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.