Women in Academia: Virginia Woolf: ‘A room of one’s own’

Women in Academia is a reading group initiative by the Women & Politics society created to highlight women in (surprise) academia, by reading academic texts written by women in humanities and discussing them on a bi-weekly basis. 

Last week we discussed Virginia Woolf’s extended essay ‘’A Room of One’s Own’’, a work which is based on two lectures Woolf delivered in October 1928 at Newham College and Girton College, women’s constituent colleges at the University of Cambridge. In this essay, Woolf denounces the fact that there are social and material conditions required for the writing of fiction which women have continuously been deprived of. She illustrates the social constraints that have been imposed on women by a patriarchal society in its exclusion of women from educational institutions with the invention of a fictional character, an imaginary Shakespeare’s Sister called Judith. Judith, despite being equally talented to Shakespeare and equally capable of producing literary genius, is kept from writing due to the social norms at the time and is confined to domesticity, unable to go to school. This analogy blatantly exposes the social impediments imposed upon the female sex. One of our members compellingly declared ‘the example of Shakespeare’s’ sister for me was really impactful as it made me think about all of the great female writers we have missed out’. 

In a bittersweet passage, Woolf writes ‘’She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.” One cannot help but draw similarities with Shakespeare’s sister’s lost potential and the 34.3 million girls in the world today who are unable to access primary education, the 30 million denied lower-secondary school education, and the 67.4 million lacking upper-secondary school education.1 It was just in 2012 that Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban because she demanded that girls be allowed to receive an education. Last week she completed her Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree at Oxford. How many girls with the same dreams of studying in order to become doctors, scientists, lawyers, writers… are there whose voices are still being silenced? Too many. 

The essay also discusses as its main thesis the material wealth required to write fiction, which includes leisure time, privacy, and financial independence. Woolf asserts that women need material wealth in order to have intellectual freedom; in her own words ‘’a woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’’. This argument is particularly relevant to understanding the situation of women in the literary production as during the time in which Virginia Woolf was writing, they had been uniformly deprived of those basic monetary prerequisites. Thus, the essay attacks the fact that women were denied access to equal income and therefore to equal opportunities as it asserts that poverty for women has stood as an impediment for women writers. When discussing the argument that women needed to be financially emancipated in order to produce literary work, one participant proceeded to expand the point Woolf makes in the essay, drawing attention to how due to women’s lack of control over their financial situation meant that even marriage was seen as an economic proposition. She recalled this was portrayed in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, when Amy March says ‘’as a woman there is no way for me to make money, and if I did have money, it would belong to my husband, if I had children, it would be his property’’. Louisa May Alcott herself never married. 

The discussion then shifted in order to discuss the limitations of the essay when one person critiqued Woolf’s argument of the need for a room of one’s own in order to write as being made from a certain position of privilege. Woolf was born to an affluent and influential family in London (Kensington) and later attended King’s College London whilst her brothers went to Cambridge. It is clear that the argument she makes for the need of a room of one’s own was mostly focused on white upper middle-class women; the need for money and privacy to write is inevitably connected to questions of class. Indeed, she writes ‘’For genius is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people’’. To consider that a woman who has a room to herself and a regular income would necessarily be a good writer is too presumptuous, and this is what was exactly argued by Alice Walker in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Walker reminds us of Phillis Weatley, a slave and the first African-American author of a book of poetry, when she exclaims ‘’ What then are we to make of Phillis Weatley a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.’’2

We wrapped up the discussion by focusing the conversation on today’s female writers, be it those who write fiction or those in academia and concluded that Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own stand the test of time and are still as relevant as ever. Even though some of the challenges faced by women have changed, there is still an infuriatingly small number of women authors in comparison to men. In academia, women only hold 20% of professorships, and male authors outnumber their female counterparts on course reading lists. Additionally, in fiction, male writers still dominate books world;3 we discussed the irony in how J.K Rowling, the first person to become a US-dollar billionaire by writing books, was persuaded to publish the Harry Potter books using her initials because the target audience of young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman. Hence, Woolf’s question “Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men?’’ remains painfully necessary; women in 2020 still need greater opportunity and recognition.

Reading Group Review written by Chloe Delaitre

Sources Cited:

1 https://www.unicef.org/education/girls-education

2 https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/webtexts/Wheatley/phil2.htm

3 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world

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