In 1932, Woolf delivered a lecture to the National Society for Women’s Service which was later edited and published in an essay collection. Titled “Professions for Women,” this speech encourages women to strive for their professional goals but be aware of challenges that will always exist for women.
Already a successful author, Woolf tells her audience about the obstacles she encountered while forging a writing career. Initially, she was haunted by a “phantom”—the Victorian feminine ideal embodied by the heroine of the famous poem, “The Angel in the House.” Woolf was constantly distracted by the Angel, who 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.
Woolf’s writing—or anyone’s work for herself and not the household—took her away from the duties of a stereotypical self-sacrificing caretaker. To the Angel, nothing was hers; everything was in relation to others. Most importantly, she did not harbor any healthy, adult sexual desire.
The Angel advises Woolf to
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.
In fact, the Angel does have agency and can think—she just chooses (or knows no other way) to wield her female intelligence and charm to get what she wants and control her “pure” image.
Woolf confesses that she killed the Angel and does so repeatedly it to continue pursuing a career. She implies to her audience that they will need to do the same.
Additional obstacles they will confront are constraints by patriarchal society on what a woman should and should not think and do. Women’s unconscious and unfettered imaginations confront socially imposed limitations. In an extended metaphor where a female fisherman releases her fishing line freely like her imagination, she is punished by a violent and unproductive catch:
there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. The girl was roused from her dream. She was indeed in a state of the most acute and difficult distress. To speak without figure she had thought of something, 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.
Fruits of women’s imaginations are crushed and admonished until she can imagine no longer:
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.
Woolf warns her audience there will always be obstacles for women in any profession:
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.
Despite these challenges, her advice to the women in her audience (who belong to a younger generation and hopefully more liberated society) is to take advantage of any tools you have to strive for your professional goals:
You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labor and effort, to pay the rent. You are earning your five hundred pounds a year. But this freedom is only a beginning—the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are able to ask them; for the first time you are able to decide for yourselves what the answers should be.
Use your empty room, income, autonomy, and any freedom they afford to work and reach for professional and creative rewards. Woolf reportedly wrote in her diary that this speech was like a sequel to “A Room of One’s Own.” Her message is: you have the room—now adorn and utilize it for your own purpose.