Excerpt | A Room of One’s Own

In mid-May, I started pursuing a 6-week course on edX titled ‘Gender and Intersectionality’, offered by the University of Iceland and GEST (Gender Equality Studies and Training Programme under the auspices of UNESCO). It’s going well so far—I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 and has proven to be incredibly crucial in understanding the ways in which gender intersects with other realities/identities of class, race, religion, disability, nationalism etc., all of which affect one’s experience of being female in different ways. Simply put, analyzing gender without taking these aspects into consideration—early waves of feminism, for example, focused solely on the lives of middle and upper middle class white women, dubbed ‘white feminism’—merely leads to women from other marginalized communities remaining on the fringes.

Virginia Woolf’s work, of course, features in the course’s reading list, alongside other prominent feminist thinkers including bell hooks, Alice Walker, Rita Mae Brown, Betty Friedan, and others. Here is a striking excerpt from her essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own‘:

“..Here I would stop, but the pressure of convention decrees that every speech must end with a peroration. And a peroration addressed to women should have, you would agree, something particularly exalting and ennobling about it. I should implore you to remember your responsibilities, to be higher, more spiritual; I should remind you how much it depends upon you, and what an influence you can exert upon the future. But those exhortations can, safely, I think, be left to the other sex, who will put them, and indeed have put them, with far greater eloquence than I can compass. When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.

And again I am reminded by dipping into newspapers and novels and biographies that when a woman speaks to women she should have something very unpleasant up her sleeve. Women are hard on women. Women dislike women. Women – but are you not sick to death of the word? I can assure you that I am. Let us agree, then, that a paper read by a woman to women should end with something particularly disagreeable.

But how does it go? What can I think of? The truth is, I often like women. I like their unconventionality. I like their completeness. I like their anonymity. I like – but I must not run on in this way. That cupboard there – you say it holds clean table-napkins only; but what if Sir Archibald Bodkin [1] were concealed among them? Let me then adopt a sterner tone. Have I, in the preceding words, conveyed to you sufficiently the warnings and reprobation of mankind? I have told you the very low opinion in which you were held by Mr Oscar Browning. I have indicated what Napolean once thought of you and what Mussolini thinks now. Then, in case any of you aspire to fiction, I have copied out for your benefit the advice of the critic about courageously acknowledging the limitations of your sex [2]. I have referred to Professor X and given prominence to his statement that women are intellectually, morally and physically inferior to men. I have handed on all that has come my way without going in search of it, and here is a final warning – from Mr John Langdon Davies [3]. Mr John Langdon Davies warns women ‘that when children cease to be altogether desirable, women cease to be altogether necessary.’ I hope you will make a note of it.

How can I further encourage you to go about the business of life? Young women, I would say, and please attend, for the peroration is beginning, you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. The plays of Shakespeare were not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilisation. What is your excuse? It is all very well for you to say, pointing to the streets and squares and forests of the globe swarming with black and white and coffee-coloured inhabitants, all busily engaged in traffic and enterprise and love-making, we have had other work on our hands. Without our doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert. We have borne and bred and washed and taught, perhaps to the age of six or seven years, the one thousand six hundred and twenty three million human beings who are, according to statistics, at present in existence, and that, allowing that some had help, takes time.

Painting by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

There is truth in what you say – I will not deny it. But at the same time may I remind you that there have been at least two colleges in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago, she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon those immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not tens and twelves.

Thus, with some time on your hands, and with some book learning in your brains, you have had enough of the other kind, and are sent to college partly, I suspect, to be un-educated, surely you should embark upon another stage of your very long, very laborious and highly obscure career. A thousand pens are ready to suggest what you should do and what effect you will have. My own suggestion is a little fantastic, I admit; I prefer, therefore, to put it in the form of fiction.

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young, alas – she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. 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. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own – if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and trees or whatever it may be in themselves – if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view, if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

Notes:

[1] Sir Archibald Bodkin was Director of Public Prosecutions during the obscenity trial for Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
[2] the critic was Desmond MacCarthy
[3] John Langdon Davies in A Short History of Women 1928


Paintings by Danish artist Carl Vilhelm Holsøe (1863 – 1935).

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