A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s thought provoking thesis had such a profound impact upon me the first time I laid my eyes upon it. What could I possibly say about this remarkable piece of work without merely copying and pasting all of the paragraphs I love and gushing about their brilliance? Which I have done below anyway.
Every woman should read it, period. I read A Room of One’s Own for a feminist literature class at university. It was my first foray into feminist literary criticism and it turned out to be the perfect timing in my life. I’ve always had a protective attitude towards my education, but I discovered a newfound appreciation for the social and economic rights that I have always taken for granted – and like most young women who first discover feminism, I spent a good couple of months annoying the hell out of absolutely everybody within a 50km radius with my frequent and fervent feminist rants.
In October 1928, Virginia Woolf was invited to speak about Women and Fiction at Cambridge University’s female colleges of Newnham and Girton. These lectures sought to demonstrate to the female audience that their abilities are equal to their male counterparts, even if their social circumstances are not. Woolf expanded upon the ideas presented at Cambridge and published a six chapter essay entitled A Room of One’s Own.
A Room of One’s Own has a strong narrator who ponders the contrasting educational experiences available to men and women at the fictional Oxbridge College. Men are welcomed inside the hallowed halls and libraries of the educational realm where their innate genius is able to blossom, while women are literally locked out. Woolf analyses how the male dominant status quo restricts women and their creative opportunities as a result of this imbalance, not their abilities.
A Room of One’s Own is the perfect starting point for any novice feminist looking for an introduction to a range of thought provoking arguments that question centuries of patriarchal bias.
Using the analogy of William Shakespeare and his hypothetical sister, Judith, the narrator asks the reader to accept that both William and Judith are born with equal talents. We all know that William Shakespeare went on to become the most celebrated English poet and playwright of all time, but what about Shakespeare’s sister?
Judith Shakespeare would have likely received an inferior (or more likely, non-existent) education, she would have been unable to work to support herself, so she must marry to survive, thus resulting in pregnancy and child rearing. The end.
Without money and access to good quality education, women are destined to remain eternally in second place, whether in Shakespearian England, the 1920’s or a million years into the future. The context of Woolf’s essay may have changed, but the theory is just as pertinent today – especially when considering the unequal share of unpaid domestic work and responsibility of raising children. Women still carry the lions share at home, while the gender pay gap remains unfairly disproportionate in almost all sectors with women earning approximately 15% less than men do.
The best thing I can do is point you in the direction of a bookshop to buy this literary gem yourself. You can pick up the Penguin Classics version for under $15 – do it for Judith Shakespeare.
My Favourite Quotes from A Room of One’s Own
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind
I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.
Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques–literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.
Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.
One could not but play for a moment with the thought of what might have happened if Charlotte Brontë had possessed say three hundred a year — but the foolish woman sold the copyright of her novels outright for fifteen hundred pounds; had somehow possessed more knowledge of the busy world, and towns and regions full of life; more practical experience, and intercourse with her kind and acquaintance with a variety of character. In those words she puts her finger exactly not only upon her own defects as a novelist but upon those of her sex. She knew, no one better, how enormously her genius would have profited if it had not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her. But they were not granted; they were withheld.
We must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to, buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre.