‘A man-like virago of a stout and noble spirit’

‘A man-like virago of a stout and noble spirit’

In her memoir Single Journey Only, Ursula Owen, one of the founding directors of Virago Press, describes the feelings evoked by the name of the new feminist publishing venture:

It’s hard to remember how disturbing and unmarketable feminism was to many people in the early Seventies. To some the name Virago, chosen by Carmen [Callil] and Rosie Boycott, was a problem at first: hardly anyone knew the original meaning—a man-like or heroic woman—or saw the irony. Anthony Burgess had particular problems with us. Here he is in 1981 reviewing the remarkable stream of consciousness novel Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson; ‘by no stretch of usage can “virago” be made not to signify a shrew, a scold, an ill-tempered woman . . . It is an unlovely and aggressive name, even for a militant feminist organization and it presides awkwardly over the reissue of a great roman fleuve which is too important to be associated with chauvinist sows.’ We read the review out to each other in the office, enraged, falling about laughing, not entirely surprised. Then in 1978 Fay Weldon wrote in the TLS that ‘the solid substance of the list and the very feel of their books has all but changed the connotation of the word. Say Virago to me now and I visualize an industrious and intelligent lady in her middle years.

2019 Ursula Owen Single Journey Only (Salt Publishing) p. 265-6

As is the case with virago, words for women often act as a repository for wider cultural attitudes. These attitudes are reflected in OED’s evidence for the word, which, in both its positive and negative meanings, reflects gendered stereotypes and expectations of how particular genders should behave.

Virago has at its heart the vir, the Latin word for man (compare virile and triumvirate) and is first recorded in English as the name Adam gave to Eve. As Adam explains (in the Middle English Wycliffite translation of Genesis 2:23): ‘this schal be clepid [i.e. called] virago, for she is takun of man’. The Latin name Virago is an attempt to render a similar linguistic feature in the Hebrew where Eve is called Hissa, which contains the Hebrew word for man, his.

After this biblical use, virago is used in two core senses, both referring to women. One meaning is usually positive and refers to a female warrior or a woman who otherwise displays admirable, manly qualities; the other meaning is derogatory, referring to a woman who is overbearing, violent, or bad-tempered. The number of words in the Historical Thesaurus in the OED falling under this latter category (including shrew, termagant, vixen, Xantippe, Tartar, and skellat), illustrates the pervasiveness of this characterization.

The earliest examples of the positive sense of virago describe Elfleda, i.e. Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and ruler of Mercia in the 10th century. According to the chronicler Robert Fabyan, who died in 1513, Æthelflæd was ‘this noble venqueresse Uirago and made whose vertue can I nat expresse’. The  term is also used by Richard Montagu in the 17th century of Salome Alexandra of Judea who ‘ruled as Queene eight yeers and better: a man-like virago of a stout and noble spirit’.

These female rulers are seen by their chroniclers as displaying qualities of leadership and bravery traditionally associated with men, and this is captured by the masculine connotations of virago. However, displaying a lack of stereotypically feminine qualities, such as meekness, modesty, and submissiveness, exposed a woman to opprobrium and derogatory epithets. In the 19th century we see the derogatory sense of virago predominate, and it was more likely to be used as an insult than a term of admiration, collocating with words such as termagant, vixen, scold, and minx and being the subject of verbs such as shriek, scream, and retort.

Since the  19th century, virago has seen a decline in usage and, as Fay Weldon predicted, is perhaps more likely to call to mind books rather than female warriors or shrewish women. The newly-revised OED entry, however, provides a comprehensive survey of the word’s history and scope, providing evidence for meanings which Virago, the publisher, drew on: their logo of an apple, alluding to Eve’s quest for forbidden knowledge; the evocation of strong, heroic women; and an ironic riposte to those who would see feminists as bad-tempered harpies.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.