The Victorian roots of #MeToo

Black and white image of Virginia Woolf sat on sofa.

Trigger warning: assault/abuse

Pioneering feminist writer Virginia Woolf was never afraid to shine a light on the darkest of subjects. Her portrayal of the female experience resonates with women around the world today.

Once again, a high-profile rape and murder has focused the attention of the public, and the media, on gender-based violence. This led me to compare Virginia Woolf’s depiction of a menacing encounter in her 1937 novel, The Years to the contemporary state of affairs.

In The Years, Virginia Woolf introduces us to Rose Pargiter, a vibrant little girl of ten, strong-willed and outspoken. We get the sense that she does not entirely fit the mould of a well brought-up, upper middle class Victorian child. Her father seems fond, if detached:

‘Grubby little ruffian,’ he said, pinching Rose by the ear as he passed her. She put her hand at once over the stain on her pinafore’ (Woolf, 2002). The stain symbolic of both the carelessness of a child, Rose’s inability to please a demanding father and of course, the original sin.

And Rose has a mind of her own:

‘I want to go to Lamley’s,’ said Rose. She looked the image of her father, standing there with her hands behind her back. ‘It’s too late for Lamley’s,’ said Eleanor. ‘They don’t shut till seven,’ said Rose. ‘Then ask Martin to go with you,’ said Eleanor. The little girl moved off slowly towards the door. Eleanor took up her account-books again. ‘But you’re not to go alone, Rose; you’re not to go alone,’ she said, looking up over them as Rose reached the door. Nodding her head in silence, Rose disappeared’ (Woolf, 2002).

Thwarted in her desire to visit a corner sweet shop, and despite having been forbidden to go out alone, Rose devises a bold plan to go, although it is getting dark.

‘Now the adventure has begun, Rose said to herself as she stole on tiptoe to the night nursery. Now she must provide herself with ammunition and provisions; she must steal Nurse’s latchkey; but where was it?’ (Woolf, 2002).

For Rose, the secret trip to the sweet shop is an adventure. By framing it as such, Woolf builds up the dramatic tension and emphases the child’s innocence. She evokes the playful imagination of childhood with the image of Rose ‘on tiptoe’ escaping the ‘night nursery’.

But the daring little girl, Rose, has to learn a harsh lesson; that little girls are vulnerable and must not venture out alone after dark. As women have had to learn, down the ages and up to the present day, Rose learns that rebellious female behaviour that does not conform to social norms will be punished for stepping outside the lines.

On her way to and from the shop, Rose encounters a menacing stranger. ‘He put out his arm as if to stop her. He almost caught her. She dashed past him. The game was over’ (Woolf, 2002).

As soon as this menacing figure emerges from the shadows, the game is over. Rose feels profoundly uncomfortable and scared. Rose may pull her imaginary pistol but the man’s body itself is a more deadly weapon. Here Woolf taps into the fear which is an intrinsic part of the female experience. The mere presence of a man is dangerous. Many women have an ingrained fear of walking alone and hearing following footsteps; the fear of the prey, sensing the exultation of the hunter.

At the sweet shop, Rose says: ‘I want the box of ducks in the window’, reminding us again that she is a child. The presence of the stranger, the implied menace of the man destroys Rose’s innocence and puts an end to her childlike imaginings as ‘the story no longer worked. Melrose Avenue remained Melrose Avenue. She looked down it. There was the long stretch of bare street in front of her’ (Woolf, 2002).

‘Suddenly, as she passed the lamp-post, she saw the man again. He was leaning with his back against the lamp-post, and the light from the gas lamp flickered over his face. As she passed he sucked his lips in and out. He made a mewing noise. But he did not stretch his hands out at her; they were unbuttoning his clothes’ (Woolf, 2002).

Even as a child, Rose understands the sexual implications of the man’s actions. This passage is notable for being almost journalistic in style, akin to Orwell’s 1984. Its staccato rhythm has none of Woolf’s usual poetic, lyrical cadences, accentuating the harsh reality of the situation. The terse, everyday language is explosive. It suggests this is an everyday event which, in fact, contemporary statistics show it is. Woolf shows how living as a non-conforming, “disobedient” woman is a powerful act of defiance in a world where even walking home at night is dangerous.

For ten-year-old Rose, the walk was an escape from the confines of a claustrophobic Victorian home, governed by a demanding patriarchal father, where the rules of the tea table dictate a woman’s role. Like Woolf, whose own mother died when she was only 13, Rose’s mother appears to be dying and so her family home is reminiscent of 22 Hyde Park Gate, Woolf’s childhood home which Henry James described as ‘that house of all the Deaths’, making escape even more urgent (Bell, 1972).

Rose cannot escape these dark shadows. Within the home, the danger is that of conformity and female obedience. And in the outside world there is the punishment of menacing sexual harassment, indecent exposure and worse. There is no safe space for women- an illustration of Woolf’s argument that women need to create their own ‘Outsider Society.’

As the media blasts the news of the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s rapist and killer, we are forced to confront the pandemic of violent misogyny that women and girls face daily. The Guardian reports, ‘Women are facing an “epidemic” of flashing and other forms of indecent exposure, with police in England and Wales recording more than 10,000 cases last year but taking fewer than six hundred people to court over them’ (Grierson and Topping).

Many cases are unreported. ‘The Office for National Statistics estimates that around 147,000 individuals - almost all women - were victims of indecent exposure in 2019-20 alone’ (Hymas and Butcher). It is reported that Sarah Everard’s rapist and killer exposed himself repeatedly, including once at a McDonald’s drive-through, three days before her murder. Despite the fact that he had done this before at the McDonald’s drive-through and at other local fast-food restaurants, and that the police were give CCTV footage, a description and the car’s registration number, no action was taken (Hymas and Butcher).

BBC News revealed ‘Radio presenter Emma Wilson has said that Sarah Everard’s murderer, [name withheld] flashed her and that Met Police officers laughed when she reported it’. The incident at McDonald’s was not reported at the time, implying that this kind of behaviour is something that women must expect; that it is a laddish, schoolboy prank, the subject of “rude” seaside postcards. The Home Office has sought to make public sexual harassment a crime, but this was dismissed by the Prime Minister as ‘mere wolf whistling’ (Townsend). This reduction of the act of indecent exposure to a low level offence ignores the sinister menace implicit in the act, that Woolf conveys so vividly in The Years.

Significantly, there is evidence to show Sarah Everard’s killer had committed acts of indecent exposure whilst working as an armed officer in the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC) in 2015, although this was not fully investigated, and he was not arrested (Hymas and Butcher).

The fact that the indecent exposure incidents occurred so close to the murder has led commentators to suggest indecent exposure could be a gateway to more “serious” crimes. However, this misses the point. Indecent exposure is symbolic of the double standards in our unequal society that allow men to get away with violence against women. Woolf understood this injustice and that it is one of the weapons the patriarchy uses to keep women “in their place.”

As Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, an expert on sexual violence and harassment at Durham University, argued: ‘From an early age, women are taught to doubt ourselves and not take exposure seriously’…We need to think differently about what the harm is, what it means. It’s saying to women: ‘I could hurt you; there is nothing in me to stop me from showing you my penis, it has a threat attached to it … Look at what I can do to you, look at how I can humiliate you,’ the ever-present threat of sexual violence’ (Grierson and Topping).

Placards emblazed with the words, ‘She was only walking home’ filled public memorials in parks across the UK, with the words hashtagged on Twitter, becoming a viral protest after Sarah Everard’s death. Rose ‘hoped somebody would come out and speak to her. But nobody heard her.’ A sentiment that has echoes in the present for women whose voices are still not heard. Woolf paves the way for us to explore the urgent and disturbing issues we face as a society, proving once more that literature is a powerful weapon in our arsenal in the battle for basic equality, not only for equal pay but also for safe access to the streets and parks of our cities.

Marielle O’Neill is a Postgraduate Researcher at Leeds Trinity University and Executive Council Member of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain.

Image © National Portrait Gallery


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