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Facing Life as We Have Known It: Virginia Woolf and the Women's Co-operative Guild.

On 10 and 11June 1913 Leonard and Virginia Woolf attended the Annual Congress of the Women's Co-operative Guild in Newcastle. Leonard Woolf reported enthusiastically on the proceedings for the New Statesman on 21 June 1913, describing the Guild as 'a microcosm of a woman's democracy, and a mirror of the politics of the millions of disenfranchised working women.' (1) Virginia Woolf, in contrast, recalled her attendance with ambivalence seventeen years later in an essay written to preface Life as We Have Known It, a volume of autobiographical sketches by Guildswomen writers published by the Woolfs' own Hogarth Press in March 1931. (2) This uneasy, delayed response conceals the significant impact of the Women's Co-operative Guild on Virginia Woolf's writing, thinking, and evolving feminist politics. As the social and textual history of this contentious essay reveal, the Woolfs' early interactions with the Guild were as covertly influential on Virginia Woolf as they were overtly formative for her husband.

Virginia Woolf's Life as We Have Known It preface and its variant sister-text, 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild,' have elicited widely differing reactions from critics of her work due to their ambivalent portrayal of the working-class women present at the 1913 Congress and the authors of Life as We Have Known It. (3) The essay is frequently cited in discussions of both Woolf's feminist socialism and, conversely, her social snobbery. Contrary to Jane Marcus's early reading of the preface as a sensitive discussion of 'the relation of class to art' and as a positive contribution to 'the propaganda of hope,' (4) for example, Mary Childers finds 'expressions of discomfort amounting to distaste' in Woolf's introduction to the Guildswomen writers. (5) Alison Light views the preface as 'impressively honest and uneasy.' (6) Elena Gualtieri believes it 'obsessively focussed on the working women's bodies.' (7) Few commentaries on the essay detail the nature of the Guild itself at this time or the extent of the Woolfs' familiarity with the organisation. Yet a contextualised analysis of the Life as We Have Known It preface requires a coherent overview of both the Women's Co-operative Guild and the Woolfs' participation in its activities. Woolf's conflicted responses to her working women subjects in her Life as We Have Known It essay are underpinned by her and her husband's extended association with the Guild.

Existing accounts of the Woolfs' interactions with the Women's Co-operative Guild are fragmentary and often contradictory. The exact dates of the 1913 Annual Congress are significantly absent from the majority of biographical and critical studies of both writers, though Duncan Wilson helpfully identifies the Woolfs' attendance at the Congress on 10 and 11 June 1913 in his biography of Leonard Woolf. (8) The Congress's location in Newcastle is also omitted by most biographers and critics of Virginia Woolf, while Leonard Woolf's latest biographer mistakenly has him in Keswick for the event. (9) The writers themselves supply misleading information, which has perhaps resulted in this critical confusion. Leonard Woolf's autobiography erroneously recalls the publication of his New Statesman article in the Manchester Guardian, (10) while both Virginia Woolf's Life as We Have Known It preface and 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild,' as this article will argue, offer a determinedly fictionalised portrayal of her relation to the Guild. The following brief survey of the Women's Co-operative Guild and parallel study of the Woolfs' early contact with the organisation aim to address such omissions and uncertainty within previous scholarship, which it is hoped will be useful to researchers of both writers, as well as supplying the context necessary for an informed analysis of Virginia Woolf's contentious preface.

The Women's Co-operative Guild

The Women's Co-operative Guild (now the Co-operative Women's Guild) evolved as a self-governing auxiliary of the British Co-operative movement in the late nineteenth century. (11) From its origins in the consumers' society established by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, the Co-operative movement had been founded on democratic principles: with membership obtained through ownership of a 1 [pounds sterling] share; one vote for all members regardless of the number of shares held; profits divided among members according to the value of their purchases (the 'dividend'); and, in time, as co-operation spread, the formation of a central organising body, the Co-operative Union, which from 1870 brought together elected representatives from eight British 'Sections' to co-ordinate, advise and promote the activities of local societies. (12) By 1883, the year of the Women's Co-operative Guild's foundation, there were 1,051 Co-operative distributive societies in Britain with a total membership of 628,000, while net sales of the Co-operative Wholesale Societies amounted to over 4.5 million [pounds sterling]. (13) Yet the movement remained 'a flawed democracy,' as Johnston Birchall notes, 'because the people who did most of the shopping--the women--were almost completely excluded from it.' (14) Membership was often limited to one person per family, usually the man, and where joint membership was allowed women members rarely attended the quarterly business meetings. Indeed, Birchall observes, before legal reforms in 1870 and 1882 entitled women to own property, and even after in some cases, a woman member could face difficulties claiming the Co-operative dividend accumulated through her purchases without her husband's consent. (15) The Women's Co-operative Guild was established in response to such limitations in the early 1880s, when, as G. D. H. Cole records, it began 'to be seen as a particular anomaly that women, the housekeepers and shoppers of the nation, should allow the great Consumers' Co-operative Movement to be run exclusively by men.' (16)

In January 1883, Alice Acland, wife of the secretary of the Co-operative Union's education committee, Arthur Acland, began editing a new 'Women's Corner' section in the movement's weekly national newspaper, Co-operative News. (17) She campaigned there for greater female participation in the movement, asking:

   What are men always urged to do when there is a meeting held at any
   place to encourage or to start Co-operative institutions? Come!
   Help! Vote! Criticise! Act! What are women urged to do? Come and
   Buy! That is the limit of the special work pointed out to us women.
   ... Why should not we have our meetings, our readings, our
   discussions? (18)

A flurry of letters was exchanged on the subject in the Corner's pages and soon the Women's League for the Spread of Co-operation was established. Fifty women attended its first meeting during the Annual Co-operative Congress in Edinburgh in May 1883, at which a subscription of 6d was introduced and Acland was appointed General Secretary. In 1884, this organisation was renamed the Women's Co-operative Guild.

Margaret Llewelyn Davies, a highly significant figure in the Guild's development and subsequently a close friend of the Woolfs, later recalled the organisation's early aim to give 'married working-women' an opportunity to 'come together' at local branch meetings where they might discuss 'their common everyday interests as buyers.' (19) The daughter of a Christian socialist rector, Davies had been educated at Girton College, Cambridge, Britain's first residential university college for women founded by her aunt, Emily Davies, a prominent suffragist and ardent campaigner for women's education. Returning to her father's Marylebone parish in 1883, Davies joined the Marylebone branch of the Women's Co-operative Guild. Then in her early twenties, she became increasingly interested in co-operative politics. In 1889 Davies was appointed General Secretary of the Women's Co-operative Guild, a position she would hold for thirty-two years. Her appointment notably coincided with the family's move to Kirkby Lonsdale and resulted in the relocation of the Guild Office from London to Northern England where the organisation had initially struggled to attract members. (20) In Kirkby Lonsdale Davies also met Lilian Harris, who became a close friend, Guild Cashier in 1893, and Assistant Secretary alongside Davies from 1901-21. Under Davies's leadership, with the support of Harris, the Guild's activities diversified radically as it evolved from a discussion group into a pressure group.

Cole credits Davies, along with Harris, with having transformed this initially small agent for Co-operative propaganda into 'a really powerful progressive force.' (21) Following Davies's appointment as General Secretary, the Guild expanded dramatically in size, structure, and scope. In 1890 the organisation had 54 branches and 1,640 members; by 1921, the year of Davies's retirement, these figures had increased to 905 branches and a membership of 50,600. (22) A further division of the Guild was founded in Scotland in 1892. Davies later claimed that the Guild's guiding principle was self-government, in contrast to existing organisations for working-class women 'of a religious or philanthropic character ... where the promoters might be described as workingfor and not with the people, and where no ideas of working women's rights and wrongs, or of their citizenship, ever crept in.' (23) In 1889 the Guild was restructured to mirror the Co-operative Union with local branches organised into regional sections and a Central Committee for leadership. From 1893, Annual Congresses were held at which branch representatives from around the country gathered to debate and set priorities for future Guild activity. Guildswomen began to attend and debate too at the male-dominated quarterly meetings of the Co-operative movement, adopting intellectual positions which, as Gillian Scott notes, could be 'more radical than the Co-operative mainstream.' (24)

In the early decades of the twentieth century the Guild supported, among other causes, women's suffrage, divorce reform, a rise in the school leaving age, and measures to reduce infant mortality. Between 1906 and 1918, as Rachael Vorberg-Rugh details, the Guild was instrumental in bringing women workers into the protracted debate within the Co-operative movement over the establishment of a minimum wage. (25) The Guild made women's wages the central issue at its Annual Congress in 1906, participated in the setting of a minimum wage scale for male and female Co-operative employees commissioned by the Co-operative Union in 1907, and lobbied for the adoption of this scale at quarterly meetings of the English Co-operative Wholesale Society during 1911-12 until it finally voted in favour of the measure. This example of the Guild's campaign activity illustrates both its influence within the Co-operative movement and its identification with trade unionism, which, Vorberg-Rugh argues, discloses the Guild's progressive ness in this respect while the wider movement remained ambivalent towards trade unions due to its conflicted interests in the rights of workers and of share-holder consumers. (26)

A prominent rift emerged between the Guild and the Co-operative movement during this period with regard to divorce reform. The minutes of a meeting of the Guild Central Committee on 5 and 6 May 1910 record that Davies was invited to give evidence on behalf of the Guild to the Royal Commission on Divorce Law Reform (established by Asquith's Liberal government in 1909). (27) After gathering views on the matter from its branches, the Guild advocated an equal law for men and women, cheaper divorce proceedings, and the extension of divorce grounds to include neglect and physical or mental cruelty. The commission's report, published in 1912, included these recommendations and prompted furious public debate. Under pressure from the Manchester and Salford Catholic Federation, the Co-operative Union attempted to force the Guild to give up work in this direction by withdrawing its annual grant from 1914-18. Though the Union's financial support amounted to 400 [pounds sterling] at this time, the Guild refused this demand and the grant was reinstated only after controversy surrounding divorce reform had subsided at the close of the First World War. Changes in divorce law finally began to arrive with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923, which made adultery by either husband or wife the sole ground for divorce.

One measure of the Guild's success as a vehicle to affect political change in this period is the receipt of such invitations by its leading members to participate in the formation of governmental policy. Another noteworthy example is Harris's appointment to the Advisory Committee of the new 1911 National Health Insurance Act in 1912. (28) A later amendment to the National Health Insurance Act in 1913 was the direct result of pressure from the Guild, (29) which had petitioned MPs 'with all its force' from September 1911 to see that the 'Maternity Grant ... should legally be made payable to the woman herself to be her own property' rather than to her husband. (30) With such successes, by 1921 Davies was able to view the Guild as 'a fine training for national citizen work,' evidencing her claim that it had 'led the way in obtaining seats for working women on national committees and public bodies of all sorts' with reference to the 19 Guildswomen then sitting on City and Borough Councils, 9 Guildswomen members of London Borough Councils, 290 Guildswomen on Municipal Maternal Committees, and 200 Guildswomen elected as Poor Law Guardians. (31) When the Woolfs encountered the Women's Co-operative Guild in the 1910s, it was a highly active political organisation capable of influencing both the wider Co-operative movement and, on occasion, British government.

The Woolfs and the Women's Co-operative Guild

The Woolfs first became involved in Co-operative politics early in the summer of 1912 when Leonard Woolf was introduced to Margaret Llewelyn Davies by his then fiancee, Virginia Stephen. Davies was an acquaintance of the Stephens and the sister of Theodore and Crompton Llewelyn Davies, whom Leonard had met as an Apostle at Cambridge. When Leonard and Davies first met in 1912 the objectives of the Women's Co-operative Guild 'were "to educate its members, advance co-operative principles, and to obtain for women's interests the recognition which within and without the movement is due to them".' (32) 'Impressed by her enthusiasm,' Leonard embarked on 'a thorough study of the [Co-operative] movement, both its principles and its practice,' which, he later suggested, 'completed my conversion to socialism.' (33) By the time of the Woolfs' marriage on 10 August 1912, his first series of articles on Co-operative subjects was appearing in Co-operative News (published 3, 10, 17 August 1912). (34)

In March 1913, the Woolfs undertook a tour of industrial northern cities to support Leonard's research. 'We are going about to see factories,' Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend from the Queen's Hotel in Manchester on 11 March 1913, 'and as we spent 8 hours walking through them today, I'm very sleepy.' (35) They had spent the day at the Co-operative Wholesale Society jam factory at Middleton, at which Davies particularly wished Leonard to view 'the jamjar stacking department, [and] see what you think about the lifting of weights in doing the stacking.' (36) The Woolfs visited a range of Co-operative factories and wholesale businesses during their northern tour of Bolton, Carlisle, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester, including a bakery, a biscuit factory, a soap works, flour mills, a shirt factory, laundries, a printing works, a slaughterhouse, and a boot factory. (37) On his return to London Leonard discussed the need to found a Co-operative College of Education with Davies, which he then began to advocate publicly. (38)

The effect of this tour was not immediately evident on Virginia Woolf's published output, but her letters record her strong reactions to these first encounters with factory workers and their conditions of work. 'Why the poor don't [sic] take knives and chase us out of our houses, I cant [sic] think,' she mused to Eleanor Cecil after witnessing workers at the Middleton factory 'stand[ing] for 8 hours tying up 6 gross of jampots' (L 2, p. 19). 'The melancholy thing is that they seem perfectly respectable and content,' she noted after visiting the boot factory in Leicester on 18 March 1913, 'rather like old gentlemen in Clubs' (L 2, p. 19). The monotony of factory work and the workers' resignation to it were a revelation to Woolf. '[S]eeing machines freezes the top of one's head,' she considered from Leicester's Grand Hotel; 'It's the oddest feeling, providential, I suppose, so as to keep the poor quiet' (L 2, p. 19). Woolf indiscriminately groups the workers together as 'the poor,' emphasising their difference from her in socio-economic position and outlook, but also notably links their respectability and contentment with the complacency of older patriarchs within her own class, against whom her feminist social criticism was so often aimed. This surprising parallel suggests that both classes, and the wider, hierarchical social system within which they exist, are in need of analysis, critique, and, potentially, revolution. It is thus with a mixture of relief and regret that Woolf responds to the unlikelihood of a workers' revolt.

Highly conscious of her securely upper-middle-class status, Woolf was troubled by these interactions with Co-operative workers whose experiences differed so greatly from those of her own and on whose contentment the stability of her class depended. While her husband 'inspected' the Co-operative factories and stores they visited, 'cross-examin[ing] the officials minutely on the structure of the Movement, the organization of the societies, the way in which it worked and the way in which they worked it,' (39) Virginia Woolf's comments focus on the fraught relationship between the impoverished working classes and the financially comfortable middle classes, a theme that would reappear in her preface to Life as We Have Known It. Recognising 'at a glance ... the excitement of controlling the masses' and that 'if you could move them you would feel like a God,' she remained suspicious of the dictatorial, 'Imperial' role that middle-class activists such as Davies appeared to adopt in relation to the class on whose behalf they pledged to campaign (L 2, p. 19). 'Why don't you force yourself into some post,' she joked in a letter to Katherine Cox, 'in 6 months time you'd be driving about 6,000 helpless women in front of you. L. and I seriously consider branching out in some such line' (L 2, p. 19). As a whole, these visits alerted Woolf to the patronising position that benevolent intentions could lead the middle classes to assume towards the working classes. 'I cant [sic] help thinking that fiery reformers fly completely over their heads,' she considered, asserting that her 'mistake' was 'in mixing up what they do with philanthropy' (L 2, p. 19). Despite her reservations, however, in the following months her husband's enthusiasm for Co-operative politics led to her own association with the Women's Co-operative Guild.

In June 1913, the Woolfs attended the Women's Co-operative Guild Annual Congress in Newcastle at the invitation of Davies. From a retrospective viewpoint, Leonard Woolf's attendance at this conference and his subsequent report on it in the New Statesman significantly affected the evolution of his politics and his career. Looking back in his autobiography, Beginning Again, in 1964, Leonard recalled being 'enormously impressed by this unofficial parliament of 650 working class women,' noting that while '[i]n the eyes of a middle class person they were lamentably ignorant and most of them were completely uneducated ... they showed an extraordinary native, intuitive understanding of their own ignorance and therefore of their own problems and, what was more unexpected, of the problems of the working class.' (40) In his New Statesman article, 'A Democracy of Working Women,' Leonard Woolf praised the conference for its 'quiet orderliness and, above all, immeasurable common-sense.' (41) He detailed a resolution passed by the Guild that 'a minimum wage of not less than the Co-operative Minimum of 17s a week for adult women should be established by Trade Boards in all trades where women are employed,' applauding the Guild's setting of a realistic campaign goal that they had first won within the Co-operative movement. (42) Many middle-class readers will be surprised by the political and economic aptitude of the working-class Guildswomen, Leonard concluded, but,

   no one receives a more terrible or perpetual schooling, than the
   woman whose husband hands over to her on Saturday a sum which may
   be as small as 12s or 13s, and leaves it entirely to her to feed
   him and clothe him, to pay his rent, and to bring up his children.

The article attracted the attention of prominent socialists, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, leading to an invitation to join the Fabian Society, the opportunity to write regular articles for the New Statesman, commissions to produce socialist studies for the Fabians, and, ultimately, his long association with the Labour Party. (44) Thus Leonard Woolf's early association with the Women's Co-operative Guild retrospectively appears pivotal in the development of his career as a socialist journalist. Virginia Woolf, in contrast, suffered a severe breakdown shortly after the 1913 Congress and made no report of the proceedings or her involvement in them in letters or notebooks subsequently published from that time. The following year, while recuperating in Sussex, she recorded dejectedly reading 'your Co.op: books' in a letter to her husband on 14 March 1914, and informed her friend and former tutor, Janet Case, that she

was 'occupying [her]selfwith ... Co-operative manuals' a week later (L 2, pp. 44-5). A letter of 9 December 1914 indicates the uneasy establishment of Woolf and Davies's friendship following her long period of illness, as Woolf responds to Davies:

It was very good of you to write. I had a feeling that you were coming here somehow under false pretences--however, I can't explain it and it isn't worth explaining anyhow, I don't feel that now. (L 2, p. 53)

Their familiarity grew over the following year as evidenced by Woolf's increasingly frequent letters to Davies in 1915. In February 1915 she wrote with enthusiasm about a collection of letters that Davies proposed to publish detailing working-class women's experiences of pregnancy and motherhood, 'hop[ing] they will be printed--with lots of photographs' (L 2, p. 59). The letters appeared later that year in a pamphlet produced by the Women's Co-operative Guild, titled Maternity: Letters from Working-Women, after an unsuccessful attempt by the Woolfs to convince Virginia's half-brother, the publisher Gerald Duckworth, to print them. Despite continuing illness (Leonard transcribed his wife's dictated correspondence to Davies at various points in 1915 with appended notes regarding her health), Virginia contacted Duckworth in early 1915 and subsequently forwarded his response to Davies, indicating her interest in this 'amazing' project and in consolidating their burgeoning friendship (L 2, p. 59). 'Did you see your very warm review in the Times?' she asked Davies animatedly on 30 September 1915 following Maternity's publication; 'Your Guild I find quoted everywhere' (L 2, p. 65).

In 1916 Woolf began to involve herself in the Women's Co-operative Guild at a local level, organising and chairing monthly meetings at her home for the Richmond branch of the Guild. (45) She arranged speakers on various subjects including social questions, politics, literature, and travel, but was disappointed to find the twelve members quiet and generally apathetic. In her diary she wrote ambivalently and often patronisingly of the Guildswomen who, on the one hand, impressed her with their 'deeply hidden & inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life,' but, on the other, seemed to her 'of course ignorant' in their thinking. (46) By June 1923, Woolf was eager 'to resign [her] task of getting a monthly speaker' and soon drifted away from the Guild. (47) Woolf and Davies were regular correspondents by this point and remained so throughout the 1920s. It was in this context, in 1929, that Woolf took the lead on behalf of the Hogarth Press in organising the publication of Life as We Have Known It and that she reluctantly found herself agreeing to write a preface for the collection.

Virginia Woolf's 'Introductory Letter' to Life as We Have Known It

Woolf's preface to Life as We Have Known It reveals a number of these contexts, but notably fictionalises and conceals others. Framed as a private letter to Davies, this long essay begins by recounting Woolf's experience of the June 1913 Congress with an emphasis on her discomfort as a middle-class guest at these proceedings. She then imagines visiting the Guild Office later that summer and explaining to Davies her feelings of detachment and aversion during the Congress. A bundle of papers is produced, supposedly the origins of the autobiographical writings collected in Life as We Have Known It, which, when read years later, enable her to better understand the Congress and its Guildswomen. This framing presents Woolf as largely ignorant of the Guild and of the social and economic difficulties faced by working-class women. Yet, as the account of her activities above attests, she was far from ignorant of either at the time of writing. Indeed, though not active in the Guild by 1929-31, Woolf remained a remarkably well-informed outsider. 'A crafty reading' of this essay, Childers has suggested, 'might argue that in this preface Woolf is not presenting herself so much as her understanding of the political location of middleclass women.' (48) Once we are aware of the extent to which Woolf has fictionalised her involvement with the Guild in this text this reading becomes compelling. Woolf's knowledge of and involvement in Guild politics has been significantly obscured within this essay in order to explore the gulf between the classes from the perspective of an uninformed middle-class narrator. This positioning well serves the book's preface, designed to attract and engage a middle-class audience, by presenting Life as We Have Known It as a valuable resource through which the volume's working-class women writers might 'cease to be symbols' to their middle-class readers and emerge instead as 'individuals' (E 5, p. 233).

When Davies first invited Woolf to introduce the book she refused, however, as the essay's opening playfully recalls. On 6 June 1929, Woolf wrote to Davies that she was 'rather doubtful about doing a preface' and believed herself 'too much of a picturesque amateur' for the task. (49) She subsequently relented; Davies was, after all, the woman whom Woolf described in 1913 as able to 'compel a steam roller to waltz.' (50) Nonetheless, with a first gruelling draft of the 'Guild paper' finished in July 1930 she continued to express 'grave doubts' (L 4, p. 191). 'I have a strong feeling against introductions,' she entreated, 'and this one is full of difficulties' (L 4, p. 191). Meanwhile, Woolf had offered a revised version of her preface to the Yale Review after 'scrapp[ing] all names and otherwise abolish[ing] traces of the book' (L 4, p. 192). The essay's title in this American literary quarterly--'Memories of a Working Women's Guild'--was suggested by the managing editor, Helen McAfee. (51) As the essay was published in America in September 1930, back in Britain Woolf once more reworked her introduction in response to objections from Davies and the Guildswomen authors of Life as We Have Known It. Published in two versions and rewritten several times in collaboration with the suggestions of multiple readers/ editors, Woolf's Women's Co-operative Guild essay proved a substantial and demanding undertaking.

In addition, Woolf played a central role in the publication of Life as We Have Known It. As Davies's primary correspondent on the matter, she acknowledged receipt of the manuscripts in June 1929 (L 4, p. 65), was first to read them, and assured Davies on 25 June 1930 that 'Leonard has not yet read the papers, but will' (L 4, p. 181). The apparent conflict between Woolf's eagerness to facilitate the volume's production and her disinclination to write its preface can be explained with reference to her feminist principles and writing practices. Throughout Woolf's life-writing, Anna Snaith notes, there is a tension between Woolf's desire 'for women to write themselves into the public world, whether fictionally, biographically or autobiographically' and her conviction that women 'must not be written into the public arena as types, as political tools.' (52) The Hogarth Press's acceptance of Life as We Have Known It for publication provided a positive outlet for working-class women to write themselves into the public arena, but introducing these women's writings, particularly from an upper-middle-class viewpoint, risked stereotyping the contributors and propagandising their words. The multiple names Woolf gave this text while drafting it--she refers to it variously as a 'preface,' a 'paper,' a 'Letter,' an 'article,' an 'introduction' and as 'fiction' (53)--indicate her discomfort about writing on behalf of the volume's working-class authors and her unwillingness to define the work as a piece of journalism, editorial comment, or social critique. Woolf ultimately evaded generic classification by framing the preface as an 'Introductory Letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies.' This flexible epistolary form provided her with a premise for positioning the introduction as a private rather than an overtly propagandistic public statement, while enabling her to covertly disarm and engage the largely middle-class readership at whom the volume was aimed.

In a bid to foster identification from a middle-class reader, the essay's opening pages significantly obscure Woolf's knowledge of Guild politics. That period in which she was involved in Guild activities is eclipsed in order to imagine herself once more as the detached, middle-class observer attending the Annual Congress of the Women's Co-operative Guild in 1913. Woolf's sketch of the Congress unfolds through haphazard descriptions of people and events witnessed on that 'hot June morning in Newcastle' (E 5, p. 226). Her narrator, a version of Woolf, is perpetually unsure of details, noting 'a woman wearing something like a Lord Mayor's chain,' for example, and a Guild member 'sent ... from Devonshire, perhaps, or Sussex, or some black mining village in Yorkshire' (E 5, p. 226). The tone is distinctly middle class, expressing uncertainty without embarrassment or apology from a position of social and financial security. This uncertainty indicates the 1913 Congress is distant in memory, but it also suggests the incomprehensibility of the event to an outsider and an instinctively dismissive attitude towards people and places with which one is not, nor inclined to become, familiar. The description of 'something military in ... the proceeding' conveys the uneasiness that is shown to lie beneath the narrator's apparently nonchalant recollections (E 5, p. 226). By figuring the female speakers as 'marksmen ... standing up in turn with rifle raised to aim at a target' (E 5, p. 226), Woolf signals the latent threat these women pose to middleclass security while simultaneously undercutting this threat through implying an element of regimented obedience in their demeanour. This soldierly imagery and the class anxiety it reveals are highlighted in the Life as We Have Known It version of the essay with the extra unflattering detail of the Guildswomen's hands 'sho[oting] up stiff as swords' (E 5, p. 227). Woolf evidently wished to stress the 'weight of discomfort' that middle-class observers of the 1913 Congress were likely to feel when faced with these women 'demanding divorce, education, the vote ... higher wages and shorter hours' (E 5, p. 227). By doing so, she pre-empts and prompts her middle-class readers to admit and probe the discomfort that they may feel when encountering the frank recollections of poverty and hardship found in Life as We Have Known It.

Much of the scholarly debate surrounding this essay has centred on its portrayal of the working-class Guildswomen and the extent to which this is offensive, with critics often focussing on the question of whether or not the second version of the essay is any less offensive than the first. Writing in 1988 Marcus argued that while 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild' is 'narrated in the voice of an "irritable" middle-class visitor,' the Life as We Have Known It preface omits this cynicism following a lengthy process of revision to create a text that is 'more politically committed to the cooperative cause.' (54) Later critics have queried the extent to which the Life as We Have Known It preface really differs from 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild.' 'Though Virginia toned down her first version ... these were mere tinkerings,' Light asserts: 'The overall drift remained the same.' (55) Stuart N. Clarke notes that while Woolf 'made some concessions' in her 'Introductory Letter,' including 'some corrections [which] are pretty obviously Davies's,' she 'kept the working women's "thick-set and muscular" bodies.' (56)

If the second version of the essay is any more sensitive to the feelings of the Guildswomen and their cause this shift cannot be attributed to Woolf, who revised the essay in response to requests from Davies and the volume's authors in a state of frustration at what she saw as the 'vanity' and 'terrific conventionality of the workers' (L 4, p. 228). 'I am very pleased that Mrs Barton on the whole approves,' Woolf wrote to Davies on 10 October 1930, 'at the same time I'm amused at the importance attached to the size of the Guilders' (L 4, p. 228). 'If they cant [sic] face the fact that Lilian [Harris] smokes a pipe and reads detective novels,' she continued, 'and cant [sic] be told that they weigh on an average 12 stone--which is largely because they scrub so hard and have so many children ... how can you say that they face "reality"?' (L 4, p. 228) Woolf's responses to the Guildswomen during this revision process and in both versions of the essay repeatedly insist on the importance of acknowledging class difference. In recent years, as Gualtieri observes, this text has been consequently 'rescued' by critics keen to read it 'as testimony to Woolf's "brave" recognition of the existence of class distinctions.' (57) Like Gualtieri, I am uncomfortable with figuring this recognition as 'brave,' but it is a consciously provocative manoeuvre with potentially productive effects. Woolf's willingness to confront social inequality and difference, Childers contends, might 'help us focus on the persistent obstacles to feminist theorizing of the intersections of class, gender, and culture.' (58) In a similar manner, the narrator's diverse reactions to the 1913 Congress and its Guildswomen in each version can be interpreted as demonstrating the workings of class prejudice and throwing into relief aspects of social inequality that a well-meaning but distanced middle-class readership might find all too easy to forget.

In both versions of the essay, the narrator's discomfort when faced with the Guildswomen and their grievances at the 1913 Congress manifests itself first in distaste for the intimidating spectacle that these straight-talking working women present to a middle-class onlooker, before finally the narrator recognises the anxiety that is fuelling her prejudice. Dropping her self-assured tone, the narrator owns that her exaggerated responses to the working women's difference may stem from a troubled awareness in their presence of her class privilege: 'All these questions --perhaps this was at the bottom of it--which matter so intensely to the people here ... leave me, in my own blood and bones, untouched' (E 5, p. 227). 'If every reform they demand was granted this very instant,' she reflects in 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild,' 'it would not matter to me a single jot' (E 5, p. 178). In her 'Introductory Letter,' perhaps under the influence of Davies, Woolf heightened the impact of this assertion to claim that 'If every reform they demand was granted this very instant it would not touch one hair of my comfortable capitalistic head' (E 5, p. 227). Childers reminds us that, as an employer of female workers, 'Woolf is inaccurate' when she declares that she would not be touched by any of the improvements in education, sanitation, wages and working conditions that the Guildswomen demand. (59) Indeed, a decade later in 'The Leaning Tower' (1940), Woolf would urge her younger, male, leftist, literary contemporaries to admit their financial and intellectual dependence on the social system they denounce, noting that 'the violence of their attack upon bourgeois society' is only proportional to the amount they 'are profiting by [the] society which they abuse.' (60) In her 'Introductory Letter' to Life as We Have Known It, however, Woolf omits to acknowledge that middle-class privilege is achieved through keeping the labouring classes in a position of poverty. The essay's narrator, as Childers notes, 'usefully reveals what Woolf, or a woman in her position, may have particular trouble seeing.' (61) Interpreted from this angle, debating the extent to which either version of the essay is derogatory in its portrayal of working-class women thus begins to appear superfluous. The portrayal of class prejudice and anxiety is central to both versions of the text, through which Woolf attempts to promote a parallel interrogation of these feelings and their source within her middle-class readers.

In each variant Woolf casts herself as 'a benevolent spectator ... sit[ting] here hypocritically ... an outcast from the flock' (E 5, p. 178, p. 227). She subtly explores the power dynamic that exists between the working-class Guildswomen and their middle-class supporters by depicting the uneasy position of the narrator. The description of her 'interest' in the Guildswomen's grievances as 'thin spread and moon coloured' suggests her concern is flimsy, lacking 'life blood or urgency,' and somehow distinctly feminine (E 5, p. 227). This gendered depiction of her 'interest' evokes the philanthropic roles adopted by wealthy middle-class women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It recalls Woolf's mixed feelings during her earlier period of involvement in the Women's Co-operative Guild and her experience of other philanthropic activities, such as teaching working men and women at Morley College between 1905-7, which, as Hermione Lee has noted, 'linked Virginia Stephen to her mother's and [half-sister] Stella's world of late-Victorian good works for women.' (62) It also speaks tellingly to the contemporary literary climate of the early 1930s, within which a trend for middle-class engagement with social and political issues, often from a leftist perspective, was growing. Against this backdrop, Woolf remained deeply suspicious of the potentially hypocritical position occupied by those who express solidarity with working-class causes while benefitting from Britain's hierarchical class system. Her penultimate novel, The Years (1937), probed the motives of middle-class altruism through depicting Eleanor Pargiter's ambiguous 'relations to "the poor".' (63) Woolf's figuring of her narrator's sympathy as 'fictitious' in both versions of her Life as We Have Known It essay reflects similar concerns (E 5, p. 183, p. 233), which had developed during her earlier period of activity in the Guild and were evolving further in the literary and political environment of 1929-31.

'Woolf's refrain in all her writings that touch on class,' Mark Hussey asserts, 'is that one class is unknowable by another, a gulf the expression of which gains polemical force in her writings of the 1930s.' (64) In this early 1930s text, Woolf makes this gulf explicit. In the final section of her 'Introductory Letter,' Woolf admits her failure to adequately understand or represent her working-class subjects and quotes directly from the Guildswomen's writings instead. 'Listen ... to Mrs Scott, the felt hat worker,' she begs, or 'Mrs Layton's description of a match-box factory in Bethnal Green' (E 5, p. 238). These autobiographical sketches are approached cautiously; Woolf notes 'the chapters ... do not make a book' and '[t]he writing, a literary critic might say, lacks detachment and imaginative breadth' (E 5, p. 237). Yet she commends their 'accuracy and clarity of ... description' and, in particular, their ability to communicate, even across the class divide (E 5, p. 238). '[T]he words are simple,' the narrator muses, 'but it is difficult to see how they could say more' (E 5, p. 238). At the close of her Women's Co-operative Guild essay, Woolf suggests that the only way she and her middle-class readers can begin to know the Guildswomen is by conceding their limited viewpoint on working class experience and attending carefully to the women's own accounts of their lives.


The Women's Co-operative Guild was an energetic, progressive and influential organisation in the early decades of the twentieth century. It campaigned with vigour on a range of co-operative and social issues, both within and outside the Co-operative movement, and offered its working-class members a powerful political voice. Contact with this remarkable organisation in the 1910s and 1920s had an important impact on the writing and thinking of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. While its effect on Leonard Woolf was direct and immediate, its effect on Virginia Woolf was less overt but no less pervasive. From accompanying Leonard on his 1913 tour of Co-operative factories to chairing monthly meetings of the Guild's Richmond branch, Virginia Woolf's interactions with Margaret Llewelyn Davies, the Women's Co-operative Guild and Co-operative institutions and ideology were formative for her feminist politics. Through these activities she became acutely aware of the socio-economic differences that cut across gendered experience and this awareness later informed her Life as We Have Known It essay and is also reflected in several aspects of her wider oeuvre. Working-class characters are famously few and relatively undeveloped in Woolf's fiction, indicating her sensitivity to and fear of misrepresenting class difference, and her writing more broadly is permeated by anxieties surrounding the difficulty of accessing the internal life of another and the danger for the novelist or biographer of underestimating the complex experience of their subjects. Such concerns were present in Woolf's writing before she embarked on Guild activity, but, as this article has shown, they were considerably heightened and consolidated during this period.

When Woolf came to write a preface for Life as We Have Known It in 1929, she avoided adopting an authoritative stance by fictionalising her relationship with the Guild and framing herself as an uninformed middle-class observer at the 1913 Annual Congress. This narrative strategy aimed to engage a middle-class reader and enabled frank examination of the gulf between the classes from a middle-class viewpoint. Both versions of Woolf's essay emphasise the subjectivity of her depictions of the Guild delegates and authors and her imperfect responses are presented as further evidence of the immense divide, based on differences dictated by unequal wealth, which separates the middle classes from the working classes. Woolf's insistence on this divide, and the fictionalising of her persona in this essay, has led to much critical debate regarding her attitude towards the Guild and its working-class members. This article's exploration of the essay's social and textual history positions this debate in a new light. It reveals that Woolf's ignorance regarding the Guild and its workings in this essay was performed. It also demonstrates that her ambivalence towards the Guild and its women was underpinned by an array of conflicted responses that Woolf had experienced during her long association with the Guild and was intended to expose and prompt honest scrutiny of middle-class anxieties about social inequality and difference. Woolf was deeply interested in working-class lives, but wary of assuming the right to speak on working-class experience and issues. Both her Life as We Have Known It preface and 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild' thus prioritise the interrogation of class difference and prejudice over analysis of the social and economic obstacles facing working-class women. On that topic, reflecting the feminist principles that had evolved alongside and beyond her early Guild activity, Woolf sidesteps and allows the Guildswomen to speak for themselves.

Alice Wood

De Montfort University

Address for Correspondence

Dr Alice Wood, School of Humanities, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester, LE1 9BH.



(1) L. Woolf, 'A Democracy of Working Women,' New Statesman, 21 June 1913, 328.

(2) M. L. Davies (ed.), Life as We Have Known It: By Co-operative Working Women (London, 1931). A Virago reprint was issued in 1977. All quotations from the volume's preface in this article will be drawn from V. Woolf, 'Introductory Letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies,' in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. S. N. Clarke, Vol. 5 (London, 2009). Page numbers will be supplied in brackets following the abbreviation E 5.

(3) Virginia Woolf's Life as We Have Known It essay was first published in a variant form as 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild' in the Yale Review in September 1930. All quotations from 'Memories of a Working Women's Guild' in this article will be drawn from The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. S. N. Clarke, Vol. 5 (London, 2009). Page numbers will be supplied in brackets following the abbreviation E 5.

(4) J. Marcus, '"No More Horses": Virginia Woolf on Art and Propaganda,' in Art & Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus, 1988), pp. 118-19.

(5) M. Childers, 'Virginia Woolf on the Outside Looking Down: Reflections on the Class of Women,' Modern Fiction Studies, 38:1 (1992), 62.

(6) A. Light, Mrs Woolfand the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service (London, 2007), p. 204.

(7) E. Gualtieri, 'Woolf, Economics, and Class Politics: Learning to Count,' in B. Randall and J. Goldman (eds), Virginia Woolf in Context (Cambridge, 2012), p. 186.

(8) D. Wilson, Leonard Woolf: A Political Biography (London, 1978), p. 53.

(9) V. Glendinning, Leonard Woolf: A Life (London, 2006), p. 169. Leonard Woolf visited Keswick later in the summer of 1913 for a Fabian Society conference according to Wilson in Leonard Woolf, p. 54.

(10) L. Woolf, Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911-1918 (London, 1964), p. 114.

(11) For information on the contemporary Co-operative Women's Guild see the organisation's website; <>.

(12) P. Gurney, Co-operative Culture and the Politics of Consumption in England, 1870-1930 (Manchester, 1996), p. 19.

(13) Ibid., p. 241, p. 248. The English and Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Societies were established in 1863 and 1868 respectively.

(14) J. Birchall, Co-op: The People's Business (London, 1994), p. 97.

(15) Ibid., p. 98.

(16) G. D. H. Cole, A Century of Co-operation (Manchester, 1944), pp. 215-16.

(17) The events of the Guild's foundation detailed in this section are documented in a number of texts on the Guild's history. Guild members provide the first accounts: see M. L. Davies, The Women's Cooperative Guild, 1883-1904 (Kirkby Lonsdale, 1904) and C. Webb, The Woman with the Basket: The History of the Women's Co-operative Guild, 1883-1927 (Manchester, 1927). More recent studies include J. Gaffin and D. Thoms, Caring & Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women's Guild (Manchester, 1983), G. Scott, Feminism and the Politics of Working Women: The Women's Co-operative Guild, 1880s to the Second World War (London, 1998) and B. J. Blaszak, The Matriarchs of England's Co-operative Movement: A Study in Gender Politics and Female Leadership, 1883-1921 (Westport, CT, 2000). It should be noted that Blaszak attempts to construct an alternative narrative of the Guild's origins, in which it sprang from an initiative set by men in the movement to increase knowledge of co-operative principles, but, as Blaszak owns, this interpretation lacks documentary evidence; see The Matriarchs of England's Cooperative Movement, p. 13.

(18) Quoted in Cole, A Century of Co-operation, p. 216 (emphasis in original).

(19) M. L. Davies, 'Note on the Women's Co-operative Guild,' in M. L. Davies (ed.), Life as We Have Known It: By Co-operative Working Women (London, 1977), p. xiii.

(20) See Gaffin and Thoms, Caring & Sharing, pp. 28-9.

(21) Cole, A Century of Co-operation, p. 218.

(22) For a list of the Guild's General Secretaries and membership numbers between 1883 and 1953 see Scott, Feminism and the Politics of Working Women, p. xii.

(23) Davies, The Women's Co-operative Guild, p. 38 (emphasis in original).

(24) Scott, Feminism and the Politics of Working Women, p. 19.

(25) R. Vorberg-Rugh, 'Employers and Workers: Conflicting Identities over Women's Wages in the Co-operative Movement, 1906-1918,' in L. Black and N. Robertson (eds), Consumerism and the Co-operative Movement in Modern British History: Taking Stock (Manchester, 2009), pp. 121-37.

(26) Ibid., p. 133.

(27) Hull History Centre, U DCW/1/5, Minutes of a Meeting of the Women's Co-operative Guild Central Committee on 5 & 6 May 1910.

(28) See, Hull History Centre, U DCW/1/5, Minutes of a Meeting of the Women's Co-operative Guild Central Committee on 28 & 29 March 1912.

(29) See M. L. Davies, 'Introduction' to Maternity: Letters from Working Women (London, 1915), p. 2; National Insurance Act, 1913, p. 8, available at < ukpga/1913/37/pdfs/ukpga_19130037_en.pdf>.

(30) Hull History Centre, U DCW/1/5, Minutes of a Meeting of the Women's Co-operative Guild Central Committee on 28 & 29 September 1911, including an affixed resolution document detailing amendments sought by the Guild to the National Insurance Bill to be sent out to all branches and 'forwarded at once to all local MPs and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.'

(31) M. L. Davies, Women as Organised Consumers (Manchester, 1921), p. 8.

(32) L. Woolf, Beginning Again, p. 102.

(33) Ibid., p. 105.

(34) Wilson, Leonard Woolf, p. 50.

(35) V. Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, eds N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann, Vol. 2 (New York, 1976), pp. 18-19. All subsequent quotations from this volume will be referenced in brackets following the abbreviation L 2.

(36) Quoted in Glendinning, Leonard Woolf, p. 163 (emphasis in original).

(37) Glendinning, Leonard Woolf, p. 163.

(38) Wilson, Leonard Woolf, p. 51.

(39) L. Woolf, Beginning Again, p. 109.

(40) Ibid., p. 106.

(41) L. Woolf, 'Democracy,' p. 329.

(42) Ibid., p. 328.

(43) Ibid., p. 329.

(44) L. Woolf, Beginning Again, p. 114.

(45) H. Lee, Virginia Woolf (London, 1997), p. 360.

(46) V. Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell, Vol. 1 (New York, 1977), p. 141, p. 165.

(47) V. Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, eds N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann, Vol. 3 (New York, 1977), p. 54. Lee asserts that Woolf organised monthly meetings of the Richmond branch for four years (Virginia Woolf, p. 360), but this letter implies she continued the task well beyond 1920. Here, Woolf tells Davies she will 'again suggest giving it up in October [1923]' (L 3, p. 54).

(48) Childers, 'Woolf on the Outside Looking Down,' 67.

(49) V. Woolf, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, eds N. Nicolson and J. Trautmann, Vol. 4 (New York, 1978), p. 65. All subsequent quotations from this volume will be referenced in brackets following the abbreviation L 4.

(50) Writing to Eleanor Cecil on the subject of divorce reform on 28 May 1913 Woolf explained: 'It isnt [sic] often that I address you upon public matters, and it is now only upon compulsion from Miss Llewelyn Davies who could compel a steam roller to waltz' (L 2, p. 30).

(51) In a letter to McAfee on 27 July 1930 Woolf wrote 'I think your suggestion of a title is very good and have adopted it' (L 4, p. 193).

(52) A. Snaith, Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 45-6.

(53) See L 4, p. 65, p. 191, p. 212.

(54) Marcus, 'No More Horses,' p. 119.

(55) Light, Woolf and the Servants, p. 205.

(56) S. N. Clarke, '"A Few Cigarettes in Lilian's Ash Tray": Woolf's Revisions to her Essays,' Virginia Woolf Bulletin, 30 (2009), 17.

(57) Gualtieri, 'Woolf, Economics, and Class Politics,' p. 186.

(58) Childers, 'Woolf on the Outside Looking Down,' 63.

(59) Ibid., 67.

(60) V. Woolf, 'The Leaning Tower,' in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, ed. S. N. Clarke, Vol. 6 (London, 2011), p. 271.

(61) Childers, 'Woolf on the Outside Looking Down,' 67.

(62) Lee, Virginia Woolf, p. 222.

(63) V. Woolf, The Years, ed. H. Lee (Oxford, 1999), p. 29. Childers also notes Woolf's 'careful[] dramatizing ... of Eleanor's involvement with working-class housing in The Years' in 'Woolf on the Outside Looking Down,' 71.

(64) M. Hussey, 'Mrs. Thatcher and Mrs. Woolf,' Modern Fiction Studies, 50:1 (2004), 22.
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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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