By Chet Yarbrough
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 that existential threat with a first wave; i.e. American Women’s Suffrage in 1920 and British Women’s Suffrage in 1928. 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” contemplates –“why women are not great poets or fiction writers?” With the exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 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 public’s view of women writers.
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 smith. (As one listens to her complaint, one thinks about Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning but they did have rooms of their own. They had time for contemplation.)
Woolf’s point is that women had no money because they were dependent on men or family inheritance. (Dickinson is supported by her family and Browning eloped with a writer.) 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 (on their own) had little money. Without money, there is little opportunity for independence; without money, there is little chance of having “A Room of One’s 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 in a room of his own. In Woolf’s lifetime there were few women that had such luxury.
In the last section of her lecture on women who write fiction she notes a woman’s first book with a mixture of disdain and admiration. Disdain from implied colorlessness in the writing but admiration for a twist in the story that suggests this first-time author has potential. However, for realization of potential, Woolf suggests the author needs money 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; presumably, in a room of her own. They are beautifully written and worthy of the theme of which she writes.
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 2016, there is still a long way to go. 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 money and a room of their own.