30 April 2012
Virginia Woolf for the 21st Century
Virginia Woolf wrote the essay, A Room of One’s Own, in 1929, based on a series of lectures she gave at two women’s colleges at Cambridge University in 1928. The essay was revolutionary in its use of a woman’s perspective to create a fictitious narrator and narrative to explore women in literature both as writers and characters. It shied away from the categorizing and empirical data typified in men’s scholarly essays, focusing instead on the writer’s thoughts and feelings as she contemplated what a woman would need in order to create literary works on par with Shakespeare. Through her musing, not only does she predicts the women’s rights movements that will be aimed at putting women on equal footing with men, but she also predicts the patriarchal backlash that such change engenders.
Almost 100 years after women earned the right to vote, where they make up 60% of the college campuses earning their degrees, women are facing a political onslaught against issues that have been considered basic rights. In America, there are bills up for vote that would let hospitals let women die rather than perform a life-saving abortion (HR 3); to cut a billion dollars in financial assistance to WIC, a government agency that provides food for low-income pregnant women, mothers, babies and young children (Zoe Neuburger, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities); an amendment that stopped funding Planned Parenthood health centers, basically closing one of America’s most trusted health care and family planning providers in the country (US Department of Health and Human Services, OPA); in Georgia, they are pushing legislature that would redefine rape and change the legal term for victims of rape, stalking and domestic violence to “accuser” while allowing victims of crimes like burglary to remain “victims” (House Bill 14); in South Dakota, there is a bill that would make it legal to murder a doctor that provides abortion care (House Bill 1171); in Mississippi, there was a bill that would have redefine natural miscarriage as murder (Initiative 26, Valena Beety, p. 55-62); there are several states that putting up road blocks towards abortion care and access to birth control, while others are trying to make it harder for women to leave abusive marriages; there are several lawsuits towards Wal-Mart and other companies that knowingly pay women less for the same work, arguing that women’s husbands are the real bread winners and women are only working to occupy their time—completely failing to take into consideration single mothers (Wal-Mart Stores vs. Duke, No. 10-277); and there are other states that are on the offensive against single mothers as being abusive families, simply for the lack of a father (Senate Bill 507); while all this legislature is aimed at keeping women at home raising the children, there are also bills up that would make it impossible for stay-at-home women to gain access to credit (Regulation Z, Truth in Lending, FRB).
And all of this is a reason to look again at Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with 21st century eyes as she offers up the opinion that a woman must have money and room of her own (345), translated almost a hundred years later to mean that a woman must have financial independence and privacy. Unlike Woolf and the female writers of her time—women are expected to be both mothers and working or otherwise producing, as Woolf predicted when she said:
Even if one could state the value of any one gift at the moment, those values will change; in a century’s time very possibly they will have changed completely. 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 shop-woman 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 that 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.” Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation, I thought, opening the door. (1987)
This is of particular import in 2012 because we are in the blossoming of a second great depression—the banks over extended and almost went belly up, the housing markets collapsed and jobs are harder to come by. Through the course of this paper, historical and political facts will be presented in an effort to follow in the suggested footsteps of Ms. Woolf herself when she said, “At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial—and any question about sex is that—one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold what-ever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker” (345-346).
So why have are there so many efforts lashing out at women’s rights? This too was predicted by Woolf when she said:
The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under a patriarchy. Nobody in their sense could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence….with the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry. I knew he was angry by this token. When I read what he wrote about women I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an arguer argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too. If he had written dispassionately about women, and used indisputable proofs to establish his argument and had shown no trace of wishing that the result should be one thing rather than another, one would not have been angry either. One would have accepted the fact....So be it, I should have said. But I had been angry because he was angry. Yet is seemed absurd, I thought, turning over the evening paper, that a man with all this power should be angry. Or is anger, I wondered, somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite of power? (1983)
Which clearly illustrates that over the past 100 years, the dominance of man over woman has been at a sharp decline. Largely due to greater access to education and birth control in all of its forms allowing women to leave the home and gain both financial independence and personal privacy away from the dominance of either father or spouse, or as Arvonne Fraser wrote in the essay, “Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights”:
As John Stuart Mill argued in 1869 in his essay The Subjection of Women, the question is whether women must be forced to follow what is perceived as their “natural vocation,” that is, home and family—often called the private sphere-or should be seen, in private and public life, as the equal partners of men. While the division of spheres, based on sex and known as patriarchy, may have been justified as a necessary division of labor in the early evolution of the human species, the system long ago outlived its functionality. (15)
That makes it obvious that the question of a woman’s rightful place and the function of patriarchy have been questioned for over 100 years. Virginia Woolf offers up an explanation for the rise and dominance of patriarchy when she said:
Life for both sexes…is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority…over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must be one of the chief sources of his power….Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (1983-84)
But even with this explanation, where society has advanced almost 100 years and women are clearly allowed to participate in education and practically any job, why is patriarchy trying to make a resurgent push against accepted feminist rights? She again provides an answer, “That is why Napoleon and Mussolini (the Taliban and the conservative political Right in America) insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge….The looking-glass vision is of supreme importance because it charges the vitality; it stimulates the nervous system. Take it away and man may die, like the drug fiend deprived of his cocaine” (Woolf, 1984).
So what can the modern woman do? How can she use the technology, resources and global community to her advances? Part of the answer comes from Virginia Woolf when she casually dismisses the vote that women were granted in favor of the stipend she would be receiving from the passing of her Aunt (1985). The reason Woolf valued the money over the vote was because:
No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. 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; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude toward the other half of the human race. It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control.(1985-86)
Or, as Fraser said referring to the modern Taliban and how they are stripping this kind of freedom from women, “As the Taliban so clearly understand, the prerequisites for development and implementation of women’s human rights are education; the means and ability to make a living beyond childbearing, homemaking, and caring for families; freedom of movement; and a measure of respect as individual human beings, not prisoners of their sex” (17). The difference being that women are more than half of the voting population in America and through that vote they can work towards denying the back slide of their rights.
Even the solution to our modern political attempts at patriarchial oppression were predicted by Woolf 100 years ago when she said:
The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?....Now what food do we feed women as artists upon? I asked, remembering, I suppose, that dinner of prunes and custard….“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. Even if her father did not read out loud these opinions, any girl could read them for herself; and the reading, even in the nineteenth century, must have lowered her vitality, and told profoundly upon her work. There would always have been that assertion—you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that—to protest against, to overcome.(1994-95)
Which can be interpreted to mean that despite this outright hostility and negativity aimed at women, if we are to attain political, social, and economic freedom and privacy, we must unite, protest, and overcome by use of our vote.
In conclusion, in response to the bevy of legislature aimed at stripping women of the rights they have worked to achieve over the last 100 years, from voting and attaining higher education to continuing to strive for equal pay and reproductive rights, Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own, is still relevant. Through her musing, not only does she predicts the women’s rights movements that will be aimed at putting women on equal footing with men, that women will work all the same jobs and positions as men, the patriarchal backlash that such change engenders and are in full swing now, but she also predicts the solution. That solution can be found in expressing the feminine voice against these tyrannical infringements, joining together, and using the right to vote in order to stop these political injustices.
Beety, Valena Elizabeth. “Mississippi Initiative 26: Personhood and the Criminalization of
Intentional and Unintentional Acts by Pregnant Women”, pg 55-60.
Congress, 112th, 1st Session, H. R. 3. Sect. 301, Sect. 310. May 9, 2011
Federal Reserve System, Board of Governors, Regulation Z (Truth in Lending),
March 18, 2011. Press Release.
Fraser, Arvonne S. “Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights”,
Women, Gender, and Human Rights, A Global Perspective. Marjorie Agosin. New Brunswick:
Rutgers State University, 2001. Pg. 15-64. Print.
Georgia House Bill 14, Section 2, Amendment 16-6-1. 2012
Neuberger, Zoe, “Will WIC Turn Away Eligible Low-Income Women and Children Next Year?”,
Center on Budge and Policy Priorities, September 19, 2011, pg. 1- 4.
Office of Family Planning, US Department of Health and Human Services, Title X Family
South Dakota House Judiciary No. HB 1171, An Act to expand the definition of justifiable
homicide to provide for the protection of certain unborn children. February 9, 2011.
US Supreme Court, Wal-mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes et al. No. 10-277, June 20, 2011.
Wisconsin Senate Bill 507, Amendment 48.982 (2) (g) 2., 48. 982 (2) (gm) (FE), 2011.
Woolf, Virginia, “A Room of One’s Own”, Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings.
Miriam Schneir. New York: Random House, 1972. Pg. 344-356. Print.
Woolf, Virginia, “A Room of One’s Own”, The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Second
Ed. Volume F: The Twentieth Century. Sarah Lawall. Norton & Company: New York,
2002. Pg. 1978-1995. Print.