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Written by Timothy Sexton
"War Is a Profession"
The central premise of Woolf’s long essay is that the tyrannies of private life and public are inseparable. It is in the nature of man to dominate on the field of battle and in the sphere of politics just like it is in the nature of husbands to dominate wives. Treating war as a profession is an extension of this domestication, making the man going off to battle no different from the man going to work as a clerk.
The Patriarchy: Private and Public
The attack is on not on men as individuals, but the manner in which the overwhelming majority of men are inexorably drawn into the failed system of patriarchy. Here Woolf uses metaphor to reveal the difference between the patriarchy in private and the patriarchy in public:
“Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”
Petticoats, Mutton and College
Just a few paragraphs into the essay, Woolf uses an extended simile to portray what it felts like at the time to be a woman trying to get a serious education in England. The common theme tying the points of comparison together being, of course, disappointment.
“the noble courts and quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge often appear to educated men’s daughters like petticoats with holes in them, cold legs of mutton, and the boat train starting for abroad while the guard slams the door in their faces.”
As a metaphor in the hands of Woolf, measuring the precise meaning of atmosphere is about as easy as measuring the precise elements making up the atmosphere around you. It is referred to as an “odor” capable of changing dimension and form. But it is through metaphor that Woolf really penetrates to he intent for the word’s meaning:
“atmosphere is one of the most powerful, partly because it is one of the most impalpable, of the enemies with which the daughters of educated men have to fight.”
"The Essence of Freedom"
Using the drama of Antigone as her guide, Woolf works her way through intricate topic of how to define freedom in a society so clearly and starkly constructed on a division between two roughly equivalent halves of the population. What is freedom for men may not be so for women. She finally works her toward boiling the issue down to its essential quality:
“Private judgement is still free in private and that freedom is the essence of freedom.”
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At its most polemical, Woolf’s essay explicitly urges women to reject insinuations that they owe loyalty to a school, to a church or even to a country. Since the patriarchal system colludes through institutional means to deny women the same...
For neither the first nor last time, Woolf’s writing is attack against the corrosive legacy of the patriarchy. In this sense, the patriarchy extends well beyond the military; the military is merely the most recognizable symbol of patriarchy and so...