FemLit: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Today, we’re starting a new, weekly series of posts which will seek to spark lively discussions and raucous debates surrounding well-known and worthy books on feminism. Each weekly read will range from classics (like this week’s selection) to more contemporary works, with topics to include everything from the definition of feminism to its intersection with other famous “-isms” to the third-wave movement to the patriarchy to double-standards in sexuality to sexism in the media to porn to the legitimacy of “masculism.” There is clearly an expansive, varied tract of topics to cover, so, in the immortal lyrics of Madonna’s Vogue: “Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it.”

For me, this is going to be an unprecedented educational experience. I do not have any type of degree in Women’s Studies, nor have I ever taken even a single credit hour of feminism-related coursework, nor would my extremely conservative, Christian college have been the place to do so.

Yet I am mentally salivating over the prospect of finally learning this stuff–I’ve spent well-nigh three years now lurking at Jezebel and Shakesville and Tiger Beatdown, and  while none of those places are exclusionist or have a “Certified Lesbian Shitasses, and We Do Mean Certified“ sign up, I know that, theory-wise, I’m lightyears behind many of the wise women I’ve come to admire on those sites.

So at some point down the line (and I mean this as part disclaimer, part apology-in-advance, and part plea for you to be straight with me), I’m going to misinterpret something and leave my privilege hangin’ out like dirty laundry on a clothesline. I’m going to type something so nonsensical you’ll wonder If I’ve been possessed by the spirit of post-90s Courtney Love. And when I do, do not hesitate to call me on it and explain why I’m wrong–fomenting dialogue is the whole driving force behind this project.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into A Room of One’s Own!

As a bit of background, A Room was initially composed as two papers to be real aloud to arts societies at Newnham and Girton, two British women’s colleges. Wolf had been asked to speak on the somewhat broad topic Women and Fiction, and found herself focusing less on specific writing tips, and more on the simple assertion that women of her day and age (late 1920s) had neither the privacy nor the wealth to fully indulge their genius.

All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point–a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…”

Woolf spares neither humor nor poetic license in examining the contemporary (and historic) juxtaposition of male and female education, standing, occupation, and wealth. The first chapter is a beautifully penned remembrance of two days spent in “Oxbridge” (an amalgam of Oxford and Cambridge), and though Woolf insists that her retelling is “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist,” it’s not difficult to surmise she spoke from personal experience.

She describes an afternoon spent in secluded thought along the lovely shore of a river on Oxbridge’s campus, whereupon she loses a fresh idea that takes the form of a fish, but when she rises to chase it, a beadle shoos her away from the green turf, which is only for scholars to tread. Woolf resigns herself to walking instead the gravel path. By and by, she’s turned away from the library as well, and doesn’t even attempt to enter the college’s chapel, though she curiously observes the men and their odd attire and behavior from a distance.

Finally she reaches the more inclusive dining hall, where she joins a loud luncheon party of both men and women, and enjoys succulent sole, partridges, ducklings and wine, raving,

And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the ore profound, subtle and subterranean low, which is rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.

Woolf departs the luncheon and wanders over to Fernham, the women’s college, where she is slated to eat dinner. Unfortunately, she notes that, not only is the food poor (“beef with its attendant greens and potatoes–a homely trinity”), but the students have cramped living quarters and the campus as a whole is decidedly less kempt than the men’s. Woolf ruefully laments,

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

From this revelation of the disparities in the education of the sexes rises a brief discussion of why women have less disposable wealth than their male counterparts, the answer for which is simply put: “Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children–what human being could stand it.”

Woolf’s aim is not to dissect precisely why women have virtually no place outside the home (30 years later, Betty Friedan would take up that axe in The Feminine Mystique), but rather to examine the very peculiar, specific question: “What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?”

Though it was not Woolf’s original intention, I think we can extrapolate her writing-related assertions to apply to any creative endeavor, whether it’s composing a score or probing a strand of DNA. As a rule, people who have space to think and whose finances are not of the utmost concern will have ample energy to dispose of in pursuits which would otherwise be frivolous. And I think we can all agree that there still exist marginalized populations–for example, in America, minorities, and all across the globe, women–who are not afforded the same opportunities as white men.

When Wolf begins exploring historic and contemporary literature about women, she finds that men write about women far more than women write about men (this immediately put me in mind of Cosmopolitan and other women’s mags of today, but I digress). And men seize every opportunity to assert that women are lesser-than (as in Professor X’s tome The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex), which prompts anger in Woolf.

Based on the rage they provoke in her, she deduces that the books themselves were written out anger, “in the red light of emotion and not the white light of truth.” And, though it seems absurd that the patriarchy would be angry at trod-upon women, Woolf smartly surmises that,

…when the professor insisted a little too emphatically on the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority.

When women serve as “lookingglasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice his natural size,” what man would willingly give up that free ego massage? Who would want to suddenly double his pool of peers, when he could content himself with attending every same-sex function in the calm knowledge that he is better than half the people there?

This way of examining the concept of privilege blew my mind. I can easily see it applying across the board to racists, ableists, and the like. Just think of how the desire to remain superior is couched in the concern of the father whose son is being surpassed by female students, of the college applicant who whinges about the categorical unfairness of “all the scholarships for minorities,” of the shopping-mall frequenter who spouts off about the ludicrousness of having two whole handicapped parking spots in front of Sears.

Privileged people have a way of blindly contorting painful situations into being all about them, failing to recognize the opposing party never possessed their amount of privilege to begin with, and probably never will. And when you confront such a person with their privilege, they will throw every ill-conceived, misinformed book in the room at you in an attempt to silence the truth they don’t want to hear.

I won’t spend too much time on “Shakespeare’s sister,” Woolf’s famous example of how a woman with the same amount of genius as perhaps the most brilliant writer in English history, would nevertheless have been incapable of expressing that genius. She outlines how Shakespeare’s sister would have lacked the education and opportunity to express her talent, leading her to kill herself rather than live with the pain of unrealized ambition.

It’s crucial to note that not only is Shakespeare’s sister not helped in any way along her pilgrimage towards creativity, but she is actively mocked.

The world did not say to her as it said to [men], Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

Woolf writes that “the effect of discouragement on the mind of the writer” is akin to the effect of the prunes and stringy beef on the writer’s stomach–it’s a lasting, gnawing disappointment that is nearly impossible to shake, and which results in women writers who create from a place of bitterness, anger, and disillusionment, which Woolf claims is deadening to their work.

In examining the few, lauded works of women novelists, Woolf finds that Jane Austen alone writes from a place she would describe as “incandescent,” that is, free of such impediments as the sour need to prove oneself to men or to use one’s writing as an outlet to voice one’s own, personal frustrations. Charlotte Bronte is deemed most guilty of succumbing to impediments, which is why, though Woolf believes she possessed more natural genius than Austen, Austen’s work was more mature and well-rounded than Bronte’s.

While I won’t deign to exalt Bronte or Austen above the other (I’m not really qualified to do so anyway), I find it interesting that Woolf so vehemently opposes women giving voice to their own oppression. She claims it makes them sound strident; to my thinking, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Several wonderful books have come out of the bitterness of women voicing their disdain for the status quo: Kate Chopin’s Awakening, Nella Larsen’s Passing, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, just to name a few. It’s my belief that anger and even bitterness can be harnessed into powerful tools of expression.

Woolf also lights briefly upon the fact that women writers do not have the same historical line of work that men have to draw upon–essentially every woman is either emulating men or must create from scratch her own method and mode of communication. The idea of an artistic line of succession intrigued me, but I have to admit I’m not too fond of the many contrasts Woolf highlights between the male and female intellect.

The question of whether men and women are fundamentally different, on some chemical or physiological level, is what I wrestled most with upon reading A Room. I’m inclined to vehemently protest anyone or anything that tries to draw differences between the sexes, as, even today, it’s so often done in the name of flaky pseudo-science and with the intention of “proving” that women are bad at math or men are naturally more adept with prose.

But I pushed through the last twenty or so pages of the book, wherein Woolf discusses the concept of “androgyny of the mind” and what that means for writers. She admits that “Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine,” but she fails to succinctly, clearly outline what constitutes the male and what the female.

Reading between the lines and taking liberties with certain phrases leads me to believe that she finds the pure male egotistical, crude, and not nearly as suggestive, unconventional or anonymous (??) as the female.

While I agree that some men who are very tightly in the throes of the patriarchy are too self-centered to feel empathy, I don’t think men are naturally more egotistical than women, and I just won’t even touch the “crude” allegation because it should be a given that women are susceptible to scatological humor and curse words too.

Women, particularly in the 1930s, likely only appeared unconventional because men so dominated and invented the conventions and mores of the time! And as far as praising anonymity, I can’t quite wrap my head around what Woolf is getting at, unless she thinks women more humble or less self-seeking–again, those are less naturally-occurring traits and more habits of survival drawn on to face the patriarchy.

I’ve disappointed to wrap things up here, when I’ve barely scratched the surface of A Room of One’s Own. I wanted to talk about how Woolf mentions the virgin/whore representation of women in fiction and  discuss how what I call “the Franzen debate” is still alive and well in our contemporary literary scene, which fawns over the classic “dead white guys,” or, in Franzen’s case, privileged, middle-class white guys.

Unfortunately, 2,000 words is about the limit for blog posts. I promise, in the future, to reign my thoughts in and present a more focused analysis.

So, on to the discussion portion of the blog post: What are your thoughts on the differences between men and women, both in terms of creating art and the just general living? Do all differences rise from nurture, or are some from nature? Are women today afforded the same type of education and opportunities as men? Would giving all creatively-inclined women a yearly allowance and their own room (or, say, studio apartment) still work to encourage significant artistic progress?

Here’s my lineup for the rest of the month of January–I know these are all fairly popular, well-chewed-over texts, but I thought we’d start out with a lot of the well-known ones before digging deeper into less-charted territory:

1/1o: Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel

1/17: The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf

1/24: Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti with a foreword by Margaret Cho

1/21: Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics by bell hooks

Please let me know if you have any suggestions for future reads!

2 replies on “FemLit: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own”

I really hope you write about the Franzen debate!

I feel like gender is not as black and white as our culture makes it out to be — you can’t categorize everything into masculine and feminine. Or, I mean, you can, but I think it’s all a huge construct.
To elaborate: I feel like realizing what gender you are is like realizing you’re, say, an artist (well, except it’s a lot harder). Like, you can either grow up in a family of artists and know from day 1 that you are one, or you can grow up drawing and painting almost compulsively, and only realize at age 24 that, oh look, there’s a bunch of people similar to me and they’re artists, and I know now I’m one, too! My partner is a trans guy, and he’s not a guy because he fits any cultural idea of guy-ishness — he’s flamboyant, he’s emotional and sensitive to other people’s emotions, he’s artistic and expressive, and he hasn’t shown any excitement about sports or beer or mathematics or any other things seen as masculine. He’s a guy because he knows he is one.
This is not to invalidate people who have different experiences. This is to say, my theory is that either from an early age or sometime along the way (hopefully), you just end up knowing how you identify, or at least knowing how you don’t — whether it’s female, male, androgynous, or something else. You might be a cis woman whose interests fit neatly into cultural ideas of femininity, or an androgynous person with a penchant for archeology and flowy dresses, or a trans woman who likes sports, cars, and boxing, or a cis male who likes sewing, economics, and shopping for shoes.

I think whether women are afforded the same type of education and opportunities as men depends where you look. In the U.S., it feels like even though they are officially (as far as I know — I don’t know any statistics, I’m afraid), the way things are presented and the messages they get growing up skews the education and opportunities in favour of (white, cis, able-bodied, straight, etc.) men. For an example, a boy and a girl can be in the same mathematics class, but the boy might learn more if the teacher keeps telling the students that girls are better at language studies and boys are better at math.

I’m not sure what would work best in encouraging creativity in women, since all are vastly different. I’m usually most creative when I’m trying to deal emotionally with repercussions of abuse I’ve experienced, but someone else may only be creative when they are happy. I think one thing that’s for sure is more opportunities need to be given to women by working towards making education (and the world in general) more oriented towards /people/, as opposed to men of a certain class and ethnicity and so on — for an example, focus on a wider variety of writers in a class curriculum, as opposed to dead white guys.

This is becoming kind of a novel, so I’m stopping here.

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