Thinking about women and stories led me to revisit Virginia Woolf’s book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This book is derived from lectures she gave at Cambridge women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, in 1928 on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’. It has been an influential work in feminist studies with a central theme that women need a room in which to write. The room is both literal and figurative. Woolf maintains that women of the past had neither the space, time – nor financial means to acquire either – in order to pursue writing.
Woolf begins by comparing the women’s college to the men’s, the decadence and luxury afforded to the men’s college, including the size of their libraries – finding the women’s college lacking. She doesn’t do this in a malicious way, or in any way that’s rude to either college. She doesn’t push to attack the men for having so much, nor shame the women for having so little.
What she does focus on, is the lack of opportunity. While discussing famous women authors of the 18th century, Austen and Brontë, she notes how one of them wrote on small scraps of paper, constantly hiding her scribbling away because what was a woman doing, writing?
If women, perhaps, did write… well then what was the point? Certainly anything they wrote about wasn’t as important as what men wrote about. War and sports outweigh fashion and drawing rooms, regardless of how steeped either are in observations of human nature.
And yet, creativity and persistence will find a way. On Jane Austen, Woolf remarked “here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That’s how Shakespeare wrote.”
Another one of Woolf’s observations struck me as interesting. A flaw she found in some of the earlier women writers was that they didn’t write in their own voice. That whether their work implied they were protesting that they were as good as any man, or if it were self-deprecating in saying they were ‘only a woman’, she concludes that one had “altered her values in deference to the opinions of others.”
How many women still do a version of this today in the work place? How magnified is this for women of color? How many women modulate their voice in order to be heard, in order to not be vilified?
Woolf herself comes from an upper-middle class British family, so tends to focus on the same. She does talk of a woman named Mrs. Aphra Behn, who made a living writing in the 17th century. Mrs. Behn was not of the upper-middle class, but a woman who made a living writing out of necessity to support herself. A feat as it wasn’t a common practice for women to be educated, particularly those not in the upper class. “She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote.” By being paid, she showed that women could make a living by writing.
But is it just about a room? Space to write? “Women never have half an hour… that they may call their own”, a quote Woolf attributes to Florence Nightingale, resonates today. Not just with me, but with other women juggling life demands during these pandemic days. Sonia Feertchak suggests that “digital space has replaced the physical one” and that working from home has most of us dividing up not only our space, but our time. 1
I think the demands on our time isn’t necessarily a women-specific issue today. In addition to work and family we have dozens more mundane tasks to deal with every day that are soul-sucking time-wasters – planning meals, exercising, calling the cable company, preparing for holidays, laundry, running errands – the minutiae becomes an avalanche, crowding out space even for those of us who do have a room of our own. Keeping the room and remaining solvent is another matter.
In chapter five, Woolf starts with a brighter outlook. She considers the library of her day and all the books written by women that she didn’t find in the libraries of the past.
How far have we come in the past 90+ years? I am thankful to see more and more women authors in the ranks of the top sellers, but it doesn’t seem like a level playing field yet. And what about all the voices who still don’t have a room of their own?
You can read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ free at Project Gutenberg. https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791h.html