15 June 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf had much to say about women living in a man's world.  Women could be bought and sold, forced into marriage, work in slavery under the title of 'wife', have education and the vote beyond their reach.  Avenues and opportunity available to sons were nothing more than fantasy for their sisters.  When an aunt dies and leaves Virginia the sum of £500 a year, it's a key that opens a door.

'However, as I say, my aunt died, and whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go.  Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about.  No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds.  Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.  Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.  I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me.  I need not flatter any man; has nothing to give me.'

There were times while reading A Room of One's Own when I struggled to understand what Virginia was trying to say.  Sections rich with a stream of consciousness narrative can be difficult to wade through, but there were so many times when she expressed exactly how I feel.  That this book was first published in 1928, and I'm nodding in agreement in 2017, starkly illustrates there's still room for improvement.

Asked to deliver a paper on the topic of women and fiction, Woolf blends essay with fiction, She expresses the frustration of women who yearn to be educated as equally as their male counterparts.  Today, my contemporaries are still fighting for wage parity with their male colleagues - this in societies where women are 'allowed' to work outside the home.  The freedom to earn money still eludes many women around the world.  But Woolf has room to see the situation from another angle.

'Moreover, in a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex.  Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them.  The nursemaid will heave coal.  The shopwoman will drive an engine.  All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared - as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street) that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people.  Remove their  protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and engine-drivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, 'I saw a woman today', as one used to say, 'I saw an aeroplane'.'

I was also struck by Woolf's observation that much of the history of women was never documented because it was mundane.  While men were acknowledged for exploring, inventing, ruling, and acquiring medals in battle, women were raising children, cooking, and cleaning the home.  Raising the next generation to be contributing citizens is taken for granted.  I'm reminded that many women were not paid for the added responsibility and workload of taking in young evacuees during the Blitz in WWII.  Why, it's just women do.

In the last few pages Virginia expresses the importance of being oneself.  Despite outside influences no one holds the key to your mind.  Assigning a fictional sister named Judith to Shakespeare, the author wonders if her creative skills would be encouraged as her brother's were.  Women must continue to support each other and strive to be recognized.  Despite her statement that freedom to write comes with a room of one's own and £500 a year, Woolf acknowledges that 'to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while'.

A Room of One's Own is a book I'll return to again and again.  It's bold, sad, clever, and poignant.  And I was very impressed with Penguin for publishing this book with four blank pages at the back for jotting notes.

Virginia Woolf's desk

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