by Madeleine Adams
“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” – Virginia Woolf
We, women, have been forced into a system which actively pushes against female interests. Political turmoil in ‘our’ countries barricade us from our humanity by means of patriarchal force. And because of this, we women lack the ability to latch onto somewhere but identify ourselves as belonging to a country that, to us, only appears to manifest itself as merely a cluster of issues in which we exist and struggle for power within. We float through the world, lacking a belonging to anywhere specific; and if we declare ourselves as belonging anywhere too specific, we find ourselves trapped and neatly sorted into the lower-echelon of a male-dominated socio-political hierarchy. And even then, because of a woman’s “less-than” status, she barely belongs.
This sentiment is influenced by Virginia Woolf, who, in her essay Three Guineas, declared that “as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Written in 1938, Woolf reflects on women’s involvement in the First World War, expressing her anti-war attitudes. She rejects the movement of female patriotism, holding that the social contract between the state and women is not compatible—patriotism is a belief system solely compatible with the man and his status as a member of a country. Britain propagandised traditional, oppressive gender roles during the war, promoting the idea that women’s domesticity—particularly motherhood—was crucial to war success, and crucial to her own. Woolf writes that the middle class woman’s unconscious resentment towards her country’s patriarchal structure was so profound “that she would undertake any task however menial, [and] exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape.” Women, therefore, were forcibly led to accept British propaganda and the “patriot” label. Questioning the authenticity of the state’s appeal to female patriotism, Woolf maintains that any supposed nationalism that women hold is unjustified, and that rather, feminist pacifists during the war had much more authentic contributions to feminism.
The woman ought then, to desire to remove herself from the chains of nationalism and patriotism by claiming herself as not belonging to the structures that demand her submission to patriarchy masked under the title of ‘her country.’
Woolf’s quote remains relevant. Patriarchal structures maintain a tight grip on women’s freedom. The US is currently declaring war against women, acting as a figure of oppression by using societal oppressive attitudes to back its instatement of restrictions on abortion access. The country is manipulating patriarchal attitudes to appear as benefactory to women (though, this is clearly disingenuousness). It claims to have life in mind, to act as a necessary paternalistic force. But in doing so, it uses motherhood and therefore the female experience as a tool of oppression and control, it states its passivity towards male sexual violence, it asserts its belief that a woman cannot be trusted to make her own intelligent moral decisions. It offers its large hand for her to grab onto and be led by. It teaches her how to walk, teaches her how to exist in its world, teaches her to turn a blind eye to its own intentions and to trust its authority.
When a country’s actions are so clearly antithetical to female interests, it becomes impossible—or at very least embarrassing—for a woman to announce her devotion to such a structure. In adopting a nationalistic attitude, she accepts and promotes the patriarchy. How can a woman be expected to identify with her country when it actively attempts to cradle her in its oppressive embrace, restricting her from choice, freedom, and autonomy?
Virginia Woolf declares that she desires no physical borders to belong to. The woman, as proposed by Woolf, ought to see herself as elsewhere, as existing merely as a human of the world. And as a writer, we can perhaps see how her work might tie into this notion, perhaps with writing becoming her worldly feminist escape. Art is entirely human and therefore compatible with women in a way patriotism is not.
We can all understand, at least in some respect, the struggles associated with a lack of identification with anything specific. As people, we want to grasp onto something, to find ourselves belonging to something. We desire community. Perhaps we women cannot find this something in a country or in any concrete place, but can find it in art and the community it cultivates. Today’s women ought to mirror the actions of Britain’s female anti-war pacifists who, by refusing to exist within their government’s margins, made more significant contributions to feminism—expressed through literature—than those who responded with patriotism. And so by turning to art, we women can declare ourselves as worldly individuals, whose ‘country’ is not physical, but a free idea.