Virginia Woolf’s Aggressive Social Coercion on White Feathers

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Virginia Woolf’s analysis of white-feather giving exemplifies the aggressive social coercion associated with that practice. The giving of white feathers was a prevalent, influential practice that spread from Britain to British colonies as far flung as Canada and Australia. Writing shortly before the outbreak of World War II, prominent English writer Virginia Woolf declared:

External observation would suggest that a man still feels it a peculiar insult to be taunted with cowardice by a woman in much the same way that a woman feels it a peculiar insult to be taunted with unchastity by a man. The following quotation supports this view. Mr Bernard Shaw writes: ‘I am not forgetting the gratification that war gives to the instinct of pugnacity and admiration of courage that are so strong in women . . . In England on the outbreak of war civilized young women rush about handing white feathers to all young men who are not in uniform. This,’ he continues, ‘like other survivals from savagery is quite natural,’ and he points out that ‘in old days a woman’s life and that of her children depended on the courage and killing capacity of her mate.’ Since vast numbers of young men did their work all through the war in offices without any such adornment, and the number of ‘civilized young women’ who stuck feathers in coats must have been infinitesimal compared with those who did nothing of the kind, Mr Shaw’s exaggeration is sufficient proof of the immense psychological impression that fifty or sixty feathers (no actual statistics are available) can still make.^

Women giving white feathers to men to shame them into fighting in the trenches of the Great War was an elite-led activity. Men taunting women with unchastity was not an elite-led activity. Shaming women about unchastity doesn’t push women into circumstances of grave bodily risk. Woolf’s analogizing the two is a remarkable act of verbal aggression. Such aggression is pervasive in Woolf’s account.

Virginia Woolf suggested that women pinned on men only fifty or sixty white feathers, added the jabbing parenthetical “no actual statistics are available,” and ignored the systemic effects of shaming men. Decades after the giving of white feathers, crude means of soliciting information about the giving of white feathers documented over 200 such events.^ A fair reading of historical sources indicates that the practice was prevalent and probably occurred thousands of times. In contrast to her statistical jab at the giving of white feathers, Woolf is content with one quotation in support of an unspecified “external observation” on a sex difference not qualified temporally or culturally. Woolf’s account then obscures the effects of the general culture of shaming men on their enlistment to fight in World War I. That’s either psychologically obtuse or deliberately deceptive.^ In either case, Woolf described one quote as “sufficient proof” for the immense psychological impression that white feathers made on men. The forceful effect is to belittle and trivialize men’s experience of receiving white feathers.

Virginia Woolf’s approach has been highly influential among subsequent scholars. Some have threateningly declared that attention to the white feather campaign is “primarily misogynistic propaganda meant to discredit women and hid the more significant achievements of feminist pacifists.”^ Confronting such a threat, historians, particularly male historians, have prudently avoided the subject. One historian, however, has recently found a way to speak about the subject. In her book Blood of Our Sons, which won the 2003 North American Conference on British Studies Annual Book Prize, Professor Nicoletta Gullace shows “how the assault on civilian masculinity led directly to women’s suffrage.”^ That’s a highly creative means to establish not only room to discuss the white feather campaign, but also impeccable justification for it.

Gullace’s Blood of Our Sons makes women’s interests central to life-denying coercion of men. Gullace’s work concerns women’s wishes and what’s expected of men: “Gullace reveals that the war had revolutionary implications for women who wished to vote and for men who were expected to fight.”^ Apparently recognizing the immense symbolic power of Virginia Woolf among literary and academic elites, Gullace declares, “Woolf rightly argues that the number of women who ‘stuck feathers in coats must have been infinitesimal compared with those who did nothing of the kind.'” That’s a rightful observation only with a most unrightfully literal reading of Woolf’s text. Gullace goes on to describe as “profound” Woolf’s psychological analysis of white feathers.^ Surely a man who thinks, and thinks otherwise, should be afraid to write about this subject, just as British men were afraid not to enlist to fight in the Great War.

Wartime Economics of Punishing Men

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Wartime is associated with a significant increase in the public value of men. Mobilizing a large number of well-motivated men to fight has been highly important to success in war. Many men have considered fighting and dying in war, under the political authority governing one’s community and for a just cause, to be virtuous, responsible, and a worthy sacrifice. Other men have served only under either informal or formal conscription. In either case, the need for men to fight has been well-recognized publicly during wartime.

An increase in the public value of men best explains the reduction in the ratio of men per woman suffering life-disposing punishment during periods of war. Military service is not typically considered a substitute for punishment. However, the wartime increase in the public value of men raises the opportunity cost of disposing of men in punishment. The administration of justice typically involves considerable discretion.^ ^ Hence changes in the public value of men can affect the extent of male criminal punishment without any changes in formal criminal law.