Published in 1938, as Europe drifted towards war with the rise of fascism in Europe, Three Guineas is a companion piece to Virginia Woolf’s earlier polemic A Room of One’s Own. The common themes are; women and education, and the need for women to be economically independent. The question Woolf discusses in Three Guineas is how women can prevent war when they are excluded from education, the professions, and the public sphere. The title Three Guineas derives from Woolf pondering whether she should support three causes with a guinea donation – these being; a society to stop war, a campaign to support the rebuilding of a women’s college, and an organization to promote women’s employment in the professions.
Woolf had been observing the rise of fascism in Europe with a keen interest. She was well aware that many of the newly gained women’s rights in Germany were being eroded as Nazism forced women to readopt traditional roles. Woolf was concerned that a similar situation could occur in Britain. Three Guineas is essentially a critique of patriarchy. Woolf made the link between patriarchal family life and its connection to fascism. The oppression of domestic life for women is reflected in the oppression of women in society. This argument was very contentious at the time but has gained currency since the late 1960s when feminist commentators argued that the private is the political. Woolf maintained that war was a product of men’s socialised norms of violence, competition, and domination. These norms were embedded through the structures of education, and the professions. Women, being excluded from these structures, developed different values. Woolf recognised that to have any influence women must take part in the public sphere, but she argued, women should retain their difference and not adopt the very attitudes that they needed to change.
Three Guineas is a relatively neglected work of Woolf’s that deserves greater attention as it is central to an understanding Woolf’s feminism. Her linking of the private and the public, and how the structures of patriarchal society lead to militarism is still a challenging argument for today’s world.