A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

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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?

Reviewed on February 26, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I wrote short stories my whole life, but it wasn’t until I became a stay at home mom that I ever wrote a novel. I am grateful for the time and space that I have for writing. While i don’t really have a room of my own, for many hours of the day my house is just for me so I have ample time to let my thoughts expand and to write. While I think there are some flaws in this essay (for instance, I disagree with her when she says novel writing is ridiculously simple and poetry is the real writing artform), for the most part, I agree with her.

  • I loved her analogy of Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, and it fills me with such joy to think of Virginia Woolf walking on the grass lawns where she wasn’t allowed.

    I some respects I think that women are still very much the protected sex but it our means of being able to protect ourselves through property and our own endeavours that is most important.

    Literally I have my own space during the day that I take advantage of to write and be creative but figuratively are our blogs not our own rooms?
    .-= Claire (Paperback_Reader)´s last post on blog ..The Girl With Glass Feet =-.

  • You know that I’ve never had much luck with Woolf’s fiction, but the snippets I’ve read of her non-fiction, I’ve always been really moved by. I haven’t read A Room of One’s Own, but it’s something I would like to read at some point. I’m so glad you found it so inspiring!
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“American Rust” by Philipp Meyer =-.

  • Too bad you had to rush through the book. Nice write up of it. Woolf’s elitism – she does not argue that the nursemaid should have a room of her own – has always been bothersome to me. I wish she had managed to be just a bit more broadminded. But, she is still a woman of her time and class and we can’t fault her for it. I do have a room of my own with a desk and bookshelves and a door. There is seldom a need to close the door, but the fact that I can shut out the world if I choose is a wonderful thing.
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..Lists and Free E-Books =-.

  • This is one of my very favorite essays. I love the content, but perhaps even more I love the fluid, seemingly effortless (but actually extremely strongly-constructed) structure that allows her to speaker to amble from one place to another, conversing in that delightful tone she has, while all the while building her argument. I think it’s masterfully done! Glad you enjoyed it too. 🙂
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Essay Mondays: Stevenson =-.

  • I wish I could be more optimistic about how far we’ve come since Woolf’s time. I really love this book and would like to read it again at some point this year. When I read it some years ago, it really opened my eyes to what feminism actually is and how it’s still relevant to my life.
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston =-.

  • Amanda, I’d say having an empty house most of the day is definitely room of your own! Although I do have a room that is my “office” since I am my son’s primary caregiver all. the. time. it’s a bit not private all the time! Can’t wait for preschool (two more years?!?!) already lol.

    Claire, YES, I was thinking that about blogs. I get to ramble about books and someone listens to it! I’m published! (in a way)

    Steph, it’s short, so you could get through it fast!

    Stefanie, oh how nice it would be to ACTUALLY shut out the world! (My son is calling for a binky as I type). But yes, I’ll have to revisit this sometime, because it would be nice to go slower too! I think you’re right about her being a bit elitist, I guess she’s still speaking from her era.

    nomadreader, Enjoy the reread!

    Care, go for it…you know you want it….(Are you participating in BLOB? Maybe you need to wait a few more days….)

    Emily, I loved how it was nonfiction and yet felt like fiction! So much fun. I’ve got to read more Woolf.

    Nymeth, I’m so ignorant about the plight of women. I look at my life and feel okay about it! But yes, this puts feminism in a new light for me too!

  • Okay, I have to read this. I have been sitting here all intimidated by Virginia Woolf, but this sounds amazing and feminist and I love feminist things that are amazing. And essays! Essays are not that scary!

    (I really just talked myself into Virginia Woolf just there.)
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell =-.

  • A stay-at-home mom, just like you and Amanda, so I guess that’s my room right here, although I am never left alone without a child because we have no family close enough that we can leave the kids with.

    I do think she was spot-on as we now do drive engines, just like men!
    .-= claire´s last post on blog ..The Waves =-.

  • Jenny, this is not a book to be intimidated by! The others, yes, I can understand being intimidated by, but not this one!

    Claire, I rarely get time without a child! Sometimes on the weekends I can go shopping alone. How nice!! I can totally relate

    Eva, I wouldn’t have wanted to be born at any other time, really.

  • I think the title overstates one small portion of the book. Woolf said so much more. The final chapter is the one that resonated most with my modern sensibility. Woolf says, “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his [or her] experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace…The writer…must not look or question what is being done.” Perhaps the freedom part of that statement is about the room and the money, but the peace is something else entirely. What she means is that neither men nor women writers should be overly conscious of gender such that it affects or holds back the work. No writer divided against the other half of humanity can truly be in the thrall of one’s craft. Like Shakespeare and Jane Austen, such a peaceful writer is in the flow of the muse. Such a writer is not hindered by dictates as to what makes good writing or by a need to protect or promote one’s own position in society. Here, Woolf seems to advocate for both sexes. (But I am still grateful to have a room of my own and time to work)

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