A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf is an historical essay, so as I began reading, I wondered how relevant it was for me. After all, I don’t feel I’ve been discriminated against because of my gender and I like where I am with my life and the options I have before me. However, I quickly decided that Virginia Woolf was still talking to me as a woman and as an individual. I am a part of her future vision for what women should be able to attain. While I have a lot of opportunities in my life (opportunities that would not have been available to me 100 or even 30 years ago), it’s important to know just how far women have come: and to embrace how much farther we can go in adding to the creative output of the world.In some ways, A Room of One’s Own seemed to be not only a history lesson on the status of women’s creative output (i.e., women writers and women in fiction) but also a little pep talk for women to go ahead and follow their creative dreams. Who doesn’t need a pep talk occasionally?
My favorite story that Woolf shared was about Shakespeare’s sister. (This sister was a complete fabrication on Woolf’s part, but it captured Woolf’s point.) Shakespeare had a sister who had just as much genius as Shakespeare, and who likewise dreamed of the stage. How did her life play out? Despite her inclinations, she was not sent to school to learn the classics; instead, she was encouraged to focus on the needlework and mending at home. Her father also wanted her to be married young to a local young man. Although she rebelled and fled to London, seeking a life on the stage, she was ridiculed and abused, for women were not actresses in 1600 London, let alone writers of plays.
In short, everything about society would have discouraged her genius. How can we wonder that there are not female “Shakespeare’s” throughout history of the written word? As Woolf points out, it’s very probably that the ever-popular “Anon” was such a strong woman, seeking to get her words into print, even if anonymity was the only way to do so.
Woolf speaks to women in the late 1920s. As I read, I was surprised to discover that this was written at such a late date. From her discussion of how men dismissed women (referring to them as the “weaker sex” among other more cruel things), I thought it had been written two decades earlier. Yet, even a decade after women in England gained the right to vote, men still neglected to accept women as capable of creative output.
At a few points, Woolf looks to the future. One comment in particular stood out to me:
Moreover, in a hundred years … women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shop-woman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared. (page 40)
(She also comments, I suspect in a bit of a mocking tone, that maybe such a life will allow women to die off much quicker since they won’t have protection: “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.”)
Virginia Woolf takes care to not praise women too highly. She does not want women to think it easy to become Shakespeare. No, it is a challenge to overcome generations of inequality in education. Shakespeare had the genius, after all: his success was not only due to his ambition and education. Woolf’s point, instead, is that women, just as men, need their own income and their own space in order to create. Certainly, prolific male writers have an income and space for creation: poverty does not beget creative output very often.
I think about my own life. I have the “leisure” to stay home with my son while my husband works full-time. I also have a computer of my own where I can write and blog. If I lost that resource and/or if I needed to financially support my son, my ability to write and blog would become depleted. But then again: I am able to get a job (let’s hope), a thing that middle class women in Jane Austen’s day could not do. I would still have the ability to create because of that freedom.
Although I had not yet begun the book (other than the introduction), I could not renew it on Wednesday as I’d intended because of another person’s hold; instead, I read it in a day and returned it quickly to avoid greater fees (it was already a bit overdue). That tells you how small this book is (about 110 pages). Why did it take me so long to pick up?! (Oh, yes, I always have too much library loot.)
The message it shares in those brief pages is informative but also heartening. As a woman, it reminds me to seek to become Shakespeare’s sister in an era that no longer discourages it (quite as much).
Have you read A Room of One’s Own?
Do you have a room of your own? (literally or figuratively)
What other classic books about women and women in fiction can you recommend for my Women Unbound reading?