Professions for Women in Which Essay

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When conducting an ideological critique, the researcher must be concerned with the way ideology is evidenced (or repressed) in the artifact, and a useful concept for identifying these "traces of ideology" is the notion of the ideograph, or the "political language which manifests ideology," which, according to Michael McGee, is "characterized by slogans" (Foss 248, McGee 5). McGee argues "that ideology in practice is a political language, preserved in rhetorical documents," and as such, can be identified in rhetorical artifacts via the "vocabulary of ideographs" frequently deployed in speech. Here it is important to note the importance of context, because in general McGee identifies ideographs as particular words, but one need not view these specific words as eternally and always ideographs; that is to say, these specific words may be identified as ideographs "by the usage of such terms in specifically rhetorical discourse, for such usage constitute excuses for specific beliefs and behaviors made by those who executed the history of which they were a part" (McGee 16). For example, while "woman" may not always be deployed as an ideograph (except inasmuch as all language is ideology in a general sense), it seems entirely reasonable to interpret Woolf's particular use of "woman" as an ideograph with "a history, an etymology, such that current meanings of the term are linked to past usages of it diachronically," precisely because she is discussing it in terms of its changing meaning, and furthermore, because it relates to the other ideographs she deploys "to produce unity of commitment in a particular historical context," such that it is "connected to all others as brain cells are linked by synapses, synchronically in one context at one specific moment" (McGee 16). In other words, one may begin to identity the traces of ideology in Woolf's "Professions for Women" by identifying those rhetorical aspects, such as certain words, metaphors, and images, which function diachronically in order to transform or extend "the parameters, the category, of [their] meanings, as well as synchronically in order to constitute the larger argument of her rhetoric.

Thus, to begin this ideological critique of Woolf's "Professions for Women," one may begin by considering her particular use of the terms "woman" and "women," as they appear as the most obvious ideographs in the entire text, as evidenced by the subject matter itself and the historical audience of Woolf's address. That Woolf is explicitly engaged in a diachronic consideration of women is clear through her discussion of the Angel in the House, because she explicitly concerns herself with exercising this particular notion of "woman" from the general ideograph. She desires to metaphorically "kill" the Angel in the House, because she views it as a practical limitation both professionally and politically. Even as she does this, however, she remarks that she does not know "what is a woman," because she believes that nobody can know "until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill," and thus "transcend the institutional limits of mere professionalism and instead form the vital phalanx that will lead the masses toward utopia," or a least a more equitable treatment of the sexes (Woolf, Women and Writing 60, Miller 40). She suggests that it is actually her audience who will answer this question, those women "who are in process of showing us by [their] experiments what a woman is, who are in process of providing us, by [their] failures and successes, with that extremely important piece of information" (Woolf, Women and Writing 60). Here, Woolf essentially predicts the difficulties faced by subsequent "waves" of feminism, because "the struggle to define and claim feminist identity" depends most essentially on multifarious and problematic constructions of what it means to be a woman (Tate 1). Thus, "woman" functions as an ideograph in "Professions for Women" because it is essentially discussed as such; Woolf is explicitly interested in defining the word both in terms of diachronic and synchronic capacity, and is doing so in the service of a particular ideology that will become clear by the end of this discussion (if it has not already).

Furthermore, the particular way she uses and describes women reveals the underlying assumptions and premises that constitute her ideology, as well those ideologies she is attempting to deprivilege. For example, she early on she notes that within literature, "there are fewer experiences for women than in any other, with the exception of the stage -- fewer, I mean, that are peculiar to women" (Woolf, Women and Writing 57). As mentioned above, she also suggests that "women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in the other professions," and notes with some surprise and happiness that at the time of her speech, she was "surrounded by women practicing for the first time in history I know not how many different professions" (Woolf, Women and Writing 58, 63). By focusing on these newfound opportunities for women, Woolf implicitly describes the ideologies which have previously kept these opportunities out of reach, above and beyond the explicit discussion of the Angel in the House. Woolf's argument is premised on the assumption that her audience shares her observations regarding the difficulties faced by women in the professional sphere, and likewise that they are aware of the underlying ideologies that construct and maintain these difficulties.

That these ideologies can only be discussed implicitly is actually one the problems Woolf proposes, because "even when the path is nominally open -- when there is nothing to prevent a woman from becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant -- there are many phantoms and obstacles […] looming in her way," such that "to discuss and define them is […] of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved" (Woolf, Women and Writing 62). Woolf is essentially describing the simultaneous utility and drawbacks of ideographs, because while they are useful inasmuch as they allow the rhetor to conjure up a whole complex of ideas through relatively simple deployments of language, the rhetor's reliance on them means that arguments can only be made to the extent that ideographs allow. When "phantoms and obstacles" are ill-defined and implicit, restrictive ideologies can exert power while remaining shielded from criticism.

Identifying the implicit and explicit rhetorical elements that Woolf uses in her essay, including the Angel in the House, the nebulous concept of "woman," and the presuppositions that her address depends on, one can now begin to formulate a more robust picture of the dominant ideology expressed in "Professions for Women." In short, one may summarize this ideology by suggesting that it is constituted by the following core propositions, that will be explicated in greater detail below: firstly, that women and men are in all meaningful respects equal, at least when it comes to professional or political capability. Secondly, that there exists an ideology or set of ideologies which has heretofore claimed the opposite, and not only that, but has also, in practice, attempted to justify this claim by maintaining standards of behavior and attitude that preclude women from demonstrating their equal capability. Thirdly, that the most effective means of countering these repressive ideologies is to define and confront them directly, through a simultaneous reappropriation of political, rhetorical language in the form of ideographs as well as action that directly contradicts the propositions of these repressive ideologies.

The first core proposition of Woolf's ideology is expressed only implicitly in her essay, although she discusses it directly in a Room of One's Own, particularly in the thought experiment regarding Shakespeare's imagined sister (and it seems reasonable to presume that her audience was aware of this earlier argument) (Woolf, a Room of One's Own). In "Professions for Women," this proposition is implicit but obvious, because the entirety of Woolf's argument depends upon the assumption that women are equal to men in terms of professional capability; otherwise there would be no point in discussing the obstacles and difficulties faced by women, because they would be abundantly clear. That is to say, if Woolf believed that women were inherently inferior to men in terms of professional capability, then the problems they faced would not be in the form of "phantoms" and ill-defined obstacles, but rather their obvious, inherent limitations as women, and as such there would be little need to discuss them, other than to bemoan the fact of their existence.

The second core proposition is evident much more explicitly in "Professions for Women," most obviously because Woolf discusses one of the ideographic representations of this repressive ideology in the form of the Angel in the House. The Angel in the House serves the dual ends of this repressive ideology because it simultaneously proposes that women are naturally more inclined towards activities outside the professional realm, and it attempts to provide evidence for this proposition by instructing women to behave as if this were the case. In other words, the Angel in…[continue]

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