Redefining gender roles: The Image of Women in Virginia Woolf’s 'To the Lighthouse'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

25 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents


1 The Victorian Woman

2 The emergence of a New Woman – Woolf’s Three Guineas

3 Redefining Gender in To the Lighthouse
3.1 Mrs. Ramsay - The Angel in the House
3.2 Lily Briscoe – The new woman

4 Conclusion



Virginia Woolf can undoubtedly be regarded as one of the most famous writers of the modernist era. However she was not merely a writer, at the same time she was a biographer, an essayist and also a feminist. Being a female writer in a patriarchal society, Woolf raises issues on gender and gender roles, and challenges the role of the Victorian woman, both in her novels as well as in her other essays. The ideas of women, their role and identity become especially obvious in her novel To the Lighthouse, as here Woolf clearly juxtaposes the two images of women, namely the Victorian ideal and the New Woman.

Furthermore, her novels do not only demonstrate the redefinition of gender roles but also the changes happening in narrative techniques employed in novels during the modernist era. Being part of this movement and the literary changes happening during that time, Woolf herself contributes greatly to shaping the new woman’s identity, as she sets out to destroy the stereotype of that time which suggested that only men can be important writers. So how important actually was her role in changing these stereotypical views of women, and how did she participate in the emergence and creation of the new woman?

1 The Victorian Woman

The Victorian woman was often seen as the ideal woman, the angel in the house, even long after the Victorian era. So why was there even the need for a redefinition of her role? In order to understand the changes the woman’s role underwent during the 1920s it is necessary to gain an understanding of what a woman’s life involved prior to the emergence of the new woman and how her role remained an idealised concept in the twentieth century.

During the Victorian era (1837- 1901) the public and the private sphere were increasingly identified with ideas of gender, so that the life of a woman in Britain revolved entirely around the private sphere of the home, the family and motherhood. Whereas men, being in a superior or privileged position, were able to be part of both spheres, the public and the private. Certainly there were women who had independent minds and did not resort to the gender roles prescribed to them, but the vast majority accepted or even embraced the fact that their place was in the home, sacrificing themselves for the family and accepting that they were inferior to men.

Thus marriage became the major goal for most women, ignoring their possibilities to emancipate themselves ( Perkin 1989:3). Staying single meant that a woman lost her social position and only attracted disapproval of society. Women were taught at a young age that they were to get married and have children, and thus also their education was targeted at these goals. A large proportion of their education included domestic duties such as sewing and preparing her for marriage in general. Therefore employment for women was more or less impossible, which meant that marriage was one of the few options to live a respectable life. Until the foundation of the National Union for Improving the Education of Women in 1971, the only chance for unmarried women was a position as governess or teacher, which however, was utterly underpaid (Purvis 1995:92) as society disapproved of women in the workforce.

Thus being successful on the marriage market almost became a duty for women. Until 1887, when an amendment was made to the Married Women’s Property Act, man and woman became one person after marriage, with the woman becoming the man’s chattel. Thus, this law, solely works in favour of the man’s interest, as John Stuart Mill already rightfully acknowledged in 1869:

The two are called one person in law, for the purpose of inferring that whatever is hers is his, but the parallel inference is never drawn that whatever is his is hers; the maxim is not applied against the man, except to make him responsible to third parties for her acts, as a master is for the acts of his slaves or his cattle. (Mill, John Stuart, ed. Collini 1989:148)

This clearly underlines the lack of individualism during that period, making women the property of their husbands. This lack of individualism means that the domestic domain was the only refuge for women to allow them some freedom, as here they were the domestic manager. They generally believed that the home was a “refuge from the harsh, industrialising world” (Purvis 1995:46). Although not even in the home women were entirely free, as during the Victorian era numerous handbooks and etiquette manuals were being published, which told women how to manage their household and how to be a good wife and mother. Thus it could be said that they generally helped to shape a collective identity of middle-class women (Langland 1995:27).

This collective identity of middle-class women encompassed certain character traits which women had to embody in order to represent the ideal. This image of the ideal woman was inspired by no one other than the eponym of the whole era herself, Queen Victoria, married to Prince Albert with nine children, she was regarded as the role model for many middle-class women (Mitchell 1996:141). However, this seems rather contradictory, as in a time when women belonged in the house and not in the public sphere, Queen Victoria occupied the most highest position in England, this being the ruler of a country (Langland 1995:62). Yet, Queen Victoria had strict anti-feminist ideas of what a woman’s life should encompass: “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for a man – but with totally different duties and vocations.” (cited in Bingham 2006:134). Coming from the most important woman of England, who was also a wife and mother, meant that she became the person, middle-class women looked up to, creating their own icon of a perfect lady. Reverend E.J. Hardy noted in 1887 what this life of becoming a lady and being the perfect wife encompassed:

Sweetness is to woman what sugar is to fruit. It is her first business to be happy - a sunbeam in the house, making others happy. True, she will often have “a tear in her eye”, but, like the bride of young Lochinvar, it must be accompanied with “a smile on her lips.” Girls and women are willing enough to be agreeable to men if they do not happen to stand to them in the relation of father, brother, or husband; but it is not every woman who remembers that her raison d'être is to give out pleasure to all as a fire gives out heat. Rev. E.J.Hardy 1887, cited in Fisher 1995:44

This again clearly emphasises, the idea of the Patmore’s Angel in the House, mentioned above, which connects to the moral issue. This image of the angel represents ideas of religion and morality. It was the women’s role to raise those issues in order to maintain morality in the home. Thereby she ensured the family’s class status, because being pure and religious was vital for the collective identity of the middle classes (Purvis 1995:46). In fact purity was an important characteristic of middle-class women during this era. Thus, sexuality did not belong to a woman’s life, and not even a man’s, making abstinence one of the most important virtues. However, the fact that women were seen as child bearers and having children and being a mother meant that one could be regarded as a true woman, this idea of purity seems rather contradictory. Still sexuality was merely believed to be a way to reproduce, and was not regarded as a pleasurable activity (Perkin 1989:276). However, with marriage the woman agreed that, along with her property, her body now belonged to her husband which also meant that he could access it whenever he pleased. So marriage was not a matter of give and take, but rather a one-sided issue. Women were not even allowed, by law, to leave their husbands, until 1891 (Kingsley Kent 1990:115), so they often had to endure their husbands dominance and sometimes even violence or humiliation within the home.

Yet, the role of the woman was considered to be perfect, when looked at it from the outside, as here the Victorian ideal represented a perfect and happy middle class family. As mentioned above, this ideal included motherhood. Thus on average in the middle of the century a Victorian women had six children (Mitchell 1996:142). With new products on the market and new maternal ideas in people’s heads, motherhood became a new experience. Opposed to previous decades, the middle-class household became more child-centred, as children received more attention from their mothers who were to create “a domestic haven of comfort” (Ingham 1996:22) for the family. As well as for the household, also for motherhood and parenting women adhered strictly to conduct books which told them how to raise their children appropriately. Daughters were raised to become the same perfect woman, their mothers already were by teaching them household chores such as cooking and sewing and cleaning. In contrast, boys were raised according to the ideal of masculinity (Kimmel et al 2004:232). Thus it is understandable that the ideals of femininity stayed alive well into the twentieth century as this was the time when the daughters of the Victorian era reached adulthood.

Certainly this is not a complete account of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, as many women did live a life outside the restrictions of home, motherhood and family. This also depended on their social status, and class, as for example, working class women had no choice but work, thus being part of both spheres. Also women changed over the period of the decade becoming increasingly independent and active. This led to women becoming part of the public sphere, demanding more rights which led to more equality, such as the right to vote or the right to get divorced. Yet, it took until 1928 that women were given the same political rights as men. However, the vast majority wanted to maintain the Victorian image of women as domestic angels. Thus, this section tried to outline the ideals and stereotypical views of women (also by women), as they persisted during the twentieth century (Mitchell 1996:141) with the woman being the loyal married mother and wife whose entire devotion was towards her family.

2 The emergence of a New Woman – Woolf’s Three Guineas

Although Virginia Woolf grew up like the Victorian daughter, described above, her ideals were very opposed to the ideas of the perfect Victorian woman. She played an important role during the creation of a “new” woman, which was a reaction to the Victorian idealisation, and thus the redefinition of the woman’s role in society. According to Judy Little, “[Woolf’s] attitude towards her Victorian family, particularly after her mother’s death in 1895, was one of resistance and rebellion” (1983:27). Woolf not only emphasises this rebellion in her novels but also in form of feminist essays, two of which in book form, namely A room of one’s own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). However, Woolf seems to have been very much ahead of her time, as it took until the emergence of the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s that her essays gained particularly in importance (Goldman 2006:130).

Thus by writing these works, Woolf set out to destroy the old woman’s role, or as she put it in a speech which was later published as an essay called Professions for Women in a collection called The Death of the Moth: “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer” (Woolf 1931). With this comment, she clearly identifies her importance as a woman of being a writer and distinguishes her role clearly from those of a male writer. Though she goes on by saying that she “heard the rustling of her [the angel’s] skirts in the room”, thus demonstrating the struggles of the role of a woman writer, as society’s expectations were different and women writers did not get the recognition male writers received. Woolf summarises these expectations of society in this same essay, as the angel tells her the norms to which women writers should conform:

“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.” (Woolf 1931)

Woolf, however, knew that she had to break free from these limitations. Thus, by challenging these ideals, her feminist ideas become very clear. In Woolf’s case, these norms certainly do not only include feminist topics which she raises in her novels but also norms connected to the style of writing and conventions. This becomes especially obvious when considering her narrative technique, that clearly cannot be considered to be traditional or Victorian, but will be looked at in greater detail later on. By breaking away from traditional stereotypes connected to women, and thus risking her respectability as a woman, she not merely tries to redefine gender roles through the characters in her stories, but she raises her own voice in order to gain equality.

The Three Guineas (1938) reinforced her ideas of equality, women’s rights and their position in society in general. Thus in her book, Woolf discusses a variety of topics, dividing it into three parts: education for women, professions for women and women in the war and thereby outlining the rights of a New Woman. First of all she stresses that the position of women, as submissive beings in the private sphere, is entirely created by society, and thus has no basis as to why women are not in an equal position to men:

It is now that the first difficulty of communication between us appears. […] We both come of what, in this hybrid age when, though birth is mixed, classes still remain fixed, it is convenient to call the educated class. When we meet in the flesh we speak with the same accent; use knives and forks in the same way […] and can talk during dinner without much difficulty about politics and people; war and peace; barbarism and civilization (Woolf 1938: 154)

This quote also emphasises the problems created by the class-system. As mentioned before, the ideal of the Angel in the House was mostly created by the middle- and upper classes and also maintained by these classes in later years, and thereby also maintaining the inequality of the genders, as these classes generally stayed amongst themselves. In order for a New Woman to emerge, these ideals that the middle-classes so strictly held on to, had to be destroyed.


Excerpt out of 25 pages


Redefining gender roles: The Image of Women in Virginia Woolf’s 'To the Lighthouse'
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Getting High on Woolf’s Modernism
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Woolf, To the lighthouse, women, gender, geschlechterstudien, modernism, new woman, victorian woman, narrative, stream of consciousness, identity, Lily, Ramsay, gender roles, virginia, patriarchal society, lighthouse, frauen
Quote paper
Anja Benthin (Author), 2008, Redefining gender roles: The Image of Women in Virginia Woolf’s 'To the Lighthouse', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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