Sunday, November 21, 2010

"A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

Summary: Woolf's essay on "women and fiction," in which she argues that in order for women to create, they need an income of five hundred pounds a year and a room in which they can write.

Musings: I somehow never was exposed to Woolf's classic essay before, and I regret that, though I think this reading came at a perfect time in my life.  I'm not a terribly observant reader of most books, and I had to force myself to highlight, comment, and reflect when reading assigned works in college.  However, as I read A Room of One's Own for the first time, I cursed the fact that I was reading a library copy.  I was dying to mark lines and jot down my thoughts as I read.  I turned over particular sentences in my head, read them aloud to my husband, and reread whole sections.  I had to pull out a notepad in order to copy down all the gems I wanted to remember.  In short, this fabulous feminist essay not only exposes the state of women in 1928, when Woolf was writing, but it also sheds significant light on the fight for equality between the sexes today.

Woolf's primary purpose in the essay is to address the lack of women writers throughout history and to understand what is necessary for a person to create fiction.  One of her most potent arguments is that a person must have financial security in order to create. She notes, "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.  Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.  And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.  Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.  Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry" (106).  But it is not only the lack of financial means that have kept women from writing.  Woolf argues that is is also the lack of history of women's writing from which to draw on and the lack of social support.  Even for poor men, the world says, "Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me," but to women, "the world said with a guffaw, Write?  What's the good of your writing?" (52).  Woolf recognizes the popular conception that truly great writers produce regardless of circumstance, but she breaks down that false ideal easily.

A Room of One's Own is set during an interesting point in history, a time in which women had recently won the right to vote and were increasingly allowed access to wider range of educational and vocational opportunities.  But, greater equality also results in a stronger backlash.  Life is difficult, Woolf says, and self-confidence can come most easily by asserting one's superiority over another.  So even as women were given more rights, their work and abilities were also being increasingly disparaged.  Woolf argues, "Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority.  That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price. ...  How can we generate this imponderable quality [of self-confidence], which is yet so invaluable, most quickly?  By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself" (34-35).

As I mentioned above, many of Woolf's arguments still hold sway today.  Women still make, on average, less than men, and it is a lack of financial freedom that hampers greater equality.  Although there are many more opportunities for women artists, there are still many arenas in which women lack a history and support network, and as a result, women are underrepresented.  Even Woolf's discussion of the way in which women in literature are only depicted in relationship to men is still evident in many popular stories (just see the continued use of the "Bechdel test").

I had read the introduction to my edition of the essay first, which was a mistake, because it made me think Woolf's piece would be difficult and indecipherable, when in fact I found it especially accessible and pointed.  A Room of One's Own is certainly a piece I want to return to, and I also hope to try some of Woolf's fiction in the near future.

***This book qualifies for the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010 and the Books of the Century Challenge.

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