Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Virginia Woolf and her Search for Feminism

In her essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf weaves her own life experiences with a little bit of fiction to create a work that explores women as authors and the role of female characters in fiction.  The setting begins with Woolf presenting a lecture to a group of women in college.  She explains how the original intent of her lecture was to discuss the role of women in fiction, but while researching this topic, however, Woolf formed “an opinion upon one minor point” stating “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Wolf suggests this is the “greatest problem” of women authors, thus leaving the “true nature of fiction unsolved.” Next, the scene moves to Oxbridge College where Woolf contemplates the differences between the opportunities provided to men and women in society.  She expresses frustration at how she is unable to enter the library because she is a woman.  She suggests that a woman’s educational opportunities have always been less than men, and this makes her angry.  At a luncheon and dinner later that day she also suggests that men have had more opportunities to be materially satisfied and taken care of.  Woolf suggests that in order to have a mind that can think critically and intelligently, a person must be well fed and taken care of.  She begins to see how many women do not have their own money and are unable to live comfortably due to inheritance laws or from a lack of independence from their family.  Woolf researches the literary history to see what has been written about women and finds that most of it has been written by men and very little of it has been complimentary.   Woolf then examines the nineteenth century authors to determine the context women were writing in and how they used their circumstances to become authors.  It is here that she argues that in order for women to be authors and to write good literature, they must “have money and a room of her own.” They must be cared for materially so they do not have to worry about survival, and they must have peace and quiet to write. To end her book, Woolf examines the literature of the 1920s—the time period in which she was writing—to determine how women were dealing with the problems of women writing fiction. She challenges women to take up the literary quest, regardless of the challenges they find in their lives.

The major theme that Woolf is writing about is feminism.  Her definition of feminism, however, is what Karen Offen refers to as “individualist” feminism, or that individuals have equal rights to eliminate class privileges or gender privileges.  Woolf argues that women should seek basic human rights and to celebrate the “quest for personal independence (or autonomy) in all aspects of life.” Even to the point of “downplaying…all socially defined roles.”  Woolf accomplishes this theme through her quest to identify the challenges associated with women writing fiction and the role women play in fiction. She articulates that because many women have not been able to attain the same status as men in our society, whether educationally or materially, women may be hampered in their literary journey. For instance, she creates Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s fictional sister, to illustrate how due to her position as a woman in the household, she would never have been able to become the same literary giant as her brother, even though she had the same parents and the same gifts and talent as her brother.  Woolf explains that this literary genius would never have been recognized for her literary pursuits simply because of her gender.  Woolf argues that these women were unable to be independent and to have the much needed resources and support due to societal structures.  Within this context of women struggling to enter the literary world, Woolf makes her own discovery of how women need independence in society if they are ever to be successful in their literary pursuits. They need their own money, resources, and their own space or room to concentrate on writing.  However, much of this was unavailable to women at the time. Thus, Woolf begins her search for independent female writers to make her case for individualist feminism.  

In her search for these successful female authors, Woolf focuses on the nineteenth century. In particular, she focuses on Jane Austen and her contribution to the literary world.  As she studies Jane Austen, Woolf realizes that Austen overcame the inherent problems within society to become an incredible writer.  It is through this examination that Woolf realizes how important it is for women to find their own way and not to rely on society for what they deserve.   For instance, Austen did not have a room of her own.  In fact, Austen wrote in her sitting room “subject to all kinds of casual interruptions.” Austen also had very little “literary training” but used the training that she had been provided to write. In addition, she had very little material positions for “it was impossible for a woman to go about alone” and make something of themselves.  And through this all, Woolf points out that she “could not find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest.”  Even without room, support, and education, female authors can still persevere.  Woolf finds a woman who overcame the limitations projected on her and instead used her individualist feminist mindset to become a prolific writer anyway, regardless of the fact that she had so much going against her.  Austen had, as Offen explained, “downplayed” all social roles to find her own journey and experience. At the end of the book, Woolf challenges other women to do the same. She challenges women to “have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think.” Despite the “poverty and obscurity” that society might give to the woman, it is still “worth while” to find the feminism within to be a good writer.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1957.

Offen, Karen. "Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach." Signs 14, no. 1 (Autumn 1988): 136.


  1. In A Room of One's Own, I think it's interesting to study through what we have talked about in class about masculinity and, as a construct, its social role is linked with earning money for work. We have studied a lot about the lower pay of women and the roles that still encourage these set gender distinctions based on money. Woolf's argument that the lack of money for women has been what has prevented them from having a room of their own. The financial inequality causes the other inequalities in society. Woolf says,“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time . . .”

    Her creation of Judith Shakespeare, the imaginary twin sister to the writer, William Shakespeare, is to make her point that there is inequality among sexes that allows one sex, men, to succeed in parts of life, such as writing due to the social acceptability and allowance to earn money for the work. While Judith is just as talented as her brother William, but while his talents are recognized and encouraged by their family and the rest of their society. Her demise in the end, much like that in the end of The Awakening, is a social commentary on the inequalities of women and the room is used as a symbol for things such a privacy and financial independence--something that women in the Victorian era did not have. Her case for autonomy and individual feminism is based on the idea that individual women can succeed if they are given the same privacy and rights to earnings as men.

  2. I find it very interesting that in declaring certain needs that are required to be met for women before they are able to write and produce good literature, that they need to have money, a room of their own, and be physically provided for and taken care of. In stating these requirements, she has developed a type of "Maslow's Hierarchy" for female authors of her time. She, like Maslow, is stating that in order to reach a higher level of achievement and self-actualization, the women must first meet said requirements. Woolf assumes that without the lower parts of the pyramid, they will be unable to achieve their potential in literature and also perhaps, in self-discovery.

    I am a little hesitant about this point of hers mostly because she is able to produce a strong counter-point immediately after, in Jane Austen. Austen was able to achieve perhaps a higher admiration, respect and publicity than debatably any other female author of her time, yet she was able to do so without going through the hierarchy presented by Woolf. She states that Austen did not have a room of her own, and not all her needs met, yet she was able to produce great literature. It also seems to me that Woolf assumes that once all these levels of her "hierarchy" are met and maintained, any woman would be able to produce great literature similar to herself and to Austen, which I am extremely doubtful of. The talent that some female writers possess is not necessarily equivalent in every other woman, but not expressed simply because they did not have the luxury of situation to write, though it is probably likely for a few.

  3. Shakespeare's real sister was Joan. There is a double story. If she, like the fictional Judith, didn't receive the same opportunities as her brother, she is the one who produced a posterity. So, his words live on, but he has no descendants (his grandchildren all died without surviving children), so it is her descendants that claim the connection to him. This is the problem highlighted by Woolf - and at the core of individualist feminism - William lives on, on his own merits; Joan lives on only through her descendants. He produces, she reproduces.