Burning down the house: Using Woolf’s Three Guineas as a template for a manifesto against gendered cyberviolence, part I

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I attended a symposium about a month ago for stakeholders of a Status of Women grant to brainstorm strategies with which to “eliminate and prevent cyberviolence”. I know. Kind of a herculean task, don’t you think? Might as well ask, how do I prevent war?

Oh wait…

As those who have been reading my blog know, I am on a Virginia Woolf kick lately. I recently finished Woolf’s incredibly radical, feminist manifesto Three Guineas, where she asks that similarly impossible question and attempts in her rash, devil-may-care way, to answer it.

When Virginia Woolf wrote this book in 1938, women had only in the last 20 years been legally allowed into the professions. The colleges were only then opening up to women, and the vote for women was still relatively new.


Which makes the fact that her polemic is still so relevant today, that it could indeed serve as a counter-argument to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, all the more disturbing. For it is has been almost a hundred years now, and even though we need hardly ever discuss whether it is a woman’s place to sit in a board room, we are still discussing why they are not as successful as men in the workplace. We still have the discussion à la Sandberg about what a woman has to do to fit her round peg into the square hole of this man’s world (cough, cough…excuse the slightly risqué overtones…)

It struck me that if you took out the word “war” and substituted it for Cyberviolence, you would have the bones of a pretty decent manifesto on your hands. So, with all due respect to Ms. Woolf, I am going to attempt it. (My apologies, Ms. Woolf, if you start to feel yourself rolling….)

The Three Guineas represent three donations she would make to the following causes, with certain conditions attached:

  1. Education for women
  2. To encourage and aid in the pursuit of employment for women.
  3. To a society to prevent against war.

In all three domains, she comes to the conclusion that if women are going to have a something useful and new to contribute about eliminating the age old problem of war, they will have to completely reject the pomp and circumstance, the hierarchies and ranks, the prestige of the awards system and find a new way to run the world.


I was going to say education for women, but Woolf does not discriminate – her vision of education is all-inclusive and radically different from the patriarchy of the hallowed Ivy League institutions:

            “Let us then discuss as quickly as we can, the sort of education that is needed. Now since history and biography­ — the only evidence available to an outside — seem to prove that the old education of the old colleges breeds neither a particular respect for liberty nor a particular hatred of war it is clear that you must rebuild your college differently.”

Let us pause here and apply what Woolf is saying about the correlation between education and the willingness to perpetrate acts of war to our own education systems and the willingness to perpetrate gendered acts of cyberviolence (heck, just regular old violence).

The first thing that comes to mind is the draconian dress codes many young women have been fighting quite publicly lately. This of course, is just a minor, peripheral issue when it comes to education, but indicative of a greater, more endemic problem. The whole idea behind these dress codes is officially to prepare students for dressing appropriately when they one day go out to work. The unofficial reason is so that boys do not get distracted by a glimpse of an alluring shoulder (no spaghetti straps) or the evidence of cleavage or a comely bottom.

This sends the message to girls as early as elementary school that they do not belong. That they are a distraction from the real business of learning. And most dangerously, that they are responsible for keeping at bay the apparently predatory nature of the opposite sex and if they do not cover themselves up, if they do not make sure they are causing the least distraction possible, then it is their own fault.

And this does not even touch the eurocentric, male-centered curriculum, or the disparity between the quality of education in rich and poor neighbourhoods. But let’s get back to Woolf:

            “[The new college] is young and poor; let it therefore take advantage of those qualities and be founded on poverty and youth. Obviously, then it must be an experimental college, an adventurous college…Next, what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital. They require too many overhead expenses; salaries and uniforms and ceremonies. The poor college must teach only the arts that can be taught cheaply and practised by poor people; such as medicine, mathematics, music, painting and literature. It should teach the arts of human intercourse; the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them. The aim of the new college, the cheap college, should be not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to cooperate; discover what new combinations make good while in human life.”

Okay. Now I have shivers. She is definitely going on my list as one of those people in history I would like to have sit at my lunch table.


How can we translate that into our modern day educational system? Yes, there are alternative education choices, but for the most part, we still send our children to institutions that looks a lot like the ones that churned out the patriarchal colonialists of the British 19th century.

When Woolf says we need to teach “the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds, and the little arts of talk, of dress, of cookery that are allied with them,” she is not just talking about home economics, but the art of community. In this age where individuals are more isolated than ever, where families frequently live on different sides of the country, where we hardly know our neighbours, and we spend more time looking at a screen than in the eyes of our loved ones, this is more urgent than ever.

Woolf is not just talking about learning how to cook, but about the art of sharing a meal. She is not just talking about chatting about the weather, but about the art of knowing how to communicate with one another, on a deep and meaningful level. She is not talking about who crams the most information inside their heads, but how they process it, how they digest it and how they use it to better society.

I would also add that the teaching of community and conviviality would need a component on sexuality. I have said this before and will continue to say it, but we need a frank discussion about women’s sexuality without the judgment or the demonization. This kind of education would have to start early and, especially at the beginning, work to tear down many of the misconceptions about female sexuality that have been perpetuated by a patriarchal society over the years. We need to let girls know that it is okay to get to know and love their bodies and that they are in control of their own sexuality, not anyone else. Boys need to know this too. They also need to be brought up without the sense of entitlement to sex, the whole predatory/aggressive attitude of sexuality we inflict on boys from an early age. They also should know that women are sexual creatures. And everybody should know about consent and respect.

Most of all, we need to dismantle all the old hierarchies, whether it is the award system for the kid who got the best mark in the class (or in other words, who had a certain, random, narrow type of skills that allows them to excel academically at the expense of devaluing everything else), or deconstructing the loaded gender stereotypes when it comes to sex (slut, player, etc.)

It is becoming clear that we need to start deconstructing the rotten infrastructure of our old institutions: schools, government, business, etc. and start thinking about designing a more equal, inclusive future.

The efforts in Ontario to revamp their sex ed curriculum, (and I just read that Quebec is also about to began a sex ed pilot project in a few schools) is the most minute of baby steps, but it definitely is a step. However, instead of piggybacking on the old system, what if we could blow it up instead? (Not literally, of course. Metaphorically.)Who is to say we need to do it the same way that it has been done for centuries? As Woolf said so eloquently, why would we want to be a part of something that is so obviously broken? Here is her vision:

“Let [the college] be built on lines of its own. It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases. Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply.”

Let us be flexible. Let us seek to understand one another instead of wasting energy besting each other. Let us cultivate those twin sisters, community and conviviality. Above all, let us throw away the stinking rags of the old hierarchies and begin to design a way of living that respects and appreciates our otherness.