“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself,” said Virginia Woolf, the observant English novelist who was pretty woke about MRA bullshit even in the 1920s.
Woolf wrote some of her most mature works in a time when the goal of suffragettes like Mary Wollstonecraft had finally been won. But her first novel, “The Voyage Out”, was published during the First World War when she was 33. She led a full life as a modernist writer and essayist, and was a member of the influential writers’ association known as “The Bloomsbury Group”. The group wrote a lot about the war, which dominated the Western imagination then, but Woolf’s own speciality was stream-of-consciousness writing.
Woolf ran the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard until 1938, and in 1941, having battled with her mental illness for years, she drowned herself in the river near her home. As tragic as her suicide was, her personal trials can hardly be seen as detached from her literary pursuits. This seems pretty clear from her essay “A Room of One’s Own”, which is an argument in favour of creating separate and safe spaces for women to tend to their talents in.
You’re probably already in Woolf’s corner if you’ve enjoyed the same-sex romantic subtext of her 1925 novel, “Mrs Dalloway”. But it’s her nonfiction writing that inevitably finds its way into any primer for feminist theory. As a writer herself, she offers some interesting insights into the relationship women have with fiction, and in “A Room of One’s Own” she stresses the importance of women’s access to space. The essay opens with an anecdote about Woolf being shooed away from parts of a university campus by men on two occasions – once from a park, and once from a library. Obviously, she is none too pleased about being denied relaxation or the opportunity to work. But for all her anger and boldness, she has her moments of hesitation, and sounds apologetic even, cause we’ll be damned if the Patriarchy doesn’t try to stifle a woman by filling her with doubt.
That said, the essay proposes some interesting points where women are concerned:
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf responds to the prompt “women and fiction,” talking about the many, many fictional women who “have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time.” But Woolf very rightly raises issue with seeing women as fiction.
“She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.”
Woolf also urges the reader to think about all the things that have been said and written about women – opinions by men like Goethe, La Bruyère, Alexander Pope, and Mussolini, and the existence of a manuscript titled “The Mental, Moral, And Physical Inferiority Of The Female Sex”. Shudder.
Thankfully, she notes, from the 18th century on women were becoming creators of fiction, as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot and others took the printing presses by storm. This idea has very strong resonances for us today, when we demand better representation in films, shows and books. In fact, We Do It Together, a new women-led production company, is asserting women’s identities in the way that Woolf seems to be getting at in her essay, by putting the narrative reins in women’s hands.
But a woman’s power to write (or tell stories through any medium) has only been recently conceded to her. Woolf recalls the conditions under which Jane Austen began writing as less than favourable, but the sixteenth century woman must have had it so much worse.
Woolf wrote that this woman “would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.” But she wants us to become familiar with this half-witch. She names her Judith, and asks us to suppose she were Shakespeare’s sister. The tragedy here is that Judith “was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic.”
Here comes the bid for equal access to education that both Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill has previously made. But Virginia Woolf adds another dimension to it.
Woolf was one of those lucky women who had an education. But she quickly learnt that it would mean nothing unless she had the resources to put it to good use. This is what the title “A Room of One’s Own” points to. Woolf, after being shooed away twice on the university premises, realized that without a room exclusively for her own use, with paper and pen and ink and silence, she would never have gotten to where she was then.
She observes that “the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other,” is inextricably linked with gendered expectations of men and women respectively. While the men folk get to run for office, and form their clubs and go to university, the women are invested in the prolonged and immense task of raising children, the duration of this Woolf estimates to be five years. And if they actually do have occupations, they’re depressingly underpaid.
She gets a bit angsty here, thinking about “all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together” and asks indignantly, “[w]hat had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?”
She ain’t cutting anybody any slack here.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own,” insists Woolf. She’s unshakable, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, given that today we still have to deal with ‘Shrinking Women’ and the gender pay gap that won’t quit.
Interestingly, though, Woolf prioritizes money over her vote. She remembers how the death of an aunt meant a wonderfully sudden cash flow:
“The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. [My aunt] had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.”
Kind of problematic, Virginia. But then again this isn’t Leslie Knope we’re talking about. And well, Woolf proved more through her use of that money than she did as a voter. Suffrage is great, but Money is basic, she argues.
She ruminated about the possible outcomes of women saving money and putting into scholarships, lectureships, philanthropy, and doing all the things men do. But none of this would come to pass because: “to earn money was impossible for [women], and […] had it been possible, the law denied them the right to possess what money they earned.” Obviously those aspects of the law that Mill had mourned in 1859 were yet to change during Woolf’s time. I guess that’s why she said the world favours “men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.” Harsh. But true.
Having carved out a place for herself in the Western literary canon, Woolf is a testament to what a woman can accomplish with a room of her own. She gave us the symbolic figure of Shakespeare’s sister, who represents any number of subaltern identities today – people who are deprived of access and opportunity, and who are often silenced or made invisible. Woolf made the case for a woman’s right to claim space, which fits in so well with today’s feminist demands for freedom of movement, for privacy, bodily autonomy and more.
Virginia Woolf advised women to “Earn five hundred (pounds) a year by your wits,” to keep afloat in this Man’s World. And if you think about it, it’s not all that different from Beyoncé’s solid reminder that your “best revenge is your paper.”
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