What might women writers accomplish, given the freedom to create enjoyed by men? Virginia Woolf’s thesis in her classic A Room of One’s Own is that if women were given £500 a year and a room of their own, they might then be able to reach the genius previously the purview of men alone.
As I read this essay, I mostly felt disgust and anger. In many ways, women are still second-class citizens, and what’s worse is the acceptance of this status. When I was considering careers for myself, I didn’t think about traditionally male careers such as engineer or even physician. It wasn’t that I considered myself incapable or unintelligent. I just didn’t consider those options.
The other night on Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock was discussing the possibility that Hillary Rodham Clinton might be president. He insisted that white women have not struggled, and he attempted to develop this idea with examples of black men hounded by racists, executed, tortured, silenced. And it is true that these atrocities happened. But he is forgetting the quiet desperation of birthing thirteen children, losing perhaps half of them before they reached adulthood, spending days working in the kitchen and in the fields, sewing by candlelight, teaching children, helpmeet to a husband, always owned by some man from birth to death, whether father, husband, or son. Who is he to belittle the suffering of women because it is different from the suffering of black men?
Young women … you are disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilisation. What is your excuse? It is all very well for you say, pointing to the streets and squares and forests of the globe swarming with black and white and coffee-coloured inhabitants, all busily engaged in traffic and enterprise and love-making, we have had other work on our hands. Without our doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert. We have borne and bred and washed and taught, perhaps to the age of six or seven years, the one thousand six hundred and twenty-three million human beings who are, according to statistics, at present in existence, and that, allowing that some had help, takes time. (112)
While it is true that women have made strides since Woolf wrote this essay in 1928, I was rather dismayed by how little we have actually moved in the grand scheme of things. We actually debate issues such as whether America is ready for a woman president (or a black president, for that matter)? Why? Why are women still paid less for the same work as men? Why are little girls sold dolls who tell them “math is hard”? Why is one of the worst insults a man can deliver to another man a pejorative term for a woman’s reproductive organs?
A feminist is someone who believes that men and women should be equal, but you will find that many people in our world today are loathe to call themselves feminists, even if they believe in equality for the sexes.
I am glad that I am living today rather than in the time of our earliest women writers. Did you know that Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, tried to drown herself? Her skirts buoyed her up and saved her life. Wollstonecraft’s thesis was much the same as Woolf’s: women are not intellectually inferior to men; women have not had the same opportunities for education, and (Woolf deduces by extension) time, sufficient quiet, and freedom from worries about money in order to create. Nowadays, more families share the workload traditionally borne by women alone. Women have more opportunities for education. But Woolf is right to point out our late start. Our first major writers did not arrive until the nineteenth century — Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, George Sand, Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott. Who were their models? As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. When men writers have had several millennia to develop and refine their craft, women have really had a scant two hundred years. How long have we potentially had a room of our own and money enough to create? Perhaps fifty years? Clearly we have a large task before us. Especially when one considers, as Woolf so aptly points out in her essay, that the subject matter dear to women is undervalued by men.
A Room of One’s Own is a valuable lens through which to look at women’s writing. I can’t claim to understand all of Woolf’s argument, but I wish more men — and women — might read this essay with an open mind.
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word [Shakespeare’s sister] and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; the need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so … and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape the common sitting room … then the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. (113-114)
[tags]Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare’s sister, feminism, writing[/tags]