Reflections on “A Room of One’s Own”

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolfe’s employs a narrative of her travels throughout London articulate her explanation for the paucity of female writers throughout history, and the lack of great masterpieces among those that did have the opportunity to set pen to paper. She argues that women have never engaged in creative projects because throughout history, they have consistently lacked appropriate space, sufficient material resources, and the social support necessary to become geniuses. Although Woolfe idealizes the act of creation as a path towards transcendence, for women in particular the creative process as a consistent struggle against one’s own intellectual and emotional limitations, as well as material constraints. In this essay, I will outline Woolfe’s opinions regarding the preconditions to creativity, and the significance of favorable external circumstances to finding one’s own voice. I found her discussion about the importance of confidence and material stability in the creative process to be particularly illuminating in terms of my own experiences as a writer; her observations have confirmed some of my suspicions about why this has been a personal struggle. Since writing is such an integral component of academic work, I identified with the difficulties inherent to finding one’s own voice, yet I agree with Woolfe’s assertion the struggle is necessary for the development of culture and is worthwhile on an individual level as well. Woolfe’s analysis of the creative difficulties faced by women is as relevant today as it was in her time.

By discussing female writers of the past, Woolfe illuminates the effects of that intangible quality of confidence on the creative process; one must have a strong belief in themselves before they can even attempt to create. Studying in empty libraries until the late hours of the morning can feel like a lonely process even one is not actively discouraged from undertaking such projects; Woolfe herself understands how writing can seem futile when the wider culture doesn’t take one’s views seriously. However, in Woolfe’s time male writers, as well as many women, mocked intelligent women or encouraged them to graciously accept their inferiority. The pressure and rewards of conforming to such opinions would have been close to impossible to avoid, and it would have been easy to lose oneself in the midst of such animosity. In the present time, it is still difficult for women to achieve material wealth and enjoy creative freedom, but our culture tends to accept that women will make the effort and often encourages this. One can take the present situation for granted quite easily. Woolfe unapologetically admonishes women who fail to take advantage of the opportunities they do have to learn and create. Although her lecture may be a bit unfair to women then and now that still struggle to become materially independent, as a writer I appreciated how strongly she believed in women’s capacity to make that commitment to themselves. Many of the precursors necessary to independence are difficult for women to obtain, since some material circumstances are beyond individual women’s control (her treatment of class is limited to that extent; not many women are fortunate enough to receive an inheritance, and structural conditions inhibit women’s earning potential). However, it’s worthwhile to remember that despite circumstances, women can access an inner resolve that can help them through the difficult process of creation. This opinion resonates with my experience; although social support is important, I have learned that I ultimately have to believe in what I do if I am going to create anything that might matter to others. I appreciate how she respects women enough to ask them to take responsibility for their art; if women can choose to believe in themselves, they can move beyond feeling victimized by circumstance and create their own reality instead.

I found it difficult to reconcile Woolfes idea of “feminine knowledge” with her emphasis on elemental truth. By encouraging women to write of their experiences with integrity, Woolfe attempts to revalue women’s experiences, perhaps to inspire confidence among her contemporaries. She catalogues the unexplored corners of women’s experience with excitement, and even argues that if given enough time, women writers would eventually develop their own language and literary devices to articulate their experiences and perspectives. But as long as a mind retained any semblance of a “gendered” perspective, it would seem to lack the objectivity that Woolfe admires in the writing of Shakespeare or Austen. With her notion of the androgynous mind, she appears to argue that there are at least two essential truths, masculine and feminine, that achieve “incandescence” only when tempered with attributes of the opposite sex. But her argument leads to a differentiation of the sexes on an epistemological basis, instead of a union. She also suggests that women’s increasing material prosperity and independence would enhance the development of a separate form of feminine knowledge, literature and communication techniques; yet women and men would discard the sex-consciousness that she feels limited artistic work of her time. Men and women of the future would think differently, but they would not be so concerned with justifying themselves. History since her time seems to indicate that this is not the case; women who enter the public sphere may achieve material success, but they still struggle to maintain their integrity in a world built on masculine values. Sex-consciousness is at least as relevant for both genders today as it was in her time. If the androgynous mind can most accurately apprehend truth, our culture has yet to develop a method for both genders to move past their own particular prejudices, despite the affluence of our culture in general. Perhaps this is a result of the inequalities that remain; the material condition of women has improved, but perhaps not enough to move beyond the phase of mutual animosity between the genders.

Her idea of transcendence is a form of unity that respects differences in perspectives and experience among men and women. Although our culture hasn’t achieved this ideal, the possibility that women can achieve creative success and maintain their sense of self is an attractive promise. She encourages her contemporaries to believe that their experiences and ideas have an important relationship with a deeper truth. It’s unfortunate that such a positive evaluation of women’s experiences is still so necessary within our culture today. She acknowledges the difficulties of maintaining integrity within an apathetic or hostile culture; her examination of the resulting inner struggle resonated with me. Until one is materially independent it is easy to unconsciously fear the disapproval of caretakers and confidantes, and take that fear into all of life’s activities. Writing in particular can be particularly emotionally problematic if a person lives in such fear; in my experience writing has become a way to become aware of those internal limitations and change those beliefs. Woolfe addresses process of self-awareness when she contemplates the limitations of women’s work, and notices how her perspective towards men changed when she became materially self-sufficient. She became less angry and resentful, and acknowledged men for their humanity. But confidence and self-respect are so integral to understanding; until one accepts their own humanity they cannot begin to appreciate another’s. In my opinion, this is one of Woolfe’s most profound insights; you cannot even begin to apprehend elemental or historical truths until you truly believe you are an important part of this reality.

Woolfe’s work has some limitations; for example she claims that the English woman is so insignificant that no one would even want to “civilize” a black woman according to that standard. That comment seemed racist, but her analysis of gender and class disparities suggests a writer who was attempting to look beyond the limitations of her culture. Although she didn’t always succeed, her analyses of gender and class disparities were often insightful. By applying these insights to the creative process, the limitations of gendered understandings and class experiences seem personally relevant. She speaks as a woman who genuinely understands the struggle to create and achieve freedom from one’s illusions, and suggests that this is possible – but only if one is willing to fully invest their heart and spirit into the process.

The androgynous mind.

Woolfe engages in philosophy here – she wonders about the true nature of the mind and the soul. She notices that the unity of a man and a women coming together in a taxi brought happiness – and wonder if such unity on a more fundamental level would lead to greater inner happiness and creativity as well. She proposes “an androgynous mind” – a brilliant, spiritually mature man engages with the feminine aspects of his soul; a brilliant, spritually mature woman engages with the masculine elements of her soul. By engaging in discourse with one another, men and women obtain peace in relationships, and on an inner level as well.

One with an androgynous mind doesn’t take up the “special causes” of the other sex, but rather thinks in an unbiased, rational manner, and articulates emotion freely. It doesn’t think of itself as being sexed, and therefore cannot hold an opinion about the other gender.

In such a sex-conscious era (evidenced by the number of books men write about women) this state of mind would be difficult to achieve. She blames the suffrage movement for this – men became exceptionally defensive because they had never been challenged before. In a sex-conscious world, men no longer see women in romantic terms, as Tennyson did – in the novel by Mr. A, women are sex objects. The reviewers praise his work, although he is so self-concious his figure overshadows everything else he may be trying to articulate in his work.  He is asserting his masculinity in his work; the Fascists are doing so through politics in Italty, and even want a great poet to articulate these values. The celebrated writers of that time had no sense of the feminine, and could never inspire creativity in women because these values simply seem immature to them.

To be a great writer, you must be able to inspire thought in other’s minds. You cannot do so if you are only speaking of your own individual, gendered experience. Great writers purge the idol of gender, articulating the common experience.

We are developing a history, discovering who we are through our work.

Women are now using the written word as an art form, not simply a way to express ourselves and vent our frustrations.  By the early 20th Century, women have become prolific; we’ve gone beyond the realm of the personal/relational (embodied by the novel – our own autobiographies), and into poems, plays, biographies, histories, philosophy, science.

She writes her own review; this book (Mary Carmicheal’s Life’s Adventures) follows in a series starting from the works of Afra Ben.What is her command of language? Does she have an axe to grind or is she creating?  Woolfe feels she is to concise; she may be limiting her expression because she is afraid of being called overly sentimental (judged as a woman).  She is too abrupt, too factual, but she is allowed this if this is all going to amount to something profound. So she waits for that to occur… and uncovers an intimate relationship between women! She’s onto something here.

She notices that all relationships between women portrayed in literature up to this point have lacked complexity.  Women in fiction are almost always portrayed with respect to their relationships with men, as if these are the only complicated relationships women ever have in their lives. Conversely, this is also why women have been portrayed in such extremes – beautiful or vile – because they are presented as their male lovers see them. Even novelists such as Proust portrays complicated women, but the female characters still lack depth for the same reason.  If were only ever seen through the emotionally biased perspective of love, portrayed only as lovers of women, so much of what is interesting about them would be obscured. So to for women – there are worlds we have yet to uncover in literature as a result.

Carmicheal is giving us a glimpse into a worlds we haven’t seen – women’s professional lives, and their relationships with one another that have nothing to do with men. This is a moment in history, and this is where Carmicheal has to “take the plunge” and portray this scene with integrity. But since the world of women is so unknown, how can we even judge whether or not she has portrayed it accurately? What is considered “success” in our world is the achievements of men – but men and women live in two different worlds. We cannot just the world of women by the standards of success set within a male world.

So how do we judge the work of women? The same way we judge the work of men. Do you illuminate the unseen corners of the world, not simply cataloguing what you find there, but in order to reveal more elemental truths? Do you reveal what this means to you, in your own (gendered) language? Both genders must use their unique creativity – nurtured and encouraged through discourse with one another. They must show us how and what they see in their world, but not simply catalogue them. They must reflect – tell us what this world means to you. By exploring our worlds through literature, we can learn about ourselves.

By revealing their own perspectives, they will also reveal insights into the peculiarities of the other sex. Brave writers employ their “outsider’s perspective” to illuminate the “dark places” in the worlds they do not occupy. Male writers have illustrated the shortcomings of women, and female writers can articulate the shortcomings that men have but cannot see.  This isn’t to be done in a spiteful way, but it’s neccessary if one is to articulate the full truth.

Women writers currently enjoy benefits their predecessors did not – a measure of intellectual and financial independence borne of their nascent literary tradition and relative material gains. Even a woman with less natural genius will still be able to bring the benefits of independence into her work – she’ll be less bitter, and have more experiences to draw from.  She’ll reveal more about what it means to be a women when she isn’t self-conscious about it, dragging her gender around like a ball and chain as she writes. Carmicheal’s work achieves this – she writes with a freedom and joy, and exudes sexuality in her work.

She even manages to avoid criticism, refusing to apologize for her gender as she ties all of the lose ends of her story together and articulates the deeper meaning of her narrative. However, Virginia doubts that she can maintain this integrity in the face of obstacles that still stand in her way – critics, and lack of money and idleness all prevent her longevity.

But this is an admirable start. Let’s see what women can achieve in a hundred year’s time.

Anger is the stumbling block on the path to transcendence (Chapter 4)

In the late 1600’s to mid-1700’s, women begin to speak for themselves. The earliest female writers were upper-class women, who wrote poetry in solitude. Although these women were not actively discouraged from writing as a middle-class woman might have been, she believes their poetry is limited by their bitterness over the status of women at that time. In 1661, Lady Winchilsea writes about the difficulty of overcoming one’s fear of the “opposing faction” ie, men.  Writing from a place of victimization, she expresses a sense of defeat, frustration, and resentment.  Despite her talent, uncultivated as it may have been, she was criticized by contemporaries and professional poets for even attempting to do something so far outside her station. As a result, she experience melancholy. The temperamental Duchess of Newcastle also wrote poetry; similarly, she had the passion and the raw talent, but since she wrote in solitude (without guidance or encouragement) her work falters.  She too experienced mental health problems.

Since such women faced ostracism and mental health problems, other talented female writers would not even attempt to write creatively. The letters of Dorothy Osbourne show a talent for narrative. However, since she has internalized some of the criticisms leveled at female writers during her day she does not see the Duchess’ novels to be worthwhile endeavors, and would never attempt the task herself.

Although upper-class women exhibited uncultivated talent, it was up to middle-class women to vindicate women authors when they discovered that they could earn money by writing. Aphra Ben was the first female writer to make money off of her works; she was forced to rely on her wits when her husband died. It is significant that she actually made enough to live on by doing so.  The fact that this was now possible discredited the criticisms of well-meaning parents and husbands, who would discourage daugthers and wives from writing because it supposedly limited their opportunities in life. She dismisses such parents/husbands as “whimsical despots;” they claim that these women would struggle to take care of themselves when they would likely rise to the occasion if given half a chance. In the example of Lord and Lady Dudley, she suggests such “concern” is really the result of the caretaker’s sense of vanity, not a sense of responsibility to a loved one.

By the late 18th Century, female authors/translators/essayists were prolific because writing had become practical.  Instead of writing in solitude, masses of women wrote. Unlike in the 16th Century, the time of Shakespeare’s sister, a community of female writers and a tradition of woman-authored work had emerged with the work of Aphra Ben, and now was thriving. For the first time in history, female writers could refer to a literary tradition, as male writers had for hundreds of years previously. They could also support one another in their endeavors. Because of the foundation laid by writers such as Aphra Ben, it was not unrealistic for a women to earn a living as a writer by the early 20th century.

The material conditions of middle class women influenced their preference for the novel as a literary format. These women still didn’t have a place of their own. They worked in drawing rooms, and were constantly interrupted in their work. Therefore they chose a format that required less concentration than a play or poetry.  Education and family responsibilities informed subject matter. Their training encouraged the development of emotional intelligence, and they readily observed relationships within their family life, so they wrote about what they knew. Jane Austen was comparable to Shakespeare in her expression of the human condition; unlike lesser (and earlier) writers, her circumstances are not directly obvious within the content of her work; she is not simply writing as a reaction to unfair conditions. If her work was limited, it was only because she lacked mobility.

Comparing Austen’s work to Charlotte Bronte’s, she claims Bronte’s is weaker because she explicitly explains her indignation about the limitations of her conditon as a woman. Jane Eyre laments her lack of freedom, and questions the men who would ask her to settle for a stifled existence that they would reject. Bronte is “in revolt against her lot” and she expresses her discontent through the character of Jane Eyre. Woolfe feels that this anger disrupts the continuity of the work, it brings in an editorial perspective that is inappropriate within the context of that work.

However, through this character Bronte accurately reflects the condition of women at the time; she realizes that her intellect was limited because she lacked the opportunity to engage in discourse with like minds, traveling and collecting experiences. Women such as George Eliot were criticized for living the vagabond’s lifestyle, while male writers such as Tolstoy traveled, explored, and lived in sin with impunity. She argues that if he had lived the secluded married life recommended for women, he never would have acquired the perspective necessary to create War and Peace. More often than not, women live this way, and thier work suffers for want of a broader perspective.

Novels are constructed of subjected experiences, and interpreted/judged by subjective readers – yet novelists with integrity can convince us that they are speaking of the Truth, even if the emotions/characters/situations/themes playing out in the novel do not resemble/confirm a reader’s biases. Novels with integrity allow us to perceive the greater Truths of which we are only vaguely aware otherwise. This is why novels such as War and Peace resonate strongly, while others come close to brilliance, but do not convince us of their truths entirely.

Sex influences the integrity of a novel when an female author, aware that she is writing of situations/experiences/characters that are not valued within our culture responds to such criticism within her work – either by conceding to opinions of women’s inferiority, or protesting that they are as good as men (this is reminiscent of what Ashley was saying about Nietzsche and the victim mentality). The subject matter and form of the novel necessarily puts a novelist at odds with conventional masculine values, and it is the task of that author not to concede to such values if they want to have integrity. By conceding or protesting, they are admitting that they are lacking; by ignoring the criticsm and writing their truths AS WOMEN, they act with integrity.

She seems to be arguing something different here than before on a couple of fronts – in chapter one she says artists are especially sensitive to criticism and require support; here she is advising women to ignore what others think.  She also seems to argue that a transcendent, genderless perspective (like Shakespeare’s) is required to create works of true genius – but here she is telling women to write about female experiences without apology; later on she also claims that women would likely develop their own form of literature (like the novel) once they become more adept with literary techniques and develop their own. I think it’s not so much the “gendered” perspective that prevents women (and men) from achieving transcendence in their work – but the filter of emotion and animosity towards the other sex that prevent them from writing accurately about that sex or the world in general. They can write about injustice, but if that is all she can write about, her perspective is narrow and misses the mark of Truth.  Women and men value different things, so their subject matter and form will differ. As long as women are always somehow apologizing for being women, or trying to be men, they will fall short of capturing Truth as they see it.

influence of sex on literature (Bronte) – novel has a looking-glass resemblance to life

– she uses the novel as a platform to air her own grievances (frustration due to being confined in the home when she would prefer to travel) – view of Truth likely to be bogged down by resentment and subjectivities

-ignorance – her fear and bitterness towards men evident in character of Rochester

-men and women have different values and experiences – so subject matter will differ. Because women’s values are not the norm, female authors often apologize for their inadequacies or try to prove themselves. Here lies the shortcomings of many female authors – they lack the integrity to speak of the truth as they see it, public opinion and the rewards of submitting to it be damned. In the face of pressure, it would have been difficult for women to have such integrity (back to the point about artists being particularly sensitive to criticism).

-lack of a literary tradition

Men have a strong tradition, but it is useless for a woman to try to appropriate their techniques because they think and percieve the world so differently. The techniques of men (sentences, particular literary forms) were developed for their own purposes; women need to develop their own tools in order to express their views.  The novel was an effective format for women because it was so new – these writers could mould the novel into whatever shape they wanted. In the future, they would likely develop it further or abandon it altogether for more appropriate modes of expression.

The form of expression has to suit the conditions of the artist – so anything a woman will create must be precise and concentrated to allow for interruptions. Women also learn differently than men – lecture formats men devised might not be appropriate for women; men and women would also benefit from different work habits. Of course, the particular psychology of women had yet to be discovered by academics.

Woman: a composite of subjectivities and desires (Chapter 3).

Since creative activities are connected to material circumstances, she examines the material condition of women throughout history, comparing this picture of Woman to the figure presented in literature.  In 1470 (Chaucer’s time), wife-beating was common among all classes, a woman who refused to marry the man her parents chose would be beaten, and children were betrothed at young ages. Marriage was not in the children’s interest, but secured status for families; this was particularly important among the upper classes.  Around 1670 (the Stuarts), middle and upper class women rarely chose husbands, and she became her husband’s property.  Although she was invisible and instrumental throughout history, in literature she is significant within these works. Here, women are complex, strong characters.  Repressed in real life, she shines in fiction.

The archetypal woman that emerges from a reading of history and literature is a repressed creature who somehow exhibits a tenacious spirit.  Since little factual information about women existed before the 18th Century, it is difficult to discern the historical condition of women.  History, as recorded by academics, says little about women’s condition; when she married, how many children she had, how she was educated, how she lived, what she thought.  Women are only historically relevant with respect to thier connections with men and families;  before the 18th Century, women’s experiences beyond that were invisible. If they did write and reflect on thier experiences, history failed to notice.

In order to determine how an intelligent woman of the Elizabethan era may have experienced life, she speculates on the condition of Shakespeare’s gifted sister.  her parents would have discouraged her from writing in favour of keeping up responsiblities at home; she wouldn’t have gone to school. Her parents, concerned about her future, would marry her off at a young age.  The brilliant girl would be punished for refusing; frustrated, she would run away from home to London in order to realize her dreams. London would fail to provide any more opportunities; despite her talents for writing and acting, she would have been mocked for even trying to find a job at the theatre.  She wouldn’t have the chance to engage in formal training; since she could not safely go out at night, she couldn’t engage in informal training by observing people getting along in taverns or milling along the streets.  After becoming pregnant by the theatre manager, the frustration caused by thwarted ambitions would eventually drive her to commit suicide.

Her thesis is that material comforts are a precursor to genius. Therefore, she argues that due to their conditions of servitude, it would not be possible to observe genius within women of that era (or among the working classes of any era). Even if brilliant women/working class ppl existed, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to write anything down. They would have been too busy working, killed themselves out of frustration, or deemed witches by thier community and killed by thier neighbors.  One could only trace thier genius in thier sons, or in anonymously written literature.

She describes “chastity” as Women’s instinct to self-censor and remain anonymous. Only the most courageous of women could withstand the social pressure to remain chaste, and attempt to develop her genius instead.  Any woman who tried to be true to herself would experience mental torment and inner conflict; if she wrote anything she would use a male pen name or remain anonymous. She argues that while men seek publicity, they discourage women from doing the same – and for the most part, women obey. They do not tend to force thier views on anyone as men do, or claim ownership over anyone or anything, even if they created it. She uses the kind of racist comment “it is one of the advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwomen of her.” As though the Englishwoman is so invisible, that one could observe a racial group the English did try to convert to thier ways – and wouldn’t even consider making her into an Englishwoman. It sounds like she’s saying they’re less than (what was considered to be) nothing in her day. Am I reading that right? The comment above was a bit classist as well, so latent racism wouldn’t surprise me either.

Women of the 16th Century unlikely to exhibit the genius of Shakespeare because:

-life conditions a inhibit the mind; due to family responsibilities she lacks opportunity to develop any ideas

-lack of opportunity to become educated in order to become literate and develop skills necessary to create

-discouragement/mockery inhibits self-esteem to a point where they lack the confidence necessary to create

-discouragement and frustrated ambitions would cause inner torment that would likely incapacitate her and/or lead to suicide (torn between caving into expectations and being accepted vs. following her own path and dealing with hardship that will result; indignation over the unfairness of this situation…)

-brilliant woman would be misunderstood and ostracized – no opportunity to share/develop ideas within an accepting community

-impulse to self-censor (and societal pressure to do so) ensures she would not be credited for anything she did create

Whatever state of mind was necessary for creation, the intelligent, the miserable Englishwoman of the Elizabethan era would not have possessed it.  Since Shakespeare was unselfconscious, we can’t understand what state of mind he was in when he wrote.

19th Century – self-consciousness develops in writers such as Rousseau – confessions and autobiographies. These reveal the state of mind necessary to create. We discover that material circumstances (lack of resources, constant distractions, health, etc) prohibit self-expression. The world’s indifference to what you are trying to do is also discouraging; this apathy prevents one from being compensated for their work.  Since all of the writers who mentioned their circumstances suffered these conditions to a greater or lesser degree, it is unlikely that their works came into being in the exact same form as they were conceived.

This information supports the previous argument on the effect of material conditions and social situation on the intellect (re: Elizabethan women) she developed by extrapolation. Women in particular suffer from these struggles even more than men. Their material conditions were not conducive to creativity; she lived with the responsibilities of families, and had insufficient funds to create her own space. She couldn’t choose to leave an situation that stifled her creativity (lack of mobility). Instead of indifference, she would face hostility towards her endeavors (ex: regardless of exam scores, Mr. Browing would consider even the brightest woman less intelligent than the dullest man; at the same time, he consideres an emaciated stable-boy to be intelligent, even though his poor physical condition would indicate that he likely isn’t intellectually nourished either).

Effect of discouragement on the mind in particular: Such low public opinion would discourage girls, even if it wasn’t echoed by parents (as it likely would be). The mental energy required to overcome such discouragement would leave little inspriation left for her creative endeavors. This situation is converse to what men expect – thiey resistant women’s freedom because such women no longer serve as “looking glass mirrors” than enhance men’s own sense of superiority. In short, they expect encouragement, and percieve women’s efforts to find thier own ways (and even valid criticisms) as failures to provide this. Artists in particular need encouragement – although they cannot consider public opinion when they try to create, they tend to be extremely sensitive to the negative opinions of others. There is an undercurrent of resentment of the opposite sex within the work of the male writers discussed earlier, as well as many female writers. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s work shines because he lacks the disillusionment and anger that introduce bias into any intellectual or creative work. Therefore, secure material situation and social support allow artists to create work that reflects Truth, rather than thier own individual resentments and frustrations.

The unqualified experts (Chapter Two)

(Unfinished)

The narrator heads off to the British Museum to uncover the answers to the questions that had come up as a result of her visit to Oxbridge, the men’s college, and Fernbridge, the women’s college.  Her previous wanderings had led to a subjective analysis of the condition of women in academia, so she searches here in order to access the truth beyond her own experience of the situation.  Specifically, she wants to know why men were so rich and women so poor, what were the effects of poverty on creative/intellectual endeavor, and what preconditions were required to create works of genius.  If truth cannot be found among all of the research done on the subject of Woman, where does it exist?

During her research, she comes to discover that the subordinate woman that exists within research and literature is a product of a masculine sense of entitlement rather than any innate inferiority.  Comparing London to a machine, and the library to one of that machine’s constituent parts, she attempts the mechanical process of investigation.  The selection of material on the subject of woman is vast, crossing every discipline from the natural sciences to literature. Men of every qualification or lack thereof write on the subject; their only commonality is in fact, their gender.  She notices that women do not write so profusely on the subject of men, and wonders why women are such a curiosity to men. Their opinions on women are at times contradictory; according to these writers, women are worthy of worship, despicable, soulless and moral beacons all at once. However, all of the writers are concerned with proving women’s inferiority in some capacity; and she notices that these writers are actually quite angry. Why was that?

She uncovers male prejudice by constructing an archetypal male writer on the inferiority of women. He goes by the name of Professor Von X; he is unattractive, not particularly well-received by women, and is therefore intent on “proving” their innate physical, intellectual, and spiritual inferiority. Significantly, she notices that she had constructed the image of the angry male professor out of her own anger; she is dissatisfied that men’s lack of genunine understanding of women is so often passed off as Truth, and projects that anger into the unfavorable portrait she paints of male scholars.  This insight into her own motivations sheds light on the motivations of male writers; perhaps they are angry at women because women do not reflect what these men want to see in themselves. Consequently, these texts were not written in any rational manner; men’s opinions of women were so filtered by prejudices and emotion that little semblance of truth could possibly be found in their texts. But most importantly, this observation suggests that the Woman of scientific and humanistic literature says more about the men who write about her than women themselves.

Woman are such a curiosity of men because men have an interest in enhancing their own sense of superiority that women do not.  They are in every conceivable position of power, they are the opinion-makers and the arbiters of Truth, and they guard their power jealously. By considering any others to be innately inferior, they can claim the right to rule over them in some way, and gain self-confidence by doing so. This confidence in oneself is necessary if one is to accomplish anything. When their power is questioned, even rightfully so, they are offended because they feel their right to even believe in themselves is being taken away; the indignation of the Professors is simply a defense mechanism.  She calls men’s illusory perspective of their own superiority “the looking-glass vision.” Men must necessarily perceive women as inferior in order to magnify their own attributes; men then use inflated sense of self-worth and capability to justify their activities in the private and public realms. They resist criticism more than a woman would because criticism reveals their true capabilities, not their relative strengths with respect to an ideologically diminished group, ie, women. With this exaggerated sense of confidence, men can achieve thier goals effectively, and perceives the world through a very different frame than one who lacks this sense of self-worth.

She goes on to argue that obtaining money (in the form of an inheritance) was of greater practical significance than obtaining the vote. Before obtaining the inheritance, she was forced to do difficult jobs earning a meagre living. The lifestyle took it’s toll on her psyche, leaving her fearful (of the repercussions of revealing her true self) and bitter (because she was forced to waste her time doing uninspiring work). However, with the inheritance her material circumstances were no longer insecure, so the anxiety disappered. She was no longer forced to flatter the men on who she depended, so she began to regard them with less hostility. Her perspective also changed; she could see how thier status also bred defects in character, just as hers did. Acquisitiveness and the relentless desire for power kept them from appreciating the simple things in life. After regarding the powerful with fear, and then pity, she could eventually see the Truth in things.

Only with money could she release her biases and find the Truth she was looking for, because her perspective was no longer clouded by fear and envy of the powerful.  She is essentially saying that both men and women hold biased perspectives of the world and one another due to their unequal position relative to one another.  Woman’s dependency makes her jaded towards men and fearful of them.  Men are privileged, yet their status and confidence is based on the premise of women’s inferiority, which they go to great lengths to prove.  These “proofs” are not based on any real knowledge of women, but male scholars etc. have an interest in reading evidence in a biased manner because they are fearful of losing their status. In particular, they chafe under the scrutiny of women who would reveal their flaws.  Inequality in wealth and status prevents either sex from regarding the other accurately.

If notions of value are based on such biases, how do you measure the worth of a human being? She specualates that in time, men and women will do the same work. All of the assumptions of women’s innate inferiority based on present conditions that place them there will no longer be valid.  She closes by speculating about what would it mean to be a Woman if women were no longer protect from the world, and could actively participate in it alongside men.

Lies mixed up with truth (Chapter One)

Virgina claims that money and a room of one’s own are required for a woman to write fiction; since women do not have a history of access to either, it is impossible to know anything about women, nor what they would write. Without these preconditions, they have never had the opportunity to do so.  She shows that women have never had their own place to learn by outlining a fictionalized trip to a men’s and women’s college. At Oxbridge, the men’s college, scholars and guards prevent “Mary Seton” from accessing the lawn, which is meant only for Fellows and Scholars. By doing so and showing her the correct path for a woman (a gravel path), he circumvents her train of thought. The peace of her surroundings calms her irritation, and she has the idea to head to the library to examine the manuscript of Lycidas, as well as Thackeray’s Esmond, in order to determine for herself if Milton’s words were perfect, and why Thackeray changed the style of his novel to imitate 18th Century works. Again, the “guardian angel” of knowledge dismisses her – she is not allowed to enter the library without a letter of permission or a chaperone. Without access to any of the buildings on campus, she cannot develop her thoughts past a nascent state.

When she head to the church, she realizes the significance of money to creative/intellectual endeavors. Instead of bothering the priests with her presence, she observes that monarch’s money had paid for the church buildings themselves; they had also founded the college to train priests and scholars. This material condition was necessary to build a congregation and a cadre of theologians. As the Enlightenment dawned, industrialists continued to build the college and develop secular knowledge. The industrialists used the university to develop subsequent generations of scientists and merchants, who re-invested their fortunes into the college. These privileged spaces facilitated the development of various fields of specialized knowledge; the educated then took their knowledge out into the world to earn money, which they then re-invested to develop these spaces, and increase knowledge. However, only the relatively few men who had access to these spaces could benefit from membership to these academic clubs. She goes on to note that even the opulent meal facilitated “rational discourse,” if not necessarily genius.

Throughout her journey, her beliefs about what was actually possible in the world at her moment in time are revealed as illusions.  When she notices a Manx cat paused “in the middle of the lawn as if it too questioned the universe,” she realizes that something is not quite right about the situation. Before the war, such conversation had an undercurrent of romance. She quotes Tennyson and Rossetti to mimic an interlude between a man and a woman; they wait with longing for one another to return.  The war had shattered many ideals: that lovers would return unchanged, women’s illusion that education could save the world (the politicians who planned the war were educated).  Romance’s death had left disquietude in its wake.  Although such ideals are inspiring, she laments the passing of these as experience reveals that some dreams simply cannot come to pass in the real world: “the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”

She examines the relative poverty of the women’s college, Fernham, to show what actually is true for women aspiring to become educated in her day. Women’s obligations in the private sphere combined with their lack of independent wealth prevented them from thinking and competing at the same level as men. From the unappetizing meal of soup and prunes, to the hurried atmosphere of the dinner itself (there was no time or interest in rational discourse here), the unstable material circumstances of this college failed to facilitate rational discourse.  Only uncertain conclusions were possible in this space.  Comparing the strong material and intellectual foundations of the men’s college with the insubstantial resources of the women’s college, both the narrator and her colleague become frustrated by “the reprehensible poverty of our sex.” While Oxbridge flourished, the founders of Fernham could barely scrape together 30,000 pounds to establish the school.  If their foremothers had gone into business instead of forming overly large families they could not sustain, they could have left legacies to their daughters. Their daughters in turn could have built educational institutions and careers of their own. Instead of lamenting the poverty of their sex, they could be engaging in the same discussions as the men of their day. However, it is difficult to place blame for this unequal situation; their foremother’s poverty wasn’t really their fault. They had little opportunity to earn wealth and were only recently entitled to keep what they did earn; no wonder they decided against engaging in fruitless efforts in the business world in favour of child rearing. The restrictions of the past and present era conspired to create and perpetuate inequality. This insubstantial institution was the best women could hope for under such circumstances.

Throughout her wanderings, she comes to realize that poverty influences one’s intellectual capabilities. Without material resources and spaces to peruse knowledge, one can never fulfill their intellectual potential. Without money, they will be too consumed by the survival imperative to create works of great genius; instead, they will simply be focused on what they lack and will struggle daily just to get by. Without space, they lack the opportunity to engage in discourse with like minds. Women’s historical lack of money and space in turn prevented an intellectual tradition from ever forming and perpetuating itself.

What was the reality for women of her day? They could no longer believe in romantic ideals. Dependence on a lover could ever make their dreams come true; and the horrors of the war put the lie to any notion that this was a rational era. They could no longer believe that education necessarily brought honor, since the most educated men of her time orchestrated the war.  It was also true that women lacked the opportunity to live up to their own potentials; it was impossible to know exactly what women were capable of achieving without the preconditions of money, space, and tradition.  In her journeys, she discovers that romance was dead, and poverty corrupts the mind.  Those most likely to be poor, women, were also most likely to be intellectually corrupt and believe in false notions.  In a time of disillusionment, it was now up to her, and women themselves, to discover the truth for themselves.