Friday, March 31, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Virginia Woolf's 1931 "Professions for Women"

British author Virginia Woolf has always been a muse of mine. As a woman writer, her A Room of One's Own provided me with inspiration and courage, as well as a sense of the barriers women face. And, just as that book was based on speeches, its intended sequel, "Professions for Women" began as a speech to a women's group, which invited her to speak about her profession.

To describe the struggles of her profession--that is, how difficult it is for a woman writer to express opinions in a world dominated by men--she chose a metaphoric character. Woolf describes her intent to write a book review of a male author's book, and says:
I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, The Angel in the House. 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....She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was 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 our 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....Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.
Strong words, but they reflected perfectly Woolf's own experience. She was born in the Victorian era in 1882, growing up in a male-dominated household. Her first novel had been published 16 years before this speech, which followed the liberating era of the 1920s, and took place in the run-up to World War II. It was a time of change, and she gave voice to that change.

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Have a strong point of view: Too often, speakers--and women speakers--have as their goal not to offend anyone. They purge opinion from their speeches, and the results are pale, boring groupings of platitudes. Woolf not only embraces her viewpoint, but makes it violent and memorable. To her, this was the ultimate struggle, and you can tell.
  • Get your audience to see something in their mind's eye: Part of the speech asks the audience to imagine the writer, pen in hand, and describes the scene so that her hearers can get a mental picture of what her work is like...and the conditions under which she has to battle the angel. The images you put in your audience members' minds will always be more memorable than any slide or photograph. It's a great technique to build audience engagement.
  • Use metaphor to create a character or personality: I don't see enough speakers turning the forces they are describing into metaphoric characters, real personalities the audience can picture and relate to. But it's an effective tactic here, allowing Woolf to describe the Angel of the House as a person, making it more recognizable and familiar.
You can read the text of the speech here; it is an abbreviated version of what she delivered to a chapter of the National Society for Women’s Service on January 21, 1931. And now, this powerful speech also has inspired an illustration that excerpts parts of it. Signature first published this illustration in Nathan Gelgud's It's Time to Re-read Virginia Woolf's 1931 'Professions for Women' Speech, and kindly provided permission for me to reproduce it here for you. Enjoy!

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