By Chet Yarbrough
A Room of One’s Own
Written by: Virginia Woolf
Narration by: Juliet Stevenson
Virginia Woolf is a woman outside of time. As Woolf implies in the early twentieth century, women are drowning in a misogynist sea. Woolf is born when female inequality breaches the existential threat with a first wave; i.e. Women’s Suffrage in 1920. The preeminent feminist, Betty Friedan, is just born (actually, 1921). (Friedan later writes “The Feminine Mystique”–published in 1963.)
“A Room of One’s Own” is a contemplation on why women are underrepresented as great poets or fiction writers. With the exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Woolf suggests there are no 19th century women renowned for fiction. Apocryphally, the unlikely story of Lincoln saying “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War” is an apt coda for the insignificance of the public’s view of women writers.
(As one listens to her complaint, one thinks about Emily Dickinson. However, Dickenson did have a room of her own.)
Woolf wittily skewers male paragons of the pen and their misogynist comments about women. She sets the table for an explanation of why there is no female Shakespeare’, erudite Johnson’, or Longfellow word smiths.
Woolf’s point is that women had no money because they were dependent on men or family inheritance. Often, young ladies are discouraged from college by their families who feel marriage and bearing of children are their primary duties. Without educational support and few opportunities for gainful employment, women only had money if they inherited it or married a wealthy husband. Without money, there is little opportunity for independence; without money, there is little chance of having “A Room of One’s Own”.
There are many examples to support Woolf’s observation about money and the luxury of contemplation, having a room of your own. Michel de Montaigne’s essays are spectacular observations of life and living but the key to his success is in wealth that allows him time for observation and contemplation of life. He had a room of his own. In Woolf’s lifetime there were few women who had such luxury. Have things changed? Maybe, but #MeToo suggests women’s independence and wealth still involves misogyny.
In the last section of her lecture Woolf notes women write fiction with a mixture of public disdain and admiration. Disdain from implied colorlessness in writing but admiration for a twist in a story that suggests a first-time female author has potential.
Misogyny still roils the sea but more women writers have a room of their own. The second wave is forty years in the future but Friedan steadies the helm-bearing toward equality. At $.79 cents to the dollar in the 21st century, there is still a long way to go.
The frightening prospect of a Taliban government in Afghanistan is more threatening than wage differences in the U.S. The only concession they have recently made is to ban forced marriage of women. This is not to diminish America’s misogynist history but to show how backward and unfair the world can be to women.
However, for realization of potential, Woolf suggests the author needs to have a room of her own to have time to think and reflect. To prove Woolf’s bona fides, she ends “A Room of Her Own” with short stories. They are beautifully written and worthy of the theme of which she writes.
As Aristotle once said, contemplation is the highest form of activity for the soul. Woolf implies great literature; great fiction, and poetry come from authors who have time and a room of their own.