In A Room of One’s Own (first published in 1929), Virginia Woolf presents a vigorous argument for the social and educational equality of women by demonstrating the dearth and resultant impoverishment in the world of literature of the contributions of women writers; a deficit brought about by the social, economic and cultural disadvantages women have suffered. She has delved back into history in search of the voice of women in fiction, only to discover that this was relatively non-existent until the seventeenth century. A Room of One's Own is therefore a polemic about the inferior status of women and in it, Virginia Woolf offers cogent and often humorous explanations for the psychological barrier, or masculine deafness, to the female voice.
Although the work is unquestionably polemical, it lacks the stridency and aggression of an overt political attack, in part because it reflects more on the differences than the similarities between the sexes. Woolf nevertheless makes incisive observations on the injustices of a patriarchal society. Her original audience in 1928 was an assemblage of female undergraduates at Cambridge, but the points she raises could be addressed to a wider audience comprised of both sexes.
‘Women have always been poor… from the beginning of time’ [p.103]. This lack of social as well as economic independence is the nucleus of the allegory of Shakespeare’s ‘wonderfully gifted sister’ [p.46]. No female contemporary of Shakespeare’s would have had ‘a dog’s chance of writing poetry’ [p.104]. Despite her intelligence and yearning for knowledge, she would neither have been sent to school nor given any opportunity of learning grammar and logic. Betrothed at an early age and against her will, what would have been her fate had ‘the force of her own gift’ [p.47] driven her to disobey her father’s wishes? With no financial independence and no training, the world outside her father’s or husband’s domain would have offered nothing but closed doors. It would be wrong to deduce that the silence of the women of that age indicated that genius was a male prerogative.
Woolf surmises that ‘any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days…feared and mocked at’ [p.48]. In short, she would have had no outlet for self-expression because of her lack of independent status. However, this is largely conjecture because of the scarcity of facts available about her. She had inspired the poets from the beginning of time, yet historically she was completely insignificant, [pp. 42,43] which, as Woolf concedes, makes this composite being ‘an odd monster’ [p.43]. She silently trod in the shadows of men and her freedom of expression was inhibited by powerful standards of chastity. Modesty and anonymity were the accepted conditions of women. Because of the instinctive male dislike of publicity for women, the words of the sixteenth century female genius—had she survived and succeeded in writing—would have been ‘twisted and deformed’ and most certainly ‘have gone unsigned’ [p.49]. If the idea of chastity was not the invention of men, it was ‘liberally encouraged by them’ [p.49]. The effects of this indoctrination were manifest even into the nineteenth century, when women writers, to reach an audience, had to ‘veil themselves by using the name of a man’ [p.49].
Virginia Woolf firmly believed that anyone with talent should be given the opportunities to develop it. This meant equal educational opportunities and the material benefits of a private income and a room in which to work without distractions, all of which represent the kind of confidence that society has instilled in men for so long that it has been taken for granted as their natural inheritance.
If higher education in 1928 was no longer exclusively a male privilege, the disparity between the university for men and that for women clearly illustrates what a recent innovation the further education of women is, and how society perceives the subject. As Woolf claims, historically, gold and silver flowed into the foundations of the male university. No expense was spared by the wealthier sex for the edification and pampering of the future generations of that sex. The facilities displayed an opulence that was conspicuously absent in the neighbouring women’s college, funded by women—the wastrels who squandered their time brining up children and thus had to struggle to provide just the bare essentials for the edification of their daughters.
At ‘Oxbridge’, Virginia Woolf was affronted by the discriminating Beadle, protector of the hallowed turf and symbol of male oppression, and by the closed doors which she intuitively observed represented a dual barrier: by excluding women, men were denying an aspect of their own personalities and thus inhibiting their own intellectual development.
When Woolf visited the British Museum in search of elucidation on the subject of the uneven distribution of prosperity between the sexes, she was astonished by the number of books written by men about women, making the latter ‘perhaps the most discussed animal in the universe’ [p.27]. In her invective about the symbolic misogynist, ‘Professor von X’ author of ‘The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex’, she suggested that his opinions of women were founded on an anger that betrayed male insecurity because, by insisting ‘too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority…because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price’ [p.35]. Men wielded the power, the money, and the influence to subjugate the female voice and they also had the motivation: fear of usurpation.
Delving deeper into the psychology of the sexes, Woolf adduces that women have been flattering this male ego for centuries by acting as mirrors ‘possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size [p.35]. This has been an essential role because it has perhaps served to help the process of civilization [p.35]. It is also a silent role, ‘for if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished’ [p.36]. Women have fulfilled more than their culturally-defined role – they have also provided men with ‘something that their own sex was unable to supply’ [p.82]. This, Woolf purports, is a creative force that stimulates and encourages male creativity. This begins to suggest a definite complicity and dependency between the sexes. If this union is allowed to follow its natural course, the results must be beneficial to both sexes.
Women have been oppressed and repressed by the rules of the patriarchal society for long enough. Their achievements in the literary field in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and beyond) prove that they were never naturally the intellectual inferiors of men. In the face of adversity and in the absence of a traditional female voice from which to draw, they have emerged, at least as writers of fiction, tolerably well so far. Without that ‘dog’s chance’, women have nevertheless ‘come to have the habit of writing naturally’ [p.104]. Woolf saw this in the gradual erosion of masculine prejudice, but perceived that true equality was not yet imminent. The plea for fewer obstacles to female creativity seems not only reasonably, but a natural part of human development. The onus of equality does not lie entirely on masculine shoulders.
In her fifth chapter, Woolf suggests that it is through education that women will be able to develop in their own right as this would ‘bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities’ [p.84]. As writers, they must not borrow from or try to emulate the ‘male sentence’ as this expresses a point of view and disposition that will inevitably elude them and hamper their creative faculties. Women have a different contribution to make and certainly an important one, but first they have to explore new avenues and this they can only do if they write as women. They have to discover themselves in relation to their own sex; they have to brush aside feelings of anger and injustice and cease seeing men as ‘the opposing faction’ [p.86]; they have to be able to describe, without rancour, ‘that spot the size of a shilling’ [p.86] that represents true understanding between the sexes.
The symbolic contemporary woman of fiction, Mary Carmichael, wields an important key to this concept. Having ‘mastered the first great lesson’, she had written ‘as a woman, but a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman’ [p.88]. Indignation and anger are not the ingredients of good writing; ‘it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex’ [p.99]. The male writers, in keeping masculine ego to the fore, have been inhibiting their own development. They, too, will benefit from the form of cooperation Woolf advocates.
Virginia Woolf’s solution to the problem in literature is one that may not appeal to all feminists. She describes a state of intellectual symbiosis or fusion of the male and female sides of the creative mind, which she terms androgyny [p.94]. This mental ‘marriage of opposites’ will enable the writer to ‘transmit emotion without impediment’ [p.94]. The ability to use ‘both sides of the mind equally’ [p.98] is manifest in Shakespeare’s writing. It is perhaps a combination of masculine logic and feminine intuition that reveals itself only when considerations of self, personal frustrations and anger have been transcended. Woolf nicely allegorizes the concept of ‘natural fusion’ in the simple but romantic scene viewed from her window when a young man and a girl come together as strangers and co-operate in sharing the same taxi [p.92].
But this ideal solution is a dream for the future and a long way off for the female writer of Woolf’s day. Her concluding advice to her original Cambridge audience is almost a rallying cry to those aspiring writers. She exhorts those students to take advantage of their educational opportunities, to explore their new-found freedom and write with courage so that ‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down…she will be born’ [p.108].
As a feminist polemic, A Room of One’s Own is effective because its arguments are presented with the sincerity of a person who cares deeply about the effects, on literature in particular, of female inequality. Virginia Woolf’s method of argument is far from straightforward, but this does not diminish its effectiveness. Similarly, the use of satire to mask personal frustrations does not obscure the pertinent facts. Her rambling style, which is sometimes difficult to follow, is perhaps a deliberate technique to enable her to delicately mingle relevant facts with moral truths by cajoling the reader along the meandering pathways of her mind. The reader is invited to follow the process of the formulation of ideas towards their delayed but usually unequivocal conclusions.
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
(The text used for this essay was the Triad Grafton version of A Room of One's Own)
A free online version of this text is available courtesy of the University of Adelaide
The Penguin Modern Classics version is available on Kindle, print or audo at Amazon
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