Guide to the classics: A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s feminist call to arms (2024)

I sit at my kitchen table to write this essay, as hundreds of thousands of women have done before me. It is not my own room, but such things are still a luxury for most women today. The table will do. I am fortunate I can make a living “by my wits,” as Virginia Woolf puts it in her famous feminist treatise, A Room of One’s Own (1929).

That living enabled me to buy not only the room, but the house in which I sit at this table. It also enables me to pay for safe, reliable childcare so I can have time to write.

It is as true today, therefore, as it was almost a century ago when Woolf wrote it, that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” — indeed, write anything at all.

Still, Woolf’s argument, as powerful and influential as it was then — and continues to be — is limited by certain assumptions when considered from a contemporary feminist perspective.

Woolf’s book-length essay began as a series of lectures delivered to female students at the University of Cambridge in 1928. Its central feminist premise — that women writer’s voices have been silenced through history and they need to fight for economic equality to be fully heard — has become so culturally pervasive as to enter the popular lexicon.

Julia Gillard’s A Podcast of One’s Own, takes its lead from the essay, as does Anonymous Was a Woman, a prominent arts funding body based in New York.

Even the Bechdel-Wallace test, measuring the success of a narrative according to whether it features at least two named women conversing about something other than a man, can be seen to descend from the “Chloe liked Olivia” section of Woolf’s book. In this section, the hypothetical characters of Chloe and Olivia share a laboratory, care for their children, and have conversations about their work, rather than about a man.

Woolf’s identification of women as a poorly paid underclass still holds relevance today, given the gender pay gap. As does her emphasis on the hierarchy of value placed on men’s writing compared to women’s (which has led to the establishment of awards such as the Stella Prize).

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Invisible women

In her book, Woolf surveys the history of literature, identifying a range of important and forgotten women writers, including novelists Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes, and playwright Aphra Behn.

In doing so, she establishes a new model of literary heritage that acknowledges not only those women who succeeded, but those who were made invisible: either prevented from working due to their sex, or simply cast aside by the value systems of patriarchal culture.

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To illustrate her point, she creates Judith, an imaginary sister of the playwright Shakespeare.

What if such a woman had shared her brother’s talents and was as adventurous, “as agog to see the world” as he was? Would she have had the freedom, support and confidence to write plays? Tragically, she argues, such a woman would likely have been silenced — ultimately choosing suicide over an unfulfilled life of domestic servitude and abuse.

In her short, passionate book, Woolf examines women’s letter writing, showing how it can illustrate women’s aptitude for writing, yet also the way in which women were cramped and suppressed by social expectations.

She also makes clear that the lack of an identifiable matrilineal literary heritage works to impede women’s ability to write.

Indeed, the establishment of those major women writers in the 18th and 19th centuries (George Eliot, the Brontes et al), when “the middle-class woman began to write” is, Woolf argues, a moment in history “of greater importance than the Crusades or the War of the Roses”.

Male critics such as T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom have identified a (male) writer’s relation to his precursors as necessary for his own literary production. But how, Woolf asks, is a woman to write if she has no model to look back on or respond to?If we are women, she wrote, “we think back through our mothers”.

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Her argument inspired later feminist revisionist work of literary critics like Elaine Showalter, Sandra K. Gilbert and Susan Gubar who sought to restore the reputation of forgotten women writers and turn critical attention to women’s writing as a field worthy of dedicated study.

All too often in history, Woolf asserts, “Woman” is simply the object of the literary text — either the adored, voiceless beauty to whom the sonnet is dedicated or reflecting back the glow of man himself.

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.

A Room of One’s Own returns that authority to both the woman writer and the imagined female reader whom she addresses.

Stream of consciousness

A Room of One’s Own also demonstrates several aspects of Woolf’s modernism. The early sections demonstrate her virtuoso stream of consciousness technique. She ruminates on women’s position in, and relation to, fiction while wandering through the university campus, driving through country lanes, and dawdling over a leisurely, solo lunch.

Critically, she employs telling patriarchal interruptions to that flow of thought.

A beadle waves his arms in exasperation as she walks on a private patch of grass. A less-than-satisfactory dinner is served to the women’s college. A “deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman” turns her away from the library. These interruptions show the frequent disruption to the work of a woman without a room.

This is the lesson also imparted in Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse where artist Lily Briscoe must shed the overbearing influence of Mr and Mrs Ramsay, a couple who symbolise Victorian culture, if she is to “have her vision”. The flights and flow of modernist technique are not possible without the time and space to write and think for herself.

A Room of One’s Own has been crucial to the feminist movement and women’s literary studies. But it is not without problems. Woolf admits her good fortune in inheriting £500 a year from an aunt.

Indeed her purse now “breed(s) ten-shilling notes automatically”.

Part of the purpose of the essay is to encourage women to make their living through writing.

But Woolf seems to lack an awareness of her own privilege and how much harder it is for most women to fund their own artistic freedom. It is easy for her to advise against “doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning”.

In her book, Woolf also criticises the “awkward break” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which Bronte’s own voice interrupts the narrator’s in a passionate protest against the treatment of women.

Here, Woolf shows little tolerance for emotion, which has historically often been dismissed as hysteria when it comes to women discussing politics.

A Room of One’s Own ends with an injunction to work for the coming of Shakespeare’s sister, that woman forgotten by history. “So to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile”.

Such a woman author must have her vision, even if her work will be “stored in attics” rather than publicly exhibited.

The room and the money are the ideal, we come to see, but even without them the woman writer must write, must think, in anticipation of a future for her daughter-artists to come.

An adaptation of A Room of One’s Own is currently at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre.

Guide to the classics: A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s feminist call to arms (2024)

FAQs

What is the feminist thought in Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own? ›

In A Room of One's Own, Woolf develops the theory of the relation between gender and writing. She examines the exclusion of women from educational institutions and the relations between this exclusion and the unequal distribution of wealth.

What is the main message of Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own"? ›

Major themes of A Room of One's Own include the underinvestment of society in women's education and a lack of women's voices telling their own stories. It also details the need for women to claim both financial and intellectual freedom to write.

What does Virginia Woolf say about feminism? ›

Briefly, Virginia Woolf wants women to be free in every field. She states that the rights given to men about working with equal rights as men, fair wages or equal pay, having equal right in education and sex equality should be given to women, as well.

What is the point of a room of one's own? ›

The central point of A Room of One's Own is that every woman needs a room of her own—something men are able to enjoy without question. A room of her own would provide a woman with the time and the space to engage in uninterrupted writing time. During Woolf's time, women rarely enjoyed these luxuries.

What is a feminist quote from a room of ones own? ›

“It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”

What is the gender inequality in a room of one's own? ›

Gender Inequality

Throughout A Room of One's Own, the narrator emphasizes the fact that women are treated unequally in her society and that this is why they have produced less impressive works of writing than men.

What is the thesis of a room of one's own? ›

Her thesis is that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." This thesis has a limited scope, she admits—one that "leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved." Yet she extends the hope that her reflections may shed at least some light ...

What does Woolf most likely believe based on a room of one's own? ›

Expert-Verified Answer. Based on ''A Room of One's Own'', Woolf most likely believes that because of women's circ*mstances during Elizabethan times, it would have been surprising to see great talent emerge from a female writer.

What is Woolf's purpose in writing this essay? ›

Expert-Verified Answer

Virginia Woolf's purpose in writing "A Room of One's Own" is to persuade women to reject social norms and to write. Virginia Woolf writes that men have written a lot more than women. And she states that to write it is necessary to have money.

What does Virginia Woolf criticize? ›

Other recurring themes or her criticism are the unity and interraction of the arts, and, more particularly, their "purity." She condemned the subordination of art to alien disciplines and the deliberate inculcation of doctrine; but she had no objection to the presence of ethics, politics, or metaphysics, if they were ...

What did Virginia Woolf believe in? ›

Virginia Woolf is usually regarded as an agnostic, even an atheist, hostile to religion in general and Christianity in particular. But Jane de Gay makes a convincing case that Woolf was in fact deeply interested in religion and was well read in religious writings, particularly the Bible.

What did Virginia Woolf say about Judith Shakespeare as a study in feminism? ›

Woolf is saying that women must take things into their own hands in order to get past the difficulties of history. Woolf is saying that to let the ghost of Shakespeare's sister live, we must work well to bring her into existence, a different existence from the past.

What was Virginia Woolf's main theme in a room of one's own? ›

Financial and Intellectual Freedom

Woolf argues that a woman needs financial freedom so as to be able to control her own space and life—to be unhindered by interruptions and sacrifices—in order to gain intellectual freedom and therefore be able to write.

What does a room of one's own argue? ›

In the essay, Woolf argues that for women to achieve their full creative potential, they need financial independence and a literal and metaphorical “room of their own.” The setting is both the physical and symbolic space that women must carve out for themselves in a world that has historically restricted their ...

What is Virginia Woolf saying in a room of one's own? ›

In her groundbreaking essay "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf asserts that in order for a woman to engage in the creative act of writing fiction, she must possess both independence and financial means. While seemingly straightforward, this statement carries significant socio-political undertones.

What does a woman must have money and a room of her own mean? ›

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Woolf argued powerfully that at the time (the 1920s) women did not lack the talent or inclination to write; they lacked the opportunity, being expected to fulfil roles of domesticity and nurture in the home.

How does Woolf account for women's poverty in a room of one's own? ›

(Woolf might have said the same of her essay)! Firstly, Woolf attributes the feminization of poverty to the roles women play as wives and mothers in a patriarchal household and society for which they are rewarded no economic or property incentive.

What are Woolf's views on women's place in literary history? ›

In many of her essays, Woolf refers to women writers she greatly admired and respected. But she believed that despite the success of their work, they still did not have proper or complete freedom because they wrote behind male pseudonyms and, therefore, lost their identity. One such writer is George Eliot (1819–1880).

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