Virginia Woolf & Vera Brittain: pacifism and the gendered politics of public intellectualism.

Author:Wisor, Rebecca
 
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A recent debate spurred by the publication of Richard A. Posner's Public Intellectuals (2001, 2003)--though not a matter with which he concerns himself--centers on questions of authority and valuation: that is, how one determines which cultural figures qualify as "public intellectuals," and who is qualified to make those determinations. The act of naming public intellectuals appears to be as much inflected by an individual's cultural, gender, and ideological biases as by his or her politics, background, and operating definitions. Such acts, moreover, are powerfully inflected by the omissions, and politics, of literary and intellectual history.

Several recently compiled lists of public intellectuals reflect a broader tendency among academics and intellectuals to discredit or elide the role that women have played historically, and continue to play, as producers of cultural and social knowledge circulating in the public domain. The list of "Britain's Top 100 Intellectuals" selected by the editors of Britain's Prospect magazine for its centennial issue in July 2004, for example, included only twelve women, leading a commentator in the Guardian to reflect how "a female 'public' intellectual is rarely regarded with the same deference as her male counterpart" (Barton). The lists of "100 Top Global Intellectuals" compiled in 2005 and 2008 by Prospect, and Foreign Policy likewise included only ten women among their ranks. (1) And of the 546 prominent intellectuals (both past and present) included on Richard Posner's list, only 13.2% are women and 4.8% are black (194-207). (2) That Posner includes writers of the early twentieth century rather than focusing exclusively on contemporary intellectuals invites us to consider how literary history has helped to shape this list, and the ways in which the politics of literary canonization continue to dominate contemporary discourse on the subject of public intellectualism.

With the exception of Rebecca West, Posner's list of early-twentieth century British intellectuals reads as a who's-who of high modernism and the "Auden Generation," a parade of cultural insiders who have managed to be remembered: W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Harold Laski, F. R. Leavis, George Orwell, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, Lytton Strachey, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats. The failure of notable British female public intellectuals to "make the cut"--among whom we might count Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson, Nancy Cunard, Naomi Mitchison, Winifred Holtby, Lady Margaret Rhonnda, Shena Simon, Ray Strachey, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Margery Fry, Jane Ellen Harrison, Helena Swanwick, Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and many others--obstructs our knowledge of their actual public interventions while perpetuating the omissions of intellectual history. (3)

Given that the female intellectuals above were fully and variously immersed in public dialogues over women's suffrage, the expansion of legal rights and educational and professional opportunities for women, racism, socialism, communism, imperialism, the rise of fascism, and the prevention of war, it would be erroneous to infer that their exclusion is justified by their absence from the public sphere; rather, it reflects the fact that "thirties women's writing has had little claim to the reserved public spaces that structure scholarly discussion" (Bluemel 65). Though famously heralded by Samuel Hynes as the "Auden Generation," the 1930s were characterized by a massive outpouring of writing by women, a fact realized by their contemporaries but later eclipsed by retrospective accounts of the period that emphasized instead the writing of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and George Orwell. A similar critical preoccupation with the conservative political tendencies of male modernists including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, and W. B. Yeats has led to the exclusion of women and other cultural outsiders whose writing does not "fit" with the narrative of a fascist, right-leaning tendency within late modernism. The historical omission of women writers from accounts of the 1930s, and the emphasis on a conservative late modernism, in turn has ensured that men's writing from this period remains in print and in active circulation far more often than that of their female counterparts.

A gendered monopoly of the literary landscape in this manner effaces not just individual texts, but entire bodies of work and the particular ways of thinking, seeing, and being in the world that they embody and engender: in this way, literary monopolies of the (still very recent) past severely constrain our thinking about knowledge production within a particular time period, along with the who, what, and how of public intellectualism. Equally important as the question of whether the class known as "public intellectuals" is in decline--this being a matter of some recent concern--is the question of how that class is continually being constructed and reconstructed (by individuals, by institutions) along the lines of ideology, history, and politics. For, as Ron Eyerman reminds us, the intellectual is "an historically emerging category, continually being reinvented" (qtd. in Jennings 783). In order to recover the extent to which women writers of the 1930s functioned as public intellectuals, the reshaping of contemporary public discourse about public intellectuals must take into account, and build upon, the recent efforts of literary scholars, historians, and feminist presses to recuperate women's political writing of that period. (4) Beyond merely being recovered, these works must be studied in relation to one another as a means for reconstructing patterns of influence and alternative intellectual genealogies that have been erased from literary and intellectual history.

The antiwar interventions of two women writers, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Vera Brittain (1893-1970), contributed in significant ways to the discourse surrounding the functions and obligations of public intellectuals in the interwar period. Writing as fundamentally oppositional figures, both embraced the concept of cultural marginalization as a necessary precondition for intellectual activity. This idea has been popularized most recently by Edward Said, who argued in the 1993 Reith Lectures (published as Representations of the Intellectual) that it is "the condition of exile" that "sets the course for the intellectual as outsider" (52-3). While Said traces this idea back to two influential European public intellectuals of the last century, Julien Benda and Antonio Gramsci, his conception of the intellectual as "outsider" resonates deeply with ideas put into circulation by Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas (1938). Assuming a valid measure of an individual's historical prominence as a public intellectual to be the extent to which her or his ideas continue to circulate, or be modified or challenged, within various cultural discourses, such deep resonances suggest Woolf's ongoing legacy in shaping contemporary discourse on the public intellectual. My objective in placing Said in dialogue with Woolf and Brittain in this essay is two-fold, and my logic circular: first (and last), I wish to legitimize their cultural interventions, and their positioning as public intellectuals, through recourse to Said's authority as a public intellectual and second, to suggest that the intellectual basis of that authority may be indebted to the public interventions of Virginia Woolf and, to a lesser extent, of Vera Brittain.

Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain shared an insistence that the causes of women's rights and the struggle against war were intimately connected, and they made this feminist pacifist platform the foundation of their writing of the 1930s. This particular ideological formulation--doubly marginalized for its voicing of an "outsider's" feminist perspective on a subject persistently derided in Western cultures as effeminate, cowardly, naive, or politically irrelevant--has no doubt played a significant part in the obscuring of their reputations as public intellectuals, a matter further complicated by Vera Brittain's increasing alignment with Christian pacifism in the early 1940s. The diverse mediums in which these cultural interventions were made manifest--public...

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