A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

roomA Room of One’s Own is adapted from a series of lectures Virginia Woolf gave on the topic of “Women and Fiction.” In them, she concludes that in order for a woman to write, she must have money and a room of her own. She looks back through the history of women and their rights (or, more correctly, lack of rights), and tries to sort through why so few women ever wrote books and poetry, when so many men did. This was her conclusion. A woman needed money in order to become educated and self-sufficient, and she needed her own space in order to escape from the many distractions women were burdened with.

I don’t think I got as much out of this book as I could have. It was difficult for me to read, and I kept thinking it would be so much easier to understand if I could listen to it. Unfortunately, the library system in San Antonio doesn’t have a single copy of the audio version of A Room of One’s Own, so I read it in print the best I could and doubt I caught more than a 10th of what it contained. I also think I would have liked the book better in audio. It feels spoken. However, even that 10th contained some important things, so I’m going to pull out what I gleaned from one of Virginia Woolf’s most famous contributions to literature.

Equality

Everyone knows the stories of women with no rights, subservient and oppressed. They know it from their own ancestors 100+ years ago. They know it in today’s world from certain countries. They hear about the struggles of women to gain the right to work, to vote, to hold property, to wear pants, to obtain birth control. I’ve heard these things so many times that in some ways, I’ve become desensitized. What happened to my ancestors is bad, but right now, right here, I think there’s a lot more equality, and whatever tips the scales against women in the Western world is balanced by the things that tip the scales against men. It’s not perfect on either side, but it’s so much better than even just 30 years ago. It’s hard for me to think of myself as oppressed. I can’t think of myself as oppressed. I’m not. Not at all. And no one’s ever made me feel that way.

While Woolf talks about the things you always hear, she also gave two examples in this book that really blew me away. They were inequalities unfathomable to me because they were so minor and yet so symbolically powerful. She tells how she was walking on the grass at a university, when a guard came up to her to explain that only fellows were allowed on the grass. Women had to stay on the pathways. A bit later, she went to a university library, and was denied entry because a woman can only be admitted with a man or a letter of introduction. I don’t know if either story actually happened to Woolf – she presents them half factually, half fictionally – but either way, this really struck me. To not be able to walk in the same places or visit the same libraries as other people because of gender! That’s outrageous! I bristled with indignation. I don’t know that I could have stayed calm if I’d been in her place. This made inequality in Woolf’s time far more real to me than any of the things I hear these days.

I like Woolf. I like her ideas about equality. She never once claims women are better than men. She claims equality. She claims the sexes should be equal. One of the things that frustrates me with a huge part of today’s feminism is the inherent assumption that women are better than men. I was never exposed to anyone claiming to be feminist until I went to college. One of the very first girls I met railed against men. She refused to read books written by men. She only listened to music and looked at art by women. She planned to alter her kids’ books to make the woman the hero every time. She believed men had no real purpose and viewed them more like dogs than people, except when it came to her boyfriend, about whom she giggled a lot. She left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I was vehemently anti-feminist for years. What I realized only later was that I really was a feminist, insomuch as I believed in equality of the sexes. That girl? She was not. She believed in elevation of women and the oppression of men. Really, she was the antithesis of a feminist, whatever she thought. And I like real feminism. Woolf’s feminism. Equality.

Poetry

Woolf makes only one statement in this book I completely disagree with. She claims that because women had less time on their hands than men, they were forced to write novels instead of poetry. That’s why the rare woman that published mostly published novels. She made the assumption that poetry is more difficult and time-consuming to write than novels, and that novels can be written without much thought. I completely disagree with this. I think either form of writing might be easier to an individual, depending on the way they write. I personally find novels easier, because I don’t get along with poetry. I know people who write brilliant poems but can’t put together a short story, much less a novel. I don’t think poetry is intrinsically more valuable than a novel, either, and I certainly don’t think it’s more time-consuming! Everything about these statements is wrong to me.

Androgyny

One interesting point Woolf makes is that in order to be a writer, a person must have an androgynous mind. I love this! I’ve long felt that androgyny makes the most unbiased mindset, the best way to write, the best way to debate, the best way to evaluate. I appreciate people who are more in the middle, gender-wise, than those who are extremely “feminine” or “masculine” in their thoughts and actions. Woolf writes this out far better than I can, so I’m just going to say I love it and encourage you to read it on your own. I wish she’d expanded on it. It was too short.

**
Does the idea of needing money and a room of one’s own hold for our time, nearly 100 years later? I don’t think so, honestly. Sure – time, space, and money would of course help someone wanting to write. Time, space, and money would help anyone! However, it’s not necessary anymore. I’ve been writing since I learned the alphabet. I wrote my first story when I was 6. I wrote in school, hiding my notebook, say, under my desk during Pre-Cal because that was the only time I could squeeze in. I certainly didn’t have any money, time, or space of my own. Everywhere I went, I had distractions (imagine answering calculus problems as you write out a suicide or love scene!). By the time I left college, I already had kids. I wrote my first novel with three toddlers on my lap, aged 5, 3, and 2. Time? No. Space? Definitely not. Money? Yeah, right. And yet I wrote. I’ve kept writing. I published short stories and poems. I’m in the process of getting my latest novel published. Would it have been easier with the advantages Woolf describes? Oh yeah. But I made do, and so have many other writers.

Today, there are women writers everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if there are more female than male writers these days. Completely by accident, I’ve read 46 books by men and 68 by women this year. I doubt all those women have ideal conditions to write in. Perhaps back in Woolf’s day, money and a room of one’s own was essential for a woman to write. Not so much now. I am very thankful for Woolf’s contributions to politics and literature, which helped to give us creative freedom today.

About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2009, Adult, Prose and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

  1. Pingback: Virginia Woolf: A Biography, by Quentin Bell | The Zen Leaf

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