Virginia Woolf & Vera Brittain: Pacifism and the Gendered Politics of Public Intellectualism

Article excerpt

A recent debate spurred by the publication of Richard A. Posner's Public Intellectuals (2001, 2003)--though not a matter with which he concerns himself--centers on questions of authority and valuation: that is, how one determines which cultural figures qualify as "public intellectuals," and who is qualified to make those determinations. The act of naming public intellectuals appears to be as much inflected by an individual's cultural, gender, and ideological biases as by his or her politics, background, and operating definitions. Such acts, moreover, are powerfully inflected by the omissions, and politics, of literary and intellectual history.

Several recently compiled lists of public intellectuals reflect a broader tendency among academics and intellectuals to discredit or elide the role that women have played historically, and continue to play, as producers of cultural and social knowledge circulating in the public domain. The list of "Britain's Top 100 Intellectuals" selected by the editors of Britain's Prospect magazine for its centennial issue in July 2004, for example, included only twelve women, leading a commentator in the Guardian to reflect how "a female 'public' intellectual is rarely regarded with the same deference as her male counterpart" (Barton). The lists of "100 Top Global Intellectuals" compiled in 2005 and 2008 by Prospect, and Foreign Policy likewise included only ten women among their ranks. (1) And of the 546 prominent intellectuals (both past and present) included on Richard Posner's list, only 13.2% are women and 4.8% are black (194-207). (2) That Posner includes writers of the early twentieth century rather than focusing exclusively on contemporary intellectuals invites us to consider how literary history has helped to shape this list, and the ways in which the politics of literary canonization continue to dominate contemporary discourse on the subject of public intellectualism.

With the exception of Rebecca West, Posner's list of early-twentieth century British intellectuals reads as a who's-who of high modernism and the "Auden Generation," a parade of cultural insiders who have managed to be remembered: W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Harold Laski, F. R. Leavis, George Orwell, Ezra Pound, Stephen Spender, Lytton Strachey, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats. The failure of notable British female public intellectuals to "make the cut"--among whom we might count Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson, Nancy Cunard, Naomi Mitchison, Winifred Holtby, Lady Margaret Rhonnda, Shena Simon, Ray Strachey, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Margery Fry, Jane Ellen Harrison, Helena Swanwick, Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and many others--obstructs our knowledge of their actual public interventions while perpetuating the omissions of intellectual history. (3)

Given that the female intellectuals above were fully and variously immersed in public dialogues over women's suffrage, the expansion of legal rights and educational and professional opportunities for women, racism, socialism, communism, imperialism, the rise of fascism, and the prevention of war, it would be erroneous to infer that their exclusion is justified by their absence from the public sphere; rather, it reflects the fact that "thirties women's writing has had little claim to the reserved public spaces that structure scholarly discussion" (Bluemel 65). Though famously heralded by Samuel Hynes as the "Auden Generation," the 1930s were characterized by a massive outpouring of writing by women, a fact realized by their contemporaries but later eclipsed by retrospective accounts of the period that emphasized instead the writing of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and George Orwell. A similar critical preoccupation with the conservative political tendencies of male modernists including Ezra Pound, T. …