Tuesday, July 09, 2002

The Angel Returns

The demon voice Annie describes so well made me think of Virginia Woolf's essay "Professions for Women" (1942). (As far as I know, the essay isn't available on line--I'm quoting from the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.) In it, she describes the voice she hears when she tries to write book reviews as "The Angel of the House:"

"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 draft she sat in it--in short she was so consitituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others."

Woolf realizes she has no choice but to kill her, "in self-defense," of course. But she reminds us that it is "far harder to kill a phantom than a reality" -- in other words, the angel keeps finding ways to fight back. I think, to some extent, we are still battling these Victorian ideals of womanhood. We sometimes worry that power and femininity, for example, might be mutually exclusive. We often feel guilty when we express our own minds and wishes, especially when those conflict with the desires of our partners and our children. We are not always sure where the line between selfishness and self-worth, or sympathy and sacrifice is. I think we are still very much in an experimental stage, as modern women, or newgen women, or whatever. Woolf believed that we would never really know what a woman was "until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill." That makes sense to me--how will we know what we are until we have seen what we can do?

As for the diseases and symptoms now ascribed to the stresses of being modern women--I'm not sure they are worse than the diseases and symptoms more "traditional" women experienced (or continue to experience)--so-called "hysteria" and melancholia (ie. post partum and other forms of depression), the many effects of child-birth, and myriad other illnesses that have affected women. Are these diseases really linked to our freedom, or rather to our horrendous, chemical laden food choices, our lack of time or places for exercise, our workplaces and governments that refuse to acknowledge the need for family- friendly policies, etc.? Some of the changes we need will certainly have to come from within--killing those angels and phantoms and demons as they return. But some structural, institutional, external, social, political and ecomomic changes also need to be made to support our choices and make our freedom viable.

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