I’ve been working through two sets of letters: those of the great modernist writer Virginia Woolf, and those of my mother, Jill Wylie. This happenstance has generated some interesting points of comparison.
What is ecofeminism, anyway? There are various emphases, but the central assertion is that Nature and Woman have through history and in many societies been oppressed together, damaged in tandem, by patriarchal structures, attitudes and actions. When parts of the natural environment are demeaned, invaded and commercialised, for example, it is often the women living in that environment who most heavily suffer the consequences. Liberating one thus necessitates liberating the other. Now some ecofeminist scholars have asserted a quasi-spiritual, even mystical link between women and Nature; others have worried that that compounds the problem of essentialising what women supposedly are, and take a more materialist or social-constructionist view of the links. Big argument.
Both were habitual walkers, preferring the natural and the offbeat to the highway, and on their walks experienced remarkably similar moments of near-ecstatic revelation or what Woolf called “moments of being”.
Both became obsessive writers from an early age; both published a handful of books, as well as a vast number of essays, diaries, letters and other writings. Woolf does outnumber Wylie probably by a factor of ten: she left some 4000 letters and 400 essays (which leaves me only a few hundred of Jill’s to go through, and a pile of diaries a mere metre high). But then Woolf wasn’t spending the bulk of her time searching for lost dogs and feeding bushbuck fawns. Both, nevertheless, suffered from excessive modesty or self-doubt.
Both certainly felt their position as designated women within dynamics largely designed by and for men, both domestically and politically, being obliged to conform in some ways, while finding other ways of resisting, ignoring and evading the strictures.
Both had to weather man-made wars – Woolf two World Wars, Jill the Rhodesian bush war, the latter rather more up-close-and-personal.
Both were what we now called “activists”, taking up the “verbal cudgels”, as Jill put it: in her case, mostly for animals’ rights and welfare, in Woolf’s case, mostly for those of women.
They both were coolly fascinated by human social behaviour, but simultaneously nursed a certain streak of misanthropy. They found rather different ways of expressing it.
Neither gave much credit to organised religion, and looked for other modes of transcendence or belonging.
Both had to struggle through varieties of illness, though in Woolf’s case it was largely mental (driving her to suicide), in Jill’s case largely physical.
And, importantly, both their (married) surnames begin with W.
For more of Jill Wylie's writings, go to Jill Wylie's Animal Wisdoms, www.jillwylie.blogspot.co.za