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Identity and Gender in A Room of Ones Own, by Virginia Woolf

Asignatura: Estudios Culturales: Narrativa, Identidad y Gnero Profesora: M Elena Jaime de Pablos Alumna: Francisca Martn Acua

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English novelist, essayist, biographer, and feminist. Woolf was a prolific writer, whose modernist style changed with each new novel. Her letters and memoirs reveal glimpses of Woolf at the centre of English literary culture during the Bloomsbury era. Woolf represents a historical moment when art was integrated into society, as T.S. Eliot describes in his obituary for Virginia Without Virginia Woolf at the centre of it, it would have remained formless or marginalWith the death of Virginia Woolf, a whole pattern of culture is broken. Virginia Adeline Stephen was the third child of Leslie Stephen, a Victorian man of letters, and Julia Duckworth. The Stephen family lived at Hyde Park Gate in Kensington, a respectable English middle class neighbourhood. While her brothers Thoby and Adrian were sent to Cambridge, Virginia was educated by private tutors and copiously read from her fathers vast library of literary classics. She later resented the degradation of women in a patriarchal society, rebuking her own father for automatically sending her brothers to schools and university, while she was never offered a formal education. Woolfs Victorian upbringing would later influence her decision to participate in the Bloomsbury circle, noted for their original ideas and unorthodox relationships. As biographer Hermione Lee argues Woolf was a modern. But she was also a late Victorian. The Victorian family past filled her fiction, shaped her political analyses of society and underlay the behaviour of her social group. While she is best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary history, women's writing, and the politics of power. A fine stylist, she experimented with several forms of biographical writing, composed painterly short fictions, and sent to her friends and family a lifetime of brilliant letters. In her essay The Intellectual Statues of Women, Virginia relates a controversy that she had with Affable Hawk (pseudonym for the writer Desmond MacCarthy), being one of Virginias friend and member of the Bloomsbury Group. He wrote a review of Arnold Bennetts collection of essays Or Women: Chapters on the Sex- Discord and included declarations such as:
The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet . . . (Yes; unless you believe with Samuel Butler that a woman wrote the Odyssey.) With the possible exception of Emily Bront, no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men. (On the whole that is true: assent is in this case a little more doubtful.) No woman at all has achieved either painting or sculpture that is better than second rate, or music that is better

than second rate. (True; remember the standard is the masterpieces of the world.) Nor has any woman come anywhere near the top in criticism. (True.) Can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher; or a woman who has made a first rate scientific discovery; or a woman who has arrived at a first rate generalisation of any sort? (No: I remember the standard again.) I cannot conceive anybody who considers facts impartially coming to any other conclusions. Though it is true that a small percentage of women are as clever as clever men, on the whole intellect is a masculine speciality. Some women undoubtedly have genius, but genius in a lesser degree than Shakespeare, Newton, Michael Angelo, Beethoven, and Tolstoy. The average intellectual power of women also seems a good deal lower. 1

Just immediately after the publication of this, Virginia Woolf wrote a letter to The New Statesman regarding the review that her friend had written saying:
women should have the liberty of experience; that they should differ from men without fear and express their differences openly (for [she does] not agree with Affable Hawk that men and women are alike.2

Although it was an immediate response, the truth one would appear some years later. In October 1928 Virginia was invited to deliver two lectures in Cambridge and, taking the content of these two conferences as basis, she would write A Room of Ones Own, published a year later. The two lectures had to deal with Women and fiction and soon she realised the difficulties of tackling the matter without going over the situation of women in English society and the traditional and accepted subordination of the female gender. When Virginia Woolf faces the topic Women and Fiction, she tries to look for the origin of the matter: why dont we have female writers, painters or artists? This origin seems to be in the interrelation that exists between the economical and social submission that women have traditionally suffered and the possibility of having enough leisure time or even private life to undertake the intellectual activity that artistic creation means. Her words are:
When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Bronts and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Elliot; a reference to Mrs. Gaskell and one would have done. But a second sight the words seemed not so simple. The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like, or might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them [] All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point- a woman
1 2

New Satatesman, October 2, 1920 n704 The Intellectual Status of Women, p.339

must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.3

According to Virginia, this room should have a bolt in order to prevent the rest of the people from coming in, and to allow women a moment of privacy to sit in front of a blank paper to express their more intimate feelings. This lack of intimacy has existed during many centuries (just with the exception of some women of the nobility) and we can assert that private life has not existed in the history of women. Woolf also mentions the economic independence, what she calls five hundred pounds a year. That is how she describes the freedom that she got when she received the money from her died aunt and how she managed to devote herself to writing:
My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding to take the air in Bombay. The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitors letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two- the vote and the moneythe money, I own, seemed infinitely more important. [] No force in the world can take me from my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore nor 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.4

For Virginia Woolf, women have a strong character in fiction, ever superior to mens and the roles that they play in real life are sometimes inverted when talking about novels. This image of the poetic woman needs to be contrasted with the woman that we find in prose: life has treated them harshly, they had to marry to obey their family desires, they didnt have access to education, they didnt have an opinion, they didnt have belongings, and they didnt have freedom. Women in fiction are a creation of men: they are an ideal, something that has been created and manipulated by a male writer. Women in real life are, in part, a creation of men. It is clear if we consider that: they live in a patriarchal system that controls every sphere of daily life the family has to obey the father or the brother it is their duty to devote their life to their the husbands that are appointee to her by chance
3 4

A Room of Ones Own, p. 1 A Room of Ones Own, p.25-26

Women neither have a say in the matter of the literature that idealizes her nor have opinion in the world where they live. It is necessary to undertake a long and complex pursuit of their identity in order to define themselves, discover themselves and find thier way. Literature can be the way for this enterprise, but it is an arduous one, as it is part of a patriarchal culture, ruled by a tradition and by a system of rules that have nothing to do with women. A female writer should then face a double task: first, find her own identity as a woman, and secondly, she would have to find her identity as an artist.

Finding your own identity is not an easy task, and according to what Virginia Woolf says there are three factors that are crucial. These are education, freedom and history. a) Education: Hundreds of women were not encouraged or even allowed to get a decent education or a college degree. It was their duty to be housewives and mothers and always to be submissive to their husbands. Sometimes she comprises the complex problem of the compatibility of profession and family for women, as in the phrase Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children- no human mind could stand it5 For many centuries a lot of money was used to provide men in the society with education. But, little money was used to educate women within the society. This was because the society didnt support education for women, and it valued educating men more than women. A woman with no university education flies like frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds 6

b) Freedom: When the narrator visits the library, she finds that men have written more books than women. This is because women in the society have no freedom, but they are considered inferior to men. For example, in the essay the narrator is not given permission to enter the Oxbridge campus, or to enter the college library. The narrator says that if it was a man, he could be given permission to enter the campus, and library. This shows the gender inequality
5 6

A Room of Ones Own, p. 15 A Room of Ones Own, p. 19

that existed in that society. The author used this illustration to symbolize the impact of an educational culture that restricts women from having intellectual exposure. This hinders women from growing intellectually, and carrying out differed developments in the society. The denial of access infringes the freedom of women, their mind and causes interruptions. She says: "Lock up your libraries
if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind."

The interruption makes it difficult for women to progress in the society, to find her identity.

c) History: If we know the history we are supposed not to make the same mistakes again. She realizes that history books do not include much information about women, so she has to reconstruct their existence imaginatively.
Occasionally an individual woman is mentioned, an Elizabeth, or a Mary; a queen or a great lady. But by no possible means could middle-class women with nothing but brains and character at their command have taken part in any of the great movements which, brought together, constitute the historians view of the past. [] but why should they not add a supplement to history, calling it, of course, by some in conspicuous name so that women might figure there without improperty? For one often catches a glimpse of them in the lives of the great, whisking away into the back ground, concealing, I sometimes think, a wink, a laugh, perhaps a tear.8

She strikingly gives expression to the fact that female achievements are frequently remained unrecorded, in contrast to lots of documents about historical and political events and male activities in the world.
For all the dinners are cooked; the plates and cups washed; the children sent to school and gone out into the world. Nothing remains of it all. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. All has vanished. No biography or history has a word to say about it. And the novels, without meaning to, inevitably lie.9

The author uses an ironic and sharp language, and a great amount of visual metaphors. One of the most representative ones is the mirror metaphor. This image is used to denounce the innate superiority feeling of men.

7 8

A Room of Ones Own, p.53 A Room of Ones Own, p.31 9 A Room of Ones Own, p.62

Life for both sexes- and I looked at them shouldering their way along the pavement- 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 one self. By feeling that one has some innate superiority- it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Rommey- for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination- over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, or feeling that a great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. [] 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. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle. The glories of all our wars would be unknown. We should still be scratching in the outlines of deer on the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen and Fingers of Destiny would never have existed. The Czar and the Kaiser would never have worn crowns or lost them. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior; they would cease to enlarge.10

Woolf exposes the gender-consciousness that she believes cripples both male and female writers. Most men show a derogative attitude towards women. Their aim seems to be that they want to assert their superiority and enlarge themselves and in order to do so, they reduce women:
But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter I. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether it was indeed a tree or a woman walking was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter I. One began to be tired of I. Not but what this I was a most respectable I; honest and logical; as hard as a nut, and polished for centuries by good teaching and good feeling. I respected and admired that I from the bottom of my heart. But- here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter I all is shapeless as mist. Is that a tree? No, it is a woman. But she has no bone in her body, I thought watching Phoebe, for that was her name, coming across the beach. The Alan got up and the shadow of Alan at once obliterated Phoebe.11

With that situation, womens writing suffers from the emotions of anger and fear, and it tends to be reactive:
How we are fallen! fallen by mistaken rules, And Educations more that Natures fools;
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A Room of Ones Own, p.24 A Room of Ones Own, p.69,70

Debarred from all improvements of the mind, And to be dull, expected and designed; And if someone would soar above the rest, With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed, So strong the position faction still appears, The hopes to thrive can neer outweigh the fears.12

Woolf highlights the importance of confidence in creating art. Women traditionally have lacked that confidence mainly because they have been considered as second-class citizens, and this affected their writing too. The consequence of that is that both male and female are more aware of their personal complaints than of the fact of creating and writing. It is necessary that a writer focuses on the world in order to offer the reader a pure and personal vision of the world. For Virginia, the sex of the writer is not an important matter, as both men and women have something to offer:
But one could perhaps go a little deeper into the question of novel writing and the effect of sex upon the novelist13 Would the fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist- that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer?14

According to her theory, a writer should have (using a term taken from Samuel Taylor Coleridge) an androgynous mind. This androgyny mind does not mean asexual, but rather a union of male and female minds, which she believes are different. Great minds have this characteristic and a good example of androgynous mind is Shakespeare:
Coleridge certainly did not mean, when he said that a great mind is androgynous, that it is a mind that has any special sympathy with women; a mind that takes up their cause or devotes itself to interpretation. Perhaps the androgynous mind is less apt to make these distinctions the single-sexed mind. He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is reasonant and porous; that it transmit emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.15

Once that she has defined the prototype of that marvelous mind, she hypothesizes the existence of Shakespeares sister, equally gifted as writer as he was. The problem with that woman (Judith), is that, the fact of being a woman (that is, because of gender) would prevent her from having a room of her own. She would not obtain an education
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A Room of Ones Own, p.40 A Room of Ones Own, p49 14 A Room of Ones Own, p.51 15 A Room of Ones Own, p.69

or find a profitable employment because being a woman, and as a consequence, her innate artistic talents would never flourish. This imaginary sister would die alone without any acknowledgement of her personal genius, and even her grave would not have her name.
Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father's eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighboring wool-stapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes.16

As Woolf herself said, women have always been poor, since the most ancient times. They have had less intellectual freedom, and they havent had the chance of writing, painting or just creating. In fact, many of them have not had the opportunity of being women.

In conclusion it can be argued to a certain degree that Virginia Woolf was indeed a feminist writer. She clearly criticised the treatment of women before and during her own time, and A Room of One's Own can be called the core of her feminist writing. She stood up openly for women's right to vote when working for the Suffrage Movement, something which for some critics like Naomi Black signalled her "entry into a feminist organisational politics [...] define[d] as `social feminism'."17 For Toril Moi, Virginia Woolf is even the "great mother and sister" of feminist criticism becoming so much as the alpha and the omega of it. 18

16 17

A Room of Ones Own, p.32-33 The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, p.212 18 The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, p.231

In every case Virginia Woolf urged women to find their own style and to overcome their fear and bitterness so that they could express their difference freely. She urged women to become independent by stating that "a woman must have money and a room of her own".

BIBLIOGRAPHY - Bennett, Arnold. Our Women: Chapters on the Sex-Discord. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1920 - Lee, Hermoine. Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography. New Yersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. -Marcus, Laura. "Woolf's feminism and feminism's Woolf". Ed. Sue Roe and Susan Sellers. The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 - Rosenman, Ellen B. A Room of Ones Own: Women Writers and the Politics of Creativity. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995 - Woolf, Virginia. "The Intellectual Status of Women."The Diary of Virginia Woolf II, 1920-1924. London: The Hogarth Press, 1978 - Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. South Australia: University of Adelaide (web edition eBooks@Adelaide), 2011.