.
Some of us might not care for all this talk of “killing” and might prefer to offer the angel some compassion, something akin to: “I know that what you are saying is what you think will keep me safe, so I offer compassion to you.” Perhaps men have their own phantoms too but that doesn’t concern us here because this blog is about women. Whoops, just had to throw an ink pot because the angel whispered that excluding men might make them feel bad or hurt them to which I respond that they probably haven’t ever thought about how excluding women has made us feel. Whoops, there goes another ink pot. Must have lots of ink pots on hand. We definitely need to kill her or we will waste too many fine ink pots and make a terrible mess of things.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
Woolf, Virginia and Michelle Barrett, ed., Women and Writing, N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979