In her lifetime, Woolf was outspoken on many topics that were considered controversial, some of which are now considered progressive, others regressive. She was an ardent feminist at a time when women's rights were barely recognised, and anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist and a pacifist when chauvinism was popular. On the other hand, she has been criticised for views on class and race in her private writings and published works. Like many of her contemporaries, some of her writing is now considered offensive. As a result, she is considered polarising, a revolutionary feminist and socialist hero or a purveyor of hate speech.
Works such as A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) are frequently taught as icons of feminist literature in courses that would be very critical of some of her views expressed elsewhere. She has also been the recipient of considerable homophobic and misogynist criticism.
Virginia Woolf was born into a non-religious family and is regarded, along with her fellow Bloomsberries E.M. Forster and G.E. Moore, as a humanist. Both her parents were prominent agnostic atheists. Her father, Leslie Stephen, had become famous in polite society for his writings which expressed and publicised reasons to doubt the veracity of religion. Stephen was also President of the West London Ethical Society, an early humanist organisation, and helped to found the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896. Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen, wrote the book Agnostic Women (1880), which argued that agnosticism (defined here as something more like atheism) could be a highly moral approach to life.
Woolf was a critic of Christianity. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, she gave a scathing denunciation of the religion, seeing it as self-righteous "egotism" and stating "my Jew [Leonard] has more religion in one toenail—more human love, in one hair". Woolf stated in her private letters that she thought of herself as an atheist.
She thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.— Woolf characterises Clarissa Dalloway, the title character of Mrs Dalloway
Hermione Lee cites a number of extracts from Woolf's writings that many, including Lee, would consider offensive, and these criticisms can be traced back as far as those of Wyndham Lewis and Q.D. Leavis in the 1920s and 1930s. Other authors provide more nuanced contextual interpretations, and stress the complexity of her character and the apparent inherent contradictions in analysing her apparent flaws. She could certainly be off-hand, rude and even cruel in her dealings with other authors, translators and biographers, such as her treatment of Ruth Gruber. Some authors, particularly postcolonial feminists dismiss her (and modernist authors in general) as privileged, elitist, classist, racist, and antisemitic.
Woolf's tendentious expressions, including prejudicial feelings against disabled people, have often been the topic of academic criticism:
The first quotation is from a diary entry of September 1920 and runs: "The fact is the lower classes are detestable." The remainder follow the first in reproducing stereotypes standard to upper-class and upper-middle class life in the early 20th century: "imbeciles should certainly be killed"; "Jews" are greasy; a "crowd" is both an ontological "mass" and is, again, "detestable"; "Germans" are akin to vermin; some "baboon faced intellectuals" mix with "sad green dressed negroes and negresses, looking like chimpanzees" at a peace conference; Kensington High St. revolts one's stomach with its innumerable "women of incredible mediocrity, drab as dishwater".
Though accused of antisemitism, the treatment of Judaism and Jews by Woolf is far from straightforward. She was happily married to a Jewish man (Leonard Woolf) but often wrote about Jewish characters using stereotypes and generalisations. For instance, she described some of the Jewish characters in her work in terms that suggested they were physically repulsive or dirty. On the other hand, she could criticise her own views: "How I hated marrying a Jew — how I hated their nasal voices and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles — what a snob I was: for they have immense vitality, and I think I like that quality best of all" (Letter to Ethel Smyth 1930). These attitudes have been construed to reflect, not so much antisemitism, but tribalism; she married outside her social grouping, and Leonard Woolf, too, expressed misgivings about marrying a gentile. Leonard, "a penniless Jew from Putney", lacked the material status of the Stephens and their circle.
While travelling on a cruise to Portugal, she protested at finding "a great many Portuguese Jews on board, and other repulsive objects, but we keep clear of them". Furthermore, she wrote in her diary: "I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh." Her 1938 short story The Duchess and the Jeweller (originally titled The Duchess and the Jew) has been considered antisemitic.
Yet Woolf and her husband Leonard came to despise and fear the 1930s fascism and antisemitism. Her 1938 book Three Guineas was an indictment of fascism and what Woolf described as a recurring propensity among patriarchal societies to enforce repressive societal mores by violence.