However rightly or wrongly I always associated Virginia Woolf with Sylvia Plath.* Other than her suicide I knew very little about Woolf or her work. My college years did little to change this. I only saw Woolf’s name in connection to either feminism or modern English writers alongside the likes of Eliot and Pound.
Over my winter break I made the fortunate choice to read A Room of One’s Own. ** I did not know that the book came out of a lecture she was asked to give on Women and Fiction, but I quickly realized that even though this may have started as a lecture she had in fact created the base for the modern feminist movement. *** When she turned her lectures into this book Woolf understood exactly what she was doing. She was assaulting the base of male dominated world in which she lived while at the same time arguing for women to see the reality of their situation.
In order to even partially capture the book I am going to examine it in two parts. First I will discuss her central claim of the book and her reasoning behind it. Then I will briefly look at how this relates to feminism.
For those who haven’t read the book I will leave out discussing some of the specifics of it, but honestly just stop right now and read it. I promise you won’t be disappointed, unless you have an ultra-conservative, women should bear kids and cook perspective (and if that’s the case please read it carefully with an attempt to understand the point and not just to disagree with it).
A Room of One’s Own
She begins the first chapter by telling her audience/readers that she believes a woman needs a room of one’s own and five hundred pounds a year on which to live in order to write. This is a shocking conclusion because her lecture was supposed to be on Women and Fiction, not the occupation of female writers. She realizes the seeming discontinuity between her statement and the title of her lecture so she walks her audience/reader through her process from being requested to speak on Women and Fiction to her conclusion.
She takes us along with her as she attempts to discover the truth about women and fiction, but she cannot answer the question or even talk about women and fiction because so little exists in her age about it. She attempts to read the great books on literature, on women, and on fiction. All she can find is either works by men with little useful in them about women or only mentions of the few major female authors (Austen, & the Brontes mainly). She can’t recount the history of women in fiction because there isn’t one. The history of women is work, child-rearing, and more work.
I will only discuss one of her two great examples of the differences between the opportunities of the sexes, though both are fascinating. **** She contrasts Oxford with a female academic institution. She does an expert job at turning this into a sharp critique by demonstrating the differences between the two schools. Her description of the dining options, living arrangements, and campus amenities shows the stark difference between even educated men and women. Woolf attempts to uncover the possible reason between the wealth and luxury of Oxford and the poverty/hardships encountered at the female school.
She rightly connects the source of the disparity to wealth. Since women throughout history weren’t afforded education they never had the means to create wealth. Without wealth they couldn’t establish institutions to teach other women. This only continued the cycle instead of preparing women to write and work in all kinds of fields and create more wealth and more opportunities for women.
The lack of opportunities has meant that woman has left a mark on society that is a fraction of man’s. Since Woolf’s focus is on writing/fiction itself she concludes that writing is the one field that requires a certain amount of leisure from everyday responsibilities in order for it to be done sufficiently well. To prove her point she lists several major English writers/poets who were afforded the time for their efforts because of their family wealth.
She sees the objection of many who would point out that women could too enjoy the family wealth, so why didn’t they write? She provides two answers:
1) A woman never has a room of her own. By this she means that no space in the house was private for a woman. Even Austen had to hide her work from others and only work in small spurts of private time. Without a space in which to work how was a woman to write?
2) Women didn’t have the tradition of writing that men did. This lead those who did write to use male names (George Eliot) in order to be published and those that did not to be judged inferior (Austen) because their writing was different in style/tone from their male counterparts. With no tradition to draw from, women are left to either ape the style of men or toil in their work until they establish their own voice.
Woolf’s conclusion that women need money and a place to write in order to produce written works (whether scientific, historic, or literary) is borne out by her reasoning. Her conclusions are sound. Even today writers/artists benefit by either not needing to work because of their wealth or longing for the day they can quit their “job” in order to pursue their passion with their whole being.
Woolf’s answer and her arguments laid the groundwork for feminism in its most basic form. Her objection to the system of her day is simple: women aren’t given the same opportunities as men.
She believes, and I think we can see rightly nearly 90 years later, that should women be given the same chances they can do the same things. She means this in business, science, literature, and society as a whole. It is this reasoning that has undergirded feminism for decades. It is this reasoning and her specific application of it that greatly changed my perspective on the women around me. Woolf’s recounting of the history of women increased my appreciation for any woman working at what she wants. It provides a great counterweight to the “man-hating” feminism espoused so often by many contemporary feminists.
Honestly it made feminism an attractive term for me. Her moderate view of the struggle between the sexes provides a better way for us to move forward in the discussion. It also provides a challenge to societal conventions that favor men or women by demonstrating that anytime one group is elevated at the expense of the other mankind as a whole suffers from a lack of richness and depth that is only provided by including both in the making and shaping of culture.
Favorite Quote: One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
*My first introduction to either was in a 90s movie titled Houseguest starring Sinbad. The angst riddled teenage daughter mentioned her in some speech about suicide. I remember loving this movie as a kid, I’m sure we rented it at least a dozen times.
** I was contemplating trying to read a book a day and this was short enough to allow me to stay on track. I lasted three days.
*** I should admit that although feminism can be seen as good and bad I usually have a negative association to it. Also my edition of this book is used and had substantial writing in it that gave every indication of having been used in either a women’s literature course or feminism course. The notes were indeed interesting.
**** Her other is to imagine that Shakespeare had a sister that possessed his literary genius as well. Her life would undoubtedly have been tragic.
- Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (roofbeamreader.com)
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (ahorseandacarrot.wordpress.com)