Angel in the House

Barbara Wahl Ledingham
First-prize winner (tie) - essay

In an essay titled "Professions for Women" read to the Women's Service League in 1931 Virginia Woolf discussed two impediments in her work as a professional woman writer. The first was the torment she endured at the hands of the "Angel in the House," a personal phantom named after the heroine of a famous poem. This phantom continuously attempted to convince her that women should not deal freely and openly with questions of human relations, morality, or sex. Rather, "they must charm, they must conciliate, they must - to put it bluntly - tell lies if they are to succeed." *(p. 170) Whenever Woolf began to write, the phantom appeared.

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. (pp. 168-170)

Yet the phantom could not easily be dismissed.

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. (p. 168)

Woolf's necessary murder of the Angel in House was hard-won:

Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the ink pot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her. (p. 170)

The second impediment, "telling the truth about my own experiences as a body," Woolf did not solve by murdering the angel. "I doubt that any woman has solved it yet," she said. "The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful - and yet they are difficult to define." (p. 172)

Speaking in the third person of her experiences as a woman novelist and the inhibitions she encountered speaking truthfully about sex, Woolf says,

She had thought of something about the body, about the passions, which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. The trance was over. Her imagination could work no longer. This I believe to be a very common experience with women writers - they are impeded by the extreme conventionality of the other sex. For though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt that they realize or can control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women. (P. 172)

In a compilation of women's autobiographies, Written by Herself, Jill Ker Conway departed from both the male version of that convention, which derived from classical models - the plot, often borrowed from the Odyssey, in which the narrator emerged victorious from his heroic journey to claim his faithful Penelope - and the female version, the archetypal romantic plot in which the heroine must die tragically. She introduced her anthology with "slave narratives, accounts by women of their sexual exploitation in slavery and their dramatic and heroic breaks for freedom," (Conway, p. viii) narratives that Conway recovered and pieced together from long-buried archives. In her memoirs, she pointed out that women's stories had not typically been viewed as heroic. Even women like Margaret Sanger and Jane Addams, strong women who often acted decisively, had to present themselves passively "as embodiments of romantic femininity," according to Conway, in order to garner support from their audiences. They found it necessary to behave as if they were women to whom things happened rather than people who shaped events. Conway felt that this stance kept women from having an identity or a history that extended beyond domestic life. (Conway, pp x-xi)

Young women today are faced with, on the one hand, more possibilities than ever before, and on the other, more mixed and damaging messages. The media inundate American culture with the "ideal" feminine image - erotic and naked. Models and actresses young girls emulate appear in public with scant clothing, visible and often surgically enhanced breasts, endorsing the perception that women must bare their bodies (which must be perfect) in order to be recognized. Compact disks, posters, dolls, and other products for children are packaged with seductive female images. Rolling Stone magazine (as well as many others) is routinely emblazoned with images of nearly naked female celebrities in seductive poses. Men, on the other hand, for the most part appear fully clothed. There is a dignity and seriousness (and safety) to being clothed. Their bellies do not hang out nor do their chests, backs, or butts.

"To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren't is to learn inequality in little ways all day long," argues contemporary author Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth. In that book, Wolf suggests that the upsurge in violent sexual imagery in sado-masochism and beauty pornography in advertising takes its energy from male anger and female guilt at women's access to power.

"Images that turn women into objects or eroticize the degradation of women have arisen to counterbalance women's recent self-assertion," Wolf argues, "and act to keep men and women apart wherever the restraints of religion, law and economics have grown too weak to continue the work of sustaining the sex war." Wolf contends that "the last thing the consumer index wants men and women to do is figure out how to love one another. The 1.5 trillion dollar retail sales industry depends on sexual estrangement between men and women and is fueled by sexual dissatisfaction." Ads do not sell sex, she claims, but rather sexual discontent. (Wolf, p. 142)

Emulating the ideal to which many young girls aspire is confusing at best, as to walk down the street resembling it is to risk being leered at, scorned, whistled and honked at, spoken to suggestively, and otherwise treated badly. Even when dressed appropriately with all their clothes on, young girls and women, especially those who stand out in any way, attractive or not, are shamed, humiliated, disparaged (attitudes they eventually internalize), and made to feel unsafe by everyone from men on the street to boys their own age to their friend's fathers. A culture that impels them to flaunt their sexuality while putting them in danger for flaunting it results in a complex double bind that operates below consciousness to jam the radar. Hollywood images of Britney Spears flanked by snakes and smoke and male dancers who surround and envelop her with gestures that appear to mix adoration with overt sexual suggestiveness do not translate to the streets and schools of our towns and cities.

To young girls with little power and only a vague, undifferentiated sense of danger, Britney's come hither/get lost routine of simultaneously rubbing against and pushing her admirers away is a compelling image to emulate. Its effects, though demeaning in reality, are often interpreted as desirable since to inspire such attention is mistaken as power. Young women's wish to be desired obfuscates their consciousness of themselves as prey. Complicating that, the attention bestowed upon the more attractive ones for arousing desire in males often isolates them from other girls and women who envy them for their own deficiency toward the ideal while the less attractive girls are scorned, either one risking the label "slut," a punishing form of socializing girls who do not fit into acceptable versions of girlhood.

To be enslaved to false ideals of beauty has a two-pronged effect: first, it ensures that females compete with each other to seek out males; second, it focuses them on looks and desirability instead of on the development of their own profound gifts and abilities. Young women internalize these negative attitudes toward themselves, unconsciously colluding with their position as prey and victim. They also carry them into their friendships, marriages, and work places, and unwittingly pass them on to their daughters.

Contemporary shows such as Ally McBeal and Sex and the City depict successful career-oriented women in their mid-thirties who spend much of their time unhealthily obsessed with men and (mostly) casual sex, neither of which seem to work out very well. On the one hand, such programming draws attention to women's professional success. On the other, it depicts women as shallow and obsessed with relationships while good-natured men seem to be along for the ride. While it makes for humorous (though sometimes shocking) entertainment and there is at times a stunning degree of insight, women, in spite of their successful work lives, are over-focused on men, some of whom display serious flaws. The unfortunate conclusion seems to be that as long as women are independent and successful, their relationships with men will be short and destabilizing.

In one episode of Sex and the City, for instance, Carrie (the narrator) muses about faking orgasms in relation to faking entire relationships (women are, after all, no strangers to faking - fake hair color, fake cup size, fake fur...) and asks whether it is better to fake it than to be alone. In another episode's introduction, the camera pans over blonde after blonde sitting on bar stools - men hovering near them - as Carrie narrates how "hordes of women" flock to Manhattan's bars and restaurants on Saturday nights "hoping to get to their final destination: holy matrimony," a statement that seems conspicuously inappropriate in the 21st century. Another episode claims that hundreds of thousands of women will spend $400.00 on a pair of strappy shoes (the camera pans women's feet) - yet they are alone.

In an episode titled "The Freak Show" Carrie is so wary of meeting "freaks" - single men over thirty - that when she finally meets someone nice, she sabotages it by conducting a search of his apartment while he's off at a soccer game in an attempt to expose his hidden flaws. She comes across a box she defines as his "secret box of freakdom" which she is attempting to pry open when he comes back unexpectedly (desiring to spend the day with her instead of soccer) and catches her in the act. When he slides the unlocked lid open, revealing boy scout badges and paraphernalia, Carrie comes face to face with her own freak, "the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity." As there is no capacity for depth between the sexes, the relationship ends. A grievous mistake has been made and is apparently irreversible.

In spite of all their "sexual liberation" it seems that the characters in Sex and the City are so emotionally unbalanced that they are only slightly more evolved than Jane Austen's female characters who become physically ill when rejected by the man of their dreams. The contemporary illness is witnessed in the act of simply moving to the next experience (or trying on the experiences of men - such as having sex without emotional attachment.) The focus is on break-up rules, and recipes for how long it takes to get over a man, rather than on any in-depth examinations about what went wrong.

The driving force behind these programs is the characters' doomed repetitions. The female characters repeatedly compromise their authentic need for intimacy by settling (at least temporarily) for men who exhibit gross inadequacies while the men repeatedly portray an inability to care: they sniff at or eat or play with whatever happens to be in front of them. Though neither sex is reflected in a positive light, it is the women who suffer the lack of connection between the sexes. The price for not supporting men in the usual ways seems to be intimacy. Though the questions about sexual issues - can a woman have sex like a man; should one have sex on the first date; is oral sex obligatory - seem shallow, they raise some pertinent investigations into rapidly changing sex roles. As with all sitcoms, even partial resolution would spoil the shows' run as well as ruin all the unsafe sex fun. However, viewers are left to draw the unfortunate conclusion that as long as women are independent, successful, and sexually liberated, their relationships with men will be short and destabilizing.

While I was growing up (not quite a Baby Boomer - front end of Gen X) the boundaries that held previous generations in place were breaking down and more girls were straying from traditional ways of behaving - believing naively that things had changed overnight simply by virtue of the women's movement. One was either a good girl or a bad, rebellious or a cheerleader, part of the system or a subversive. When we invaded boys' basketball courts and running tracks, we were entering territory previously accessible only to males. To us it seemed unremarkable (why wasn't it always thus?) but the boys felt that we were infringing on their turf. They expressed their hostility by criticizing us. As an eleven-year old girl attempting to play on an all girls' basketball team, I was criticized (by the boys) for the way my breasts moved when I ran, for the way I held, dribbled, and threw the ball, and for apparently "just standing there," which really meant that I wasn't aggressive or "boyish"' enough to play the game. (Had I been more aggressive, other names would certainly have been applied).

Exempting their hostility, boys, to me, were amazing. I watched with awe their determination, their focus, their lack of self-consciousness when they hit a ball or ran the bases. I marveled at how unconcerned how they looked when they were involved in the simple completion of a task, how indifferent they were to appearing competitive or aggressive. The down side of that lack of self-consciousness appeared in their vigorous and very public burps, in how they would spit in that particular way that involved gathering all their "loogie" (not a dictionary term) into the bowl of their mouth with a sound resembling a running garbage disposal and eject it at the edge of your toe.

In contrast, we were hyper-conscious of ourselves - our bodily functions, our weight, our shoe size, our appearance. We were exquisitely aware of how we looked hitting a ball and endeavored to master it in such a way that was both competent and non-threatening. We were socialized to focus on everything outside of ourselves - who was noticing us, who was talking about us, how we looked to others. That kind of focus cares what others think; it functions as an inhibitor. The kind of focus boys have doesn't.

In junior high (that bastion of unkindness) we were called upon to support the boys and their exploits, and to compete with each other. One way to do this was by becoming a cheerleader, but since there weren't enough slots for everybody, symbolic cheer-leading was the next best thing. This was not in the curriculum or a spoken thing; it was a complex hierarchy of unwritten social codes supported by teachers, coaches, administrators and parents. Those of us with variant ideas about ourselves who acted out our own hopes and ambitions or acted in ways that were unconventional or even if we just stood out in an uncheer-leader like way for one reason or another were considered aberrant and thereby crucified.

As young women in high school and college, aspiring to be successful in our chosen fields, we assumed that obtaining our credentials would be the hard part and denied mounting evidence to the contrary that we waded through daily. On the one hand, these scenarios were remarkable (in hindsight) for their blatant sexism, though most of us considered them just a series of personal affronts. On the other, the sexism they embodies was so insidious that it was comparable to the unquestioned absence of women everywhere including the history books and such weighty documents as the Constitution, in which white men were granted the right to vote by white men, and the Declaration of Independence, where "these truths are held to be self-evident" that all men are "created equal" and "endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights...."

Even when the path is nominally open - when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant - there are many phantoms and obstacles as I believe looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved. But besides this, it is necessary also to discuss the ends and aims for which we are fighting, for which we are doing battle with these formidable obstacles. Those aims cannot be taken for granted; they must be perpetually questioned and examined.

Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she still has many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. And if this is so in literature, the freest of all professions for women, how is it in the new professions which you are now for the first time entering? (p. 173)

We still live in a time when a woman president is not a reality; where a woman like Hillary Rodham, successful and ambitious in her own right, eventually caves to public pressure to add Clinton to her name; where the Equal Rights Amendment has not been adopted and where women encounter daily small and large inequities as they manage marriages, children, and hostile work environments. There are many threats still, not only to women's healthy acquisition of power but also to understanding and integrating female power in such a way that it is not just a replica of male power. There are many obstacles to overcome in an age where many women do not want to identify themselves as feminists and lookism is one of the ways young women are socialized by the culture.

The magnitude of the beauty culture's influence, according to Wolf, is proportional to the threat that women's abilities and talents pose to the status quo. There are no easy answers and the complexities only mount. As Virginia Woolf said repeatedly, there are many ghosts to fight, phantoms to slay. We have to be alert to what the questions are and avoid dallying with the wrong questions, AS the women in Sex and the City do when they hook up with men who watch pornography or men who push their heads toward their crotches every time they are alone together. Becoming prematurely intimate with men who are like the fat bully on the block is one of the ways our radar gets jammed.

Asking the germane question is imperative and requires us to stay close to our gut feelings and instincts as well as staying conscious. It requires an inner journey - a heroic journey that calls for a screening out of cultural norms as well as a refusal to receive other's projections and assessments of who we are. This requires a decision to live according to what is right for us, and an ability to determine that free of - or at least with a critical eye on - cultural edicts. There have been casualties: so many of our idols - Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Diane Arbus, Louise Bogan, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Woolf herself - self-destructed on their heroic journeys.

We must claim and have knowledge of our feminists, our artists, our mothers, our leaders, and our organizers, women like Susan B. Anthony, who devoted fifty years to fighting for women's rights and died eleven years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, was ratified, or Margaret Sanger, founder and leader of the American birth control movement, who brought birth control to this country after she was repeatedly exposed to women weakened and dying from the stress of continuous childbirth. All of these women acted despite persecution. Their sacrifice is responsible for many of the rights we take for granted today, but the biggest challenge is confronting our own Angel in the House, our own inner phantom, the one that keeps us from saying what we mean, acting on our own inner impulses, claiming our own sexual experience, and defining and owning our own lives.

With a kind of uncanny prescience, Woolf's words follow us seventy years later, haunting us with their veracity and timelessness. They are a gauge by which to measure not only our exterior accomplishments but also our inner state, and they serve as a warning not to lose consciousness or become apathetic about either realm.

For the road was cut many years ago - by Fanny Burney, by Aphra Behn, by Harriet Martineau, by Jane Austen, by George Eliot - many famous women and many more unknown and forgotten, have been before me, making the path smooth, and regulating my steps. (p. 167)

© Barbara Wahl Ledingham

*All Virginia Woolf quotes in this piece are taken from Virginia Woolf's essay, "Professions For Women," read to the Women's Service League in 1931. The Woolf essay exists in several versions in different anthologies as it was an essay she also gave as a talk. The version used here comes from the book Virginia Woolf by Monique Nathan, New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Barbara Wahl Ledingham has had poetry published in various anthologies and literary journals as well as an essay "Dreams and the Creative Process" published in Dream International Quarterly. Her short fiction "Containment Vessel" was published by Synapse. She completed the University of Washington Writer's Program in 1999.

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