by Megan Snopik
In Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, she attempts – in preparation of two lectures intended for female college students – to answer why, as of 1929, there have not been as many great female writers as male. Praised in its second-wave feminist heyday, this essay was crucial to forming a certain “sex consciousness” that Woolf deemed essential for great women authors. Since its publication, however, feminism has evolved in ways that Woolf could never even dream about. Even in her own time, we know Woolf was addressing a crowd of educated, middle class, white women. Intersectionality who? But given how our understandings of sex and gender have changed and evolved through the dogged work of feminists, activists, and academics, the metaphorical “room of one’s own” should have been achieved and the perfect gender equilibrium should have been met… Right? In a re-reading of A Room of One’s Own, I examine the ways in which her feminist prescriptions have failed and prevailed, and how they apply to the journey of this aspirational female writer (who does, in fact, have a room of her own).
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
In the titular quote for this essay, Woolf’s central focus is the importance of the physical (and metaphorical) spaces in which women write. She argues that writers like Jane Austen and the Brontës never had the chance to realize their full potential as writers since they lacked the space and time to wholly devote themselves to their work and instead had to write in “parlor rooms.” The fact that they wrote their novels in these common spaces meant that they were constantly hiding their manuscripts and disenfranchising their own genius. Additionally, she emphasizes the inequitable conditions women faced when attempting to author novels, particularly in terms of academic communities and financial support. While male authors had institutions to back them, women were writing on their own, often in secret, and would often lack the support in trying to get their work into the world.
Women writers still have significant barriers to overcome, however, many would argue that women have (or should be able to have) greater access to spaces and time for writing than ever before. Because millennials are staying single longer and starting families later, the constant caretaking of children and spouses is in fact delayed. Nonetheless, traditional gender roles are still very much in place today, but instead of women just being relegated to the private sphere to cook, clean, and child-rear, they are expected to work a 9-5 in addition to these roles. These gender roles then continue to factor into additional repercussions like a perpetuating wage gap, as mothers are expected to leave their seat at the conference table for their children’s doctor appointments, sick days, and pregnancy leave.
So, while many women have the working-class independence that Woolf praised, the conditions in which they secure their financial security trade off with the leisure time to pursue hobbies and the ability to devote time to writing. Even if they have a room with a lock on it, it’s unlikely that they’re spending hours and hours in it. This oversight isn’t necessarily the fault of Woolf or modern feminists, but a reflection of second wave feminism’s success at joining the workplace without having the momentum to quite change social structures. This is, of course, something with which we still struggle to this day. Additionally, most of the aforementioned issues with the pay-gap and working women’s status are multiplied for women of color, where non-white employees face even more workplace discrimination and are more likely to be taken advantage of. Woolf’s pre-conditions for “dedicated” writing excludes large groups of women who find themselves writing outside the room. They might not have the time or resources to lock themselves in that room. Instead they write on the bus on the way to work or at the kitchen table while making dinner or in bed while they rock their child to sleep.
“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”
In the 1920s, as (white) women got the vote and the push for many women to leave the domestic sphere was increasingly prevalent, Woolf encouraged women to travel, pursue creative endeavors, and gain life experience. She argues that the pursuit of writing, art, business, politics and passions have become wall-toppling forces due to the bounds placed on women. Essentially, Woolf is saying that women need the same space, time, education and resources as men in order to realize their full potential.
Today’s women arguably have the resources necessary to enter what would have been the “men’s domain” in Woolf’s time. The freedom that women have to choose professions, spouses, and determine their own life path should reasonably have liberated them from the “bricks and mortar” encaging them. Using myself as an example, I have fulfilled Woolf’s qualification of space, time, education, and resources to write since I was 11. I haven’t seen the world, but I have been to Epcot at Disney World and seen Discovery Channel documentaries, so I think that should be sufficient experience… However, writing has always been a distant phenomenon, separate from something as mundane as my everyday life. Beyond the academic aura surrounding it, writing fiction seems to be too precarious a task to balance between a job, studies, social life, exercise, and, of course, binge-watching random Netflix shows every evening. I may be just lazy or uninspired, but in comparison to Woolf’s expectations of me, I am dramatically unprepared to become the Next Great Female Writer.
Without universalizing my experience, as we have certainly had great writers before and after Woolf’s time, the general constrictions of modern life seem to continuously provide distraction for those who dare to steps outside the rhythm of daily life no matter their gender, creating the burden that one must be absolutely prodigious to pursue creative mediums seriously. Maybe our bricks and mortar look different from Woolf’s and move into the metaphorical realm, as creativity seems walled up for so many.
“But, nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked even half a century ago. Men were no longer to her ‘the opposing faction’; she need not waste her time railing against them; she need not climb on to the roof and ruin her peace of mind longing for travel, experience and a knowledge of the world and character that were denied her.”
One of the largest critiques of Woolf in modern times is her lack of the aspects of feminism that third wave feminism has struggled so hard to bring to the forefront, like intersectionality and embracing collectivity. This quote is quite emblematic of this as she acts in a rather post-feminist attitude towards men as she celebrates the point at which women feel that men are no longer “the opposing faction”. Many women would disagree with this statement and it is a cornerstone of 21st century feminism to use anger and fear against men to fuel movements. The threat of men is still very real as domestic violence, femicide, transphobia, and other violences still endanger many women. Woolf’s dissuasion of “railing against men” then sounds rather privileged and complicit in a world still plagued by patriarchy (amongst other things).
Anger remains central to many women’s lived experiences and can be seen in feminist movements such as Riot Grrrl and bra burning. Even in Woolf’s time, engaging the anger and emotionality that is part and parcel with the female experience is key to embracing women around oneself and participating in community building. The urge to discipline women for feminism that “ruins peace of mind” and uses fear and hatred is white-washing and tone-policing. The response of rallying against men is totally rational in light of the conditions women are subject to. Claiming feminism’s fight is over for all because the fight has been won for some is a dramatic mischaracterization of what feminism is and who it is for.
“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”
Putting aside differences in feminist theory throughout time, a distinct teleology can be traced from the feminism of Woolf to where we are now. While Woolf was not perfect, she created rooms and spaces for many women to come together and think differently about their connections to each other and femininity. In her more radical Three Guineas, published in 1938, she recognized the personal growth possible in feminist thought. Adding to feminist discourse, her essays or her novels opened doors for many women, whether we have rooms or not. Perhaps Woolf’s acknowledgement of the room made the essentialization of spaces like the room obsolete entirely. Once women realize and acknowledge the space they rightfully occupy, there is no spatial constraint existent to possibly restrain them.
For me, re-reading A Room of One’s Own has been as contentious as it has been illuminating to my own journey as a writer. Not only did she make the way easier for women writers succeeding her, but she also gave women a framework to demand respect for their writing and creativity. Above all, it has taught me to value my own writing as a form of feminist action, despite all the assurences of its mediocrity from society. My room, and my space on the page, will never be written off as insignificant because the act of my creative expression is, in and of itself, historic. I too lend my voice to the cacophony of the masterpiece that is the female canon.