Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be discussing A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, by Virginia Woolf. This book has a very different tone than the other books we’ve read so far - whereas other texts have undertaken the work of illuminating lost history, or calling societies to action, or cutting through philosophical error with the sharp knife of reason, Virginia Woolf’s work is like talking with a friend or hearing the internal dialogue in your own head. This book is very much in the moment of 1929 England, but it’s also timeless in her stream-of-consciousness observations about what it feels like to be a thinking woman. I found A Room of One’s Own to be absolutely essential reading - I thought it was informative and kind of infuriating, but also validating and healing. And I can’t wait to discuss it with my reading partner today, Susannah Furr. Hi, Susannah!
Susannah: Hi, Amy!
Amy: I am so so excited to have you here, Susannah. Susannah and I met in 2005 when my husband was completing his MBA and her husband was completing his PhD in Technology Strategy at Stanford. Our families were living in student housing, and Susannah had just had her fourth baby and I was pregnant with my third, in the tiniest little student apartments. But we shared these huge, glorious courtyards with other student families from all over the world, and our kids would ride their bikes and play imaginative games in the sandbox and just basically run feral from sunup to sundown. Susannah and I became dear friends in the courtyard, and also on morning runs around campus, where we would talk and talk about every subject under the sun. But we haven’t lived in the same country for a long time and I’ve really missed you, so I’m super excited to have this time with you today. Could you start off by telling us about yourself? Where you’re from, what you love, and just some things that make you you?
Sus: I share the fond memories, Amy! It was a really unique time and we made the most of it--I loved our conversations and am looking forward to this one.
I was born in 1973 in LA while my dad was in med school--the 4th of what would end up to be a family of 8 kids. At age 2 my family moved to a small town in SW Washington where I lived until my family moved to Provo, Utah when I was a junior in high school. I went to BYU where I met my husband, Nathan, during freshman year in a writing class and we joined a writing project together about zombies. We both served LDS missions (his in Ontario and Quebec and mine in Netherlands and Flemish-speaking Belgium) and then got married in October 1996 just three months after getting home. I was really prepared to stay at home with kids and love it--I think I wanted five. My mom had been such a cozy loving force in my and my siblings’ lives and made it look so easy... but ultimately stay-at-home motherhood tortured me from the beginning for many reasons we can get into later. My Mom studied English Literature at university and is a great writer... which is something I’m grateful for because it encouraged my own love of the humanities which I studied as an undergrad. And then again as a masters student in Art History--a degree I started after about a five year break from university during which time I had my first two kids and realized I really wasn’t cut out for being at home all day with kids while living in Boston where Nathan worked two years as a management consultant….) So we had moved back to Provo so that Nathan could start an MBA--a good but cheap one--before going on to pursue a PhD in Business. And I was able to last minute join the program I had applied to five years earlier but never started. It was an exhilarating time in my life as I literally squeezed my reading, writing and studying for exams into tiny little slots of time in between kids naps and preschool shifts. We also had our third baby during that time.
Having learned that I was much happier as a woman and mother when I had a side project to motherhood, I started a clothing line when Nathan started his PhD….It was a really fun challenge and I learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of confidence that has served me so well--it took so much courage to set up fabric accounts in New York and London and work on pattern design with my bossy San Francisco but New Jersey native pattern maker...I loved it but that side project ultimately needed way more time than I felt good about giving it and I had a semi nervous breakdown one dark night pre-christmas in 2007. I remember saying “when did I last really look in beatrix’s eyes?” (she was my youngest and had been born right during my first go at my brand which pregnancy ended up being at risk and I had to put everything on hold while I was on bedrest from 20 weeks till she was born pre-term at 34 weeks). Since that time at Stanford when we were neighbors, our family lived for seven years in Utah where Nathan had a tenure track position at BYU in the business school which life we ultimately outgrew ...and in a reverse pioneer fashion from my ancestors who came to the USA from England, Wales, and Denmark for religious freedom, we moved to France 5 ½ years ago. Living here with all its delights and destructions has been terribly hard and brilliant at the same time. We love it and can’t imagine moving anywhere else...although we do love adventure and travel and also love our kids and if they all choose US addresses we might be tempted back in some fashion. My oldest two kids have graduated high school: the oldest is studying computer science in Michigan, the second lives at home with us while studying art in Paris and my two youngest are still in high school.
I am currently working on two research projects with Nathan that I feel so strongly about. The Earnest Project is an attempt to find, spend time with and understand better the lives and philosophies of people who tend to display the gravity of traits we are calling “earnest” for lack of a better word. (i.e. mindful, wholehearted, diligent, passionate, authentic, and principled etc.) That project was well underway--attending literary festivals, visiting artist ateliers, factories etc) when the pandemic grounded our itinerary and we started Uncertainty Possibility or UP School which is both a book and workshops to help people transform their relationship with change and live into all the possibility that is just on the other side of uncertainty.
Amy: Wow, Susannah. I am so grateful for that introduction, and I wish we had time to go down like 75 different rabbit holes to ask you more questions about your path. I’m especially excited about the Earnest Project and “Uncertainty Possibility” School - those are two projects that I would have interest in no matter who was doing it, but knowing that you and Nathan are the architects makes me want to sign up right now and pre-order your book!
But another question I am going to ask is why you were interested in participating in doing an episode on Breaking Down Patriarchy.
Whenever I get goosebumps I have to take note; on reading about your project and skimming the texts that you would cover I had both the good kind and bad kind. I get reaaaaallllllllllyyyyyyyy queasy around patriarchy so I’m totally down with breaking it down ;) and I felt so thrilled for you and for what you would bring to light in your research and discussions which undoubtedly will encourage and liberate listeners. So it was an honor to be included and also that feeling of “this is a team I want to be on.” As far as this particular text goes, I hadn’t read it yet and have become a bit obsessed with Virginia Woolf over the past few years. It’s been a slow crescendo but a couple things influencing my curiosity were the Overlook Press Illustrated Lives booklet by Mary Ann Caws which had some fascinating details and haunting photos and then my stumbling upon Charleston House in East Sussex which is a home Virigina actually found and recommended to her older sister and best friend, Vanessa, who with other artists lived, painted, created and designed an amazing interior world and where Virginia spent a lot of time among many other notable guests such as T.S Eliot, and E.M Forester. I have visited twice and keep wanting to return.
Amy: Well that gives me goosebumps, Sus, because I didn’t know you had a special interest in Woolf, or had been to her house, but when I sent you the list I hoped you would choose Woolf, because whenever I think of the phrase “A Room of One’s Own” I picture you!! I remember you in your tiny little student apartment, with your four children sleeping in bunk beds next to each other - I think you called it “the barracks” - and you carved out a teensy little space for yourself where you started your company, with fabrics and magazines and inspiration photos on the wall. I remember going up there and seeing your space and being mystified - kind of a feeling of “how did you know how to do this? How did you know that you could? How did you give yourself permission?” You were sooooo far ahead of me on that path, and I am so grateful for your example.
So let’s start by learning a little about the author of this famous, iconic book, Virginia Woolf.
This bio is taken mostly from the inside cover of A Room of One’s Own, and it says:
Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in Kensington, London, England in 1882. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a respected man of letters, and as a young girl Woolf was introduced to many literary figures, including Henry James. Woolf also made great use of the family’s vast library, working her way through much of the English literary canon as a teenager. Her summers were spent in St. Ives, Cornwall, which would later form the setting for her famous novel, To the Lighthouse. [And I have to throw in that listeners should definitely read To the Lighthouse]
In 1895, when Woolf was just thirteen, her mother died, triggering the first of many mental breakdowns. Starting at the age of 15, Virginia’s father and his doctor claimed that reading and writing made her nervous condition worse, and prescribed a regime of physical labour such as gardening to prevent a total nervous collapse. This led Woolf to a lifetime of obsessively engaging in physical labour, which often made her anxiety worse.
Between 1897 and 1901 she was able to take courses in Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London. (It’s worth noting that after attending public school, all of Virginia’s brothers attended Cambridge University. In contrast, the girls in the family were homeschooled, and Virginia was lucky to go to the Ladies Department of King’s College.) After graduating from King’s College she began publishing work with the Times Literary Supplement. However, in 1904, following the death of her father, Woolf suffered another breakdown, which led to her being institutionalized.
Following her discharge, Woolf and her sister and brother moved from their family home to a new home in Bloomsbury. It was here that Woolf met Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and various other writers and intellectuals, who together would form the famous Bloomsbury Set. In 1912, Virginia married the author Leonard Woolf, who nursed her through another breakdown and a suicide attempt. Woolf published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. This, as well as various essays, quickly established her as a major public intellectual.
During the twenties, Woolf published the novels that established her as a leading figure of modernism and one of the greatest British novelists of the 20th Century. She published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925, To the Lighthouse in 1927, and Orlando in 1928.
Woolf was also a popular speaker, and on October 20th and 26th, 1928, she delivered speeches to two student societies at Cambridge University. She later combined these speeches into an extended essay with six chapters, and published it in book form in September, 1929, as A Room of One’s Own.
Stylistically, Woolf experimented with a lyrical stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, and is now considered - along with fellow modernist James Joyce - one of the finest innovators in the English language. Her work has been translated in fifty languages, and her major novels have never been out of print.
After completing her last novel, Between the Acts, Woolf fell into a period of deep depression - exacerbated by the onset of World War II and the destruction of her home during the Blitz. On March 28, 1941, fearing total mental collapse, Woolf drowned herself by filling her overcoat pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse near her home. She was 59 years old.
I also think it’s important to add that Virginia Woolf was a survivor of sexual abuse. Virginia’s family was a blended family of eight children, and she had two older half brothers who molested Virginia from the time she was 6 years old until she moved out of the house at age 23. This abuse is well-documented, as Virginia wrote about it in her journals and multiple biographers and historians have written about it and made attempts at analyzing the effect this had on her mental and emotional state throughout her life. I think it’s an important detail to include, given the nature of Woolf’s work, and in general I believe in de-stigmatizing abuse by talking about it.
So that’s Virginia Woolf - she was a genius and she changed English literature forever, and if you want a multimedia experience, I also recommend listening to the Indigo Girls’ song, “Virginia Woolf,” which makes me cry every time.
Allebest: Ok, let’s dive into the text.
Amy: Chapter One
[The very first sentence introduces Woolf’s style. She had been asked to give a lecture on “women and fiction,” and she begins with:]
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. ...the first duty of a lecturer (is) to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point - a woman 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 true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. (7-8)
Right off the bat I’m going to introduce a more recent voice to the conversation:
Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, responded to Woolf's observation that only women with 'a room of their own' are in a position to write. Woolf herself was making the point that not all women in her society had such a safe space, but Walker continues the conversation by discussing the further exclusions and difficulty suffered by women of color. In her 1983 book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes:
Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.
This is an important place to start, because it does highlight the limitations of Woolf’s point of view as a well-to-do person in a country where she is not a racial minority. Walker seems to point out that it’s not as easy as just “getting your own room and getting money” for many, many women. And she reminds us that women like Phyllis Wheatley and others have persisted against great odds to produce works of genius and Art.
With that said, of course it would benefit all thinkers and artists - to have a quiet space and time to work, and an income. And that has been an obstacle for many thinkers and artists throughout the ages, especially for women, and especially for people of color, and for all people who struggle with poverty.
One of my favorite quotes from Chapter 1 is: “At any rate, when a subject is highly controversial--and any question about sex is that--one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.” And the question she has focused on that led her to the opinion she holds is : what is the force behind this massively diff experience between the sexes? (barred out and locked in, meals, libraries, turf, money, ideas) and luxury of privacy and space.
I love this because she’s not being hysterical or bossy and admits from the outset the complexity of this predicament, millions of years in the making, between the sexes. With her stream of consciousness mapping out exactly what happened to her--both in her private thoughts and in her conversations and even what she ate and where it was eaten--she takes you along in her little side car and by the end you can’t help but see the ‘truth’ of her two requisites for a woman writing fiction: the freedom that comes with space and money.(4)
Yes, exactly. I love that you chose that quote because it does distill it down to those essential themes: women need freedom, space, and money.
And she illustrates these themes by continually telling a story. And she brings the listener in almost like a confidante as she goes through her day.
[She starts by telling how she was sitting by a riverbank at “Oxbridge” - which is a term people use that combines Oxford and Cambridge University - thinking about these speeches and trying to brainstorm ideas. She describes the process of thinking of an idea like fishing, dangling a line down into the mind and waiting for a tug. She says how a thought came tugging at her line. She pulled it up and tried to examine the thought, and as she was thinking, she got up and started strolling across the lawn.] “Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle (which means a ceremonial officer of the college); I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. [This interruption] sent my little fish into hiding. What idea it had been that had sent me so audaciously trespassing I could not now remember. (10)
“In protection of their turf ...they had sent my little fish into hiding”. Gross. This is so subtle and yet horrific because when you multiply all the ideas of all the women over even the 300 years of Cambridge (which was how long they had been “rolling” the turf)--a vast treasure of ideas that might have been were lost because women were barred, irrelevant, a bother in the man’s world. This begins the notion of wasted talent, gift, genius that I find so daunting that she repeatedly describes. (6)
YES!! That is so true. It’s absolutely tragic to think about those women’s contributions that never got to be realized. And the other thing is just the presumption of the man walking in defining the space, and telling her she couldn’t walk on a certain path. To me that’s patriarchy in one visual image. A man saying “oops, nope, not over there.” And everyone just accepts it and says “ok,” without questioning, wait, why do you get to tell me where I can and can’t walk? I don’t tell you where you can and can’t walk!!”
[So then the same thing happens again. Woolf then becomes lost in thought about the author Thackeray, and how his work “Esmond” is Thackeray’s most perfect novel, but she wondered about his stylistic choices and thought she would like to look at the manuscript, and she realized that the manuscript was at a library right there on campus. Lost in thought, she finds herself walking to the library and she says]: “here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.
That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safely locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep forever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger. (12-13)
[Woolf then describes the differences between the men’s colleges and the women’s college at the university. She eats lunch in the men’s college, where she describes]: soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream... After that came the partridges… with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebud but more succulent. And no sooner had the roast and its retinue been done with than the silent servingman… set before us, wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult. Meanwhile the wine glasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. (16)
[Then later, in contrast, she describes the supper they were given in the dining hall of the women’s college]: Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. ...One could have seen through the transparent liquid any pattern that there might have been on the plate itself. But there was no pattern. The plate was plain. Next came beef with its attendant greens and potatoes - a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge ...Prunes and custard followed. [And then she describes the prunes as “stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in misers’ veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and yet not given to the poor]. Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core. That was all. The meal was over. (24) (So funny! Such great writing)
“What force is behind that plain china off which we dined?” (19) I love that she traces the inequity backward from the vast difference in the meals and circumstances and trimmings of each…”The lamp in the spine does not light off beef and prunes”;) (18) “what effect poverty has on the mind.” (23)
Yes, exactly. At first I didn’t get what she was doing - like, why all this detail about the food? But then I saw it.
So after dinner she talks to her friend Mary Seton, a science teacher, about the inequity, and Mary explains how hard it was to raise money for the women’s college when it was founded sixty years earlier:] “ Mr. So-and-so won’t give a penny. The Saturday Review has been very rude. How can we raise a fund to pay for offices? Shall we hold a bazaar? Can’t we find a pretty girl to sit in the front row? Let us look up what John Suart Mill said on the subject. ... And it was only after a long struggle and with the utmost difficulty that they got thirty thousand pounds together. (It is not a large sum, considering that there is to be but one college of this sort [meaning one women’s college] for Great Britain, Ireland and the Colonies, and considering how easy it is to raise immense sums for boys’ schools. [Yes, consider how easy it is to raise funds - for hundreds of years - for men at Oxford and Cambridge] But considering how few people really wish women to be educated, it is a good deal.’ So obviously we cannot have wine and partridges and servants carrying tin dishes on their heads, she said. We cannot have sofas and separate rooms. ‘The amenities,’ she said, quoting from some book or other ‘will have to wait.”
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo? (26-27)
Of course not. Their mothers were probably not allowed to leave the private, domestic sphere in order to work, and under the laws of coverture their earnings would have gone to their husbands anyway. Later Woolf says: For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband’s property -- a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange. Every penny I earn, they may have said, will be taken from me...so that to earn money, even if I could earn money, is not a matter that interests me very greatly. I had better leave it to my husband.
The sarcasm at the situation of women--scolding these mothers for “mismanaging their affairs very gravely” (22) will come back in her “peroration” at the end when she teases them for not affecting more change since “most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now”. (109) So clever!
So clever! She’s so subtle. Ok now Susannah I have a question for you. Virginia and Mary have a conversation where they talk about how hard it is for a woman to earn money and also be a mother, and I want to know what you think. Woolf says:
For, to endow a college would necessitate the suppression of families altogether. Making a fortune and bearing thirteen children (remember, there was essentially no birth control in the 1930’s) - no human being could stand it. Consider the facts, we said, First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three of four months spent in feeding the baby. After the baby is fed there are certainly five years spent in playing with the baby. You cannot, it seems, let children run about the streets. People who have seen them running wild in Russia say that the sight is not a pleasant one. People say too, that human nature takes its shape in the years between one and five. If Mrs. Seton, I said, had been making money, what sort of memories would you have had of games and quarrels? What would you have known of Scotland, and its fine air, and cakes and all the rest of it? But it is useless to ask these questions, because you would never have come into existence at all. (29-30)
How did your mom do it? How did/do you do it? What do you teach your kids about it? Should there be any rules or guidelines?
My mom often said “If I could just make a t-shirt!” meaning sew one up in a little nugget of time, she would feel satisfied with her day. When I was designing and sourcing materials and importing clothes and shipping them out it was so tangible but because they were so little it was lost on them. Only my oldest really remembers that phase, I quit so soon... In Utah I did some design work for a really cool restaurant group which gave my kids a new take on things--like, wow mom did something cool?! I also did an intensive yoga teacher training which meant they had to do homework on their own in the afternoons and eat dinners I had pre-made and set out with instructions...for one month. Ha! I felt so guilty to do that. Strangely, even after leaving Mormonism, the financial circumstances of living in France ushered us into the most traditional phase of our lives for the first 3-4 years of living here. Nathan needed to buckle down and really work hard to get tenure at INSEAD and the cost of living and cost for private school for our kids and college tuition required Nathan jump for every opportunity and he quickly ratcheted up in busyness and notoriety….He started to make a lot of money which was fueling our super expensive Paris rent and all the tuitions but quickly the five star jet set life he was living was so different than my life at home kind of picking up the pieces, managing the expat paperwork which is a hilarious novel waiting to be written even though it’s been written hundreds of times...Now that I am no longer affiliated with mormonism on a weekly basis it’s so much less relevant but all of my kids were brought up in that very traditional way and so it still colors our worlds. I have been working intensively on putting down my overgrown sense of duty and responsibility to my kids over my own needs or even wants (their wellbeing, their success as adults, their choices) and join them more as a total support and fan club who helps them contain their experiences but who allows them more freedom with a real abiding belief that they will figure everything out in time.
Ok, one last quote to sum up Chapter One: [Walking home at the end of the evening] I thought of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer. (32) LOVE and feel this quote so much...
Susannah: Chapter Two
And that question of the disparity of experience--Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? (33)-is what she picks up in chapter two and so she decides she needs to go to a place where she is allowed, the Bristish Museum, to make sense of it. What she finds is that her one question why are some women poor? “Became fifty questions. Every page in my notebook was scribbled over with notes. … the page was headed quite simply, “WOMEN AND POVERTY,’ in block letters, but what followed was something like this:
Condition in Middle Ages of, Habits in the Fiji Islands of, Worshipped as goddesses by, Weaker in moral sense than, Idealism of, Greater conscientiousness of, South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among, attractiveness of, Offered as sacrifice to, Small size of brain of, Profounder subconsciousness of, Less hair on the body of, Mental, moral and physical inferiority of, Love of children of, Greater length of life of, Weaker muscles of, Strength of affections of , Vanity of, higher education of, Shkespeare’s opinion of, Lord Birkenheads’s opinion of, Dean Inge’s opinion of, La Bruyere’s opinion of, Dr. Johnson’s opinion of, Mr. Oscar Browning’s opinion of,... (40) [she then lists man after man’s opinions: women has a soul, doesn’t have a soul. Morally superior to men, morally inferior to men. etc.]
Like Simone de Beauvoir will say 20 years later, man posits himself as the “one,” and from his vantage point of primacy, he calls woman the “other.” So women are always defined by how they relate to men.
Where she goes next might be my favorite part of the book. In her confusion, and after reading so many ridiculous “experts” who were in most cases only qualified because they were not women she realizes she had “ absentmindedly made a sketch of an ugly, angry professor in her notebook.] Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom - all these emotions I could trace as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It ferried me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that. ***One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man ...But how explain the anger of the professors? Why were they angry? For when it came to analysing the impression left by these books there was always an element of heat. ..it showed itself in satire, in sentiment, in curiosity, in reprobation. But there was another element which was often present and could not immediately be identified. ..it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions. To judge from its odd effects, it was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open. (41)
She then leaves the British Museum to go to lunch, continually pondering on this oddity that those “professors”--the ones in power--should be angry? It didn’t make sense. But within seconds of picking up and scanning the newspaper that the previous diner had left at her table she has an answer “The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the judge. ...He it is who will acquit or convict the murderer, and hang him, or let him go free. With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry. .. Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting. (44)
So this idea of the anger being less about the sake of proving woman’s inferiority but to extend the false superiority that comforted them so they could go about their important lives...I find it a fascinating argument but also I’m not sure I agree. She continues “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 the outlines of deer onto the remains of mutton bones and bartering flints for sheep skins or whatever simple ornament took our unsophisticated taste. Supermen...would never have existed. The Czar and the Kaisar 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. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless thy are under her criticism; (45)
***They start the day confident, braced, believing themselves desired… they say to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance. (46)
What do you think?
In the first episode I talked about Jordan Peterson, and how he says Western Civilization would not have evolved without patriarchy. I hadn’t read “A Room of One’s Own” yet, so I didn’t know Virginia Woolf had written that passage about women holding up mirrors to men to make them look twice their size and give them confidence. I have heard women whom I respect and love say the same thing - that men need women to build up their egos and let the men be leaders, because otherwise the men feel lost and scared. So should women “take one for the team” forever, diminishing ourselves and limiting ourselves and being a flattering mirror so that men can feel strong and superior? And so that men won’t feel angry at us? Or do we teach our boys to build their self-confidence upon something else other than a comparison with girls’ weakness that makes them feel strong, which results in an unearned superiority complex?
This is so complicated. Virginia admits that the education of men has “bred in them defects as great.” “True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, forever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs--the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives…” (38)
Clearly a matriarchal society and economy or one more fair to both sexes would not look like this current iteration we live but would we really be doing cave paintings? I don’t think so...In Kenya, the women of the xx tribe were in charge of building the houses.
Yes, I think if humanity had evolved without patriarchy, we would have evolved differently for sure, but I agree we would not be doing cave paintings. It’s possible though that we would never have institutionalized slavery, and Woolf points out that without women inflating men’s egos, we may not have had a Napoleon or a Mussolini. And what she didn’t know is that there was another inflated little man gathering power in Germany right as she was speaking. And all of that war and genocide might have been avoided if there had been powerful women in the rooms with the men throughout history.
Amy: Chapter 3
In Chapter 3 Woolf talks about women characters in fiction.
***Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. (This refers to a quote she referenced earlier that described women’s condition in
prior centuries, when men could beat up women without even feeling bad about it)
***A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.
This is another example of the phenomenon we talked about in ancient Mesopotamia where the goddesses were worshipped, but the legal code excuses and even requires violence against actual women. And what we talked about in the episode on the Virgin Mary, when we talked about the veneration and adoration of the Virgin and the female saints during the Middle Ages, but in practice women were restricted and abused. This happens in individual families as well - I personally know husbands who truly do almost worship their wives in one part of their brains, but then they also control and restrict their behaviors, criticize and demean them, and sometimes talk to them with complete disdain and disgust. I’ve quoted Thomas Paine before, “throughout the ages women have always been both adored and oppressed.” I would say they are adored as long as they behave the way men want them to - they hold up the mirror in a flattering way. They keep the rules the men make for them. But if they challenge the males’ superiority or primacy or let the man know that they notice his weaknesses, he rages “how dare you!!!”
The last thing I’ll share from Chapter 3 is a really famous passage, which I remember reading in my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature as a Freshman in college.
Woolf describes a mansplaining old bishop who wrote into newspapers saying that it was impossible for any woman to have the genius of Shakespeare. Woolf responds with this very famous passage. It’s long but it’s really important so I’m going to read the whole thing.
***Be that as it may, I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, that the bishop was right at least in this; it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine ...what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably--his mother was an heiress--to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin--Ovid, Virgil and Horace--and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. 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 neighbouring 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. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer's night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother's, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager--a fat, loose-lipped man--guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting--no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted--you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last--for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows--at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so--who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?--killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.*** (58-60)
****[Woolf laments all the female geniuses who never got to write]: How could [genius] have been born among women whose work began, according to Professor Trevelyan, almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom? ...certainly it never got itself on to paper. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that “Anon,” who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman. (61)
***”...any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard feared and mocked at. (too gruesome?) For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. … I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned. …[she lists female authors who took male pen names in order to be taken seriously, and then comments] ‘the chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of,’ said Pericles, himself a much-talked-of-man) Publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood. (63)
This reminds me of Clara Schumann. Called the “priestess of the piano,” she was a genius who some say was as gifted a composer as her husband Robert Schumann. But she lived in a time and place (19th Century Germany) where only men composed. She wrote in her journal, “ I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”
Susannah: Chapter 4
Chapter 4 continues with her discussion of women writers and the obstacles they faced, even once they were able to earn something for their writing. What rang true for me in this chapter was the intense waste of “untutored intelligence” because instead of being given a microscope, or paper, or time, or encouragement (heaven forbid) or even experience outside their sitting rooms they were met with ridicule, jeering, or fawning. “One could not but play for a moment with the thought of what might have happened if Charlotte Bronte had possessed say three hundred a year -- but the foolish woman sold the copyright of her novels outright for fifteen hundred pounds; had somehow possessed more knowledge of the busy world, and towns and regions full of life; more practical experience… [these were the defects of ] those of her sex at that time. She knew, no one better, how enormously her genius would have profited if it had not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her. But they were not granted; they were withheld; and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without… experience of life… by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. (89)
[She points out passages of Jane Eyre where you can feel Charlotte Bronte’s frustration with the sexism she has experienced in her life.] It is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience - she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve. But there were many more influences than anger tugging at her imagination and deflecting it from its path. Ignorance, for instance. The portrait of Rochester is drawn in the dark. We feel the influence of fear in it; just as we constantly feel an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain. (90)
I had an interesting experience with this - I actually wanted to write my Master’s Thesis using Virginia Woolf as a lens to understand patriarchy in America today. I submitted my prospectus, which I thought was awesome, but my advisor wouldn’t let me do it for a few reasons, one of which we’ll talk about next week, but one of which was because she said “You’re too close to this - not only are you going to be miserable the whole time you’re researching, but it’s warping your writing.” And I was kind of crushed, but I took a rest for awhile and then looked back at my prospectus and realized she was right - it was not my best thinking or my best writing, because I was writing from a place of hurt instead of objectivity and strength. So I very much related to that passage.
What’s interesting is that Woolf doesn’t wish that Bronte could have had those freedoms so that she could have written about more interesting or important “men’s” subjects. Rather, she believes with freedom and time to roam and think and write without fear of ridicule, she could write calmly and powerfully in her own voice….but also even more boldly about the woman’s sphere. She explains, “It is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important” ; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. (91)
She encourages her audience here and several other times suggests what a fascinating study it would be, for a student at Newnham or Girton, to do some in depth research into these lowly, unimportant details like when a girl married, what she did, how many children she had, how she lived, what was it like in those shops. I love that she is raising it as important. Maybe I can just jump ahead while we’re talking about it that in chapter 5 she will wager that a beautifully beribboned shop “is a sight that would lend itself to the pen as fittingly as any snowy peak or rocky gorge in the Andes. And there is the girl behind the counter too--I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon or seventieth study of Keats and his use of Miltonic inversion.”88
***The whole structure, therefore, of the early nineteenth-century novel was raised, if one was a woman, by a mind which was slightly pulled from the straight, and made to alter its clear vision in deference to external authority. One has only to skim those old forgotten novels and listen to the tone of voice in which they are written to divine that the writer was meeting criticism; she was saying this by way of aggression, or that by way of conciliation. She was admitting that she was ‘only a woman,’ or protesting that she was as good as a man.” She met that criticism as her temperament dictated, with docility and diffidence, or with anger and emphasis. ...She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others. (91)
This was me my whole life until basically right now. It’s probably still me right now! I feel I always have these men in suits sitting on my shoulder saying “Who are you to think that? Who are you to say that? How dare you write that? You’re too sensitive. You’re seeing things that aren't there. Don’t trust yourself. Trust me. I am your authority.” Yes and Amen! Done and done. But not that easy...I love that second sentence “It’s probably still me right now”--I know that feeling well of feeling fully emergent and never going back into patriarchy’s clutches and then swoosh there it is. It’s a continual battle and one that I am in the thick of sometimes on an hourly basis.
Only Jane Austen [broke free of the male authority] and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue- write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too-conscientious governess, adjuring them… to be refined; dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable.” (92)
***I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. 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. (93) Goosebumps! But this quote is her imagining the “firebrand” one would have had to be to have those thoughts…
My worst quote of this chapter is the one “female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex.” (73) which she too is horrified that it was written in 1928. The limitations only stem from what was placed against them not from their sex.
Amy: Chapter Five
I’m just going to bring out one part of this chapter that I think is especially important
[Woolf describes the work of a new, young fictional woman writer named Mary Carmichael and her book, Life’s Adventure]:
Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia ...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women."
This is a really important moment because she is telling the truth and she’s also telling her truth - Woolf herself had relationships with women, including a long-term affair with Vita Sackville-West. And this was still completely scandalous and unmentionable.
She continues: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartes Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you ..."
So here she is referencing Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), which was about lesbian homosexuality. The book sparked an obscenity trial and a public uproar when it was published, led by Sir Chartes Biron. So before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator has to be assured that Sir Chartes Biron, the magistrate of the obscenity trial, is not in the audience.
Woolf is comfortable discussing this topic in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place to talk about it.
And then Woolf wrote in her diary before A Room of One's Own was published that she thought when it was published she would be "attacked for a feminist & hinted at for a sapphist" [sapphist means lesbian, after the Greek poet Sappho].
***[Woolf says that Carmichael isn’t a perfect writer, but…] At any rate, she was making the attempt. And as I watched her lengthening out for the test, I saw, but hoped that she did not see, the bishops and the deans, the doctors and the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all at her shouting warning and advice. You can’t do this and you shan’t do that! Fellows and scholars only allowed on the grass! Ladies not admitted without a letter of introduction! Aspiring and graceful female novelists this way! So they kept at her like the crowd at a fence on the racecourse, and it was her trial to take her fence without looking to right or to left. If you stop to curse you are lost, I said to her; equally, if you stop to laugh. Hesitate or fumble and you are done for. Think only of the jump, I implored her, as if I had put the whole of my money on her back; and she went over it like a bird. But there was a fence beyond that and a fence beyond that. Whether she had the staying power I was doubtful. … but she did her best. (115)
This makes me cry. This is like Woolf herself! Inventing new ways of writing, women’s ways of thinking and writing that don’t rely on a male authoritative voice. I love this passage so much! She had “twitched the curtain in the drawing room!’
“It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities? For we have too much likeness as it is, and if an explorer should come back and bring word of other sexes looking through the branches of other trees at other skies, nothing would be of greater service to humanity…” 85
Susannah: Chapter 6
It’s fascinating that right after calling for the need for more differences rather than similarities between the sexes, she has an experience that would almost seem to contradict it. With all the complexity of these questions swirling in her mind, she looks out the window and sees a man and a woman get into a taxi which then enters the current of traffic heading into the thrall of London. And in that very daily common occurrence, she has a sort of vision of maybe how the equality could or should look.
I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. (119)
So ahead of her time! I remember learning something similar to this in my Human Development class as a freshman in college, at super conservative BYU!! I remember our professor saying that everyone has traits and qualities that we traditionally think of as “male” and those we think of as “female,” and he said people who are most successful and have the easiest time in relationships are those who are close to balanced, in the middle, “androgynous” part of the spectrum. (Andro meaning man, and Gyny, meaning woman)
I might have had that same class! But I think androgyny is sometimes misunderstood to mean that there is no difference--in fashion, it can be the look where you can’t tell if the model or outfit or vibe is one gender or the other and that has its own allure for sure. But Woolf’s notion of androgyny doesn’t feel like the bland coming to the middle or absence of extreme which would be stifling or restrictive in some senses. I really think she is envisioning men and women being able to, according to their own personalities and likes, be or think or do in a “masculine” way in one thing and hold a “feminine” aspect somewhere else. If everyone lived this androgyny model, without fear of judgment, it might allow for those endless varieties of “sexes” she envisions as a dream for humanity. “It is much more important to be oneself than anything else” 107
[I know the skewed idea of andyrogyny really triggers some men (after my conversation with Nathan last night).]
Moving on, her sarcasm at the end is so fab…”May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? The excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good.” 109
Her call to channel Judith is thrilling “I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” (110)
Fave quotes: “I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast...to travel and idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” 105
“It is much more important to be oneself than anything else” 107
Allebest: Thanks so much for such a rich discussion, Susannah! As we wrap up, what would you say is one key takeaway?
I find it one of the cleverest feminist arguments I have ever read--weaving historical fact and quotes with her imagined tragic character Judith Shakespeare, you can’t finish the essay without being enraged and empowered. I love that she boils the essentials down to two freedoms : a private space and money, which one could argue is what women need still..not just to be writers but do whatever thing it is they want to do. And most importantly, that when women find those two freedoms they mustn’t try to be like men!!! The glory lies in the difference and variety.
Amy: Yes, and next time we’ll talk about another work by Woolf where she talks about exactly that - how even once women do have financial independence, they are still often haunted by the constant worry of how they’re being perceived by men, which leads them to stifle themselves. So that’s a perfect segway into our next text! But thank you again so much for being here, Susannah!!
Sus: Thank you, this was so fun, etc.
Amy: As I mentioned, our next episode will cover another text by Virginia Woolf, which is a series of essays collected under the title Killing the Angel in the House. This particular collection can be hard to find, but each essay is available for free online, so I recommend looking them up and giving them a read before you join us. The most important essay, from which the title is taken, is called “Professions For Women,” which is a speech that Woolf gave to a group of young women who were heading into the workforce in 1931. There’s also a really interesting song called “The Angel in the House” by the Feminist Folk Rock band, “The Story,” which I listened to nonstop in the late 90’s without knowing what they were singing about. Why would a person want to kill an angel? Find out what they were singing about, and what Virginia Woolf was writing about, in the anthology Killing the Angel in the House… next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? Here had I come with a notebook and a pencil proposing to spend a morning reading, supposing that at the end of the morning I should have transferred the truth to my notebook. B… How shall I ever find the grains of truth embedded in all this mass of paper? I asked myself, and in despair began running my eye up and down the long list of titles. Even the names of the books gave me food for thought. Sex and its nature might well atract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficults of explanation was the fact that sex - woman, that is to say - also attracts… man who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women. ….Merely to read the titles suggested innumerable schoolmasters, innumerable clergymen mounting their platforms and pulpits and holding forth with loquacity which far exceeded the hour usually alloted to such discourse on this one subject. ...Women do not write books about men - a fact that I could not help welcoming with relief, for it I had first to read all that men have written about women, then all that women have written about men, the ale that flowers once in a hundred years would flower twice before I could set pen to paper.(35)
The student who has been trained in research at Oxbridge has no doubt some method of shepherding his question past all distractions till it runs into his answer as a sheep runs into its pen. :)... But if, unfortunately, one has had no training in a university, the question far from being shepherded to its pen flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter -skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds.
If she had left two or three hundred thousand pounds to Fernham, we could have been sitting at our ease tonight and the subject of our talk might have been archaeology, botany, anthropology, physics, the nature of the atom, mathematics, astronomy, relativity, geography. If only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before here had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, ...we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry. Only, if Mrs. Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been - that was the snag in the argument - no Mary. What, I asked , did Mary think of that? (The assumption that a man can be a parent AND make money, but a woman cannot)
Perhaps now it would be better to give up seeking for the truth, and receiving on one’s head an avalanche of opinion hot as lava, discoloured as dish-water. It would be better to draw the curtains; to shut out distractions, to light the lamp, to narrow the enquiry and to ask the historian, who records not opinions but facts, to describe under what conditions women lived, not throughout the ages, but in England, say, in the time of Elizabeth.
I went, therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan’s HISTORY OF ENGLAND. Once more I looked up Women, found ‘position of’ and turned to the pages indicated. ‘Wife-beating,’ I read, ‘was a recognized right of man, and was practised without shame by high as well as low’... ‘Similarly,’ the historian goes on, ‘the daughters who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any hock being inflicted on public opinion.’ ...That was about 1470, soon after Chaucer’s time. The next reference to the position of women is some two hundred years later, in the time of the Stuarts. ‘It was still the exception for women of the upper and middle class to choose their own husbands, and when the husband had been assigned, he was lord and master, so far at least as law and custom could make him.’ (52-53)
[The author then points out that women in fiction have vivid personalities, implying that they didn’t have it so bad. She replies:]
One has only to think of the Elizabethan tombstones with all those children kneeling with clasped hands; and their early deaths; and to see their houses with their dark, cramped rooms, to realize that no woman could have written poetry then. [occasionally great ladies of class and means could. She then talks about a few of the works of women authors, similar in content to what we discussed in Creation of the Feminist Consciousness.] (72)
[Next, she talks about middle class women starting to write.]:
The middle-class woman began to write. For if Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights matter, then it matters far more than I can prove in an hour’s discourse that women generally, and not merely the lonely aristocrat shut up in her country house among her folios and her flatterers, took to writing. Without those forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could not more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe, or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without those forgotten poets who paved the ways and tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of the many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.
This is exactly what we talked about in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness
Miss NIghteinglad was so vehemently to complain,--”women never have a half hour… that they can call their own” -- she was always interrupted. Jane Austen wrote like that to the end of her days.*** “How she was able to effect all this,” her nephew writes in his Memoir, “is surprising, for she had no separate study to repair to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants or visitors or any persons beyond her own family.” (Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh) Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper. (82)
Would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if Jane Austen had not thought it necessary to hide her manuscript from visitors? ***I read a page or two to see, but I could not find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. :) That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. [She postulates that perhaps Jane Austen was a homebody who didn’t mind being constrained - it doesn’t limit her talent. But she then compares her to another female author, Charlotte Bronte]:
One might say… that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself when she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted? (86)
This is what my dean warned me of when I tried to write my first thesis. She advised me that I was too close to the topic, and it was impeding my ability to see clearly and write objective analysis. She was probably right, although she misunderstood and discounted my thesis in a way we’ll talk about next week with The Angel in the House.
I’m excited to hear about this…
[She comments that men struggle when they produce work that no one takes note of.] The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, ‘Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me.’ The world said with a guffaw, “Write? What’s the good of your writing?’ (66)
Mr. Oscar Browning was a great figure in Cambridge at one time, and he was wont to declare that that the impression left on his mind after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the markes he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.’ (67)
[She comments that there are starting to be more women writers, but that in many fields there still are no women.] for musicians, I imagine, [this discouragement] is even now active and poisonous in the extreme.
Almost without exception [women characters] are shown in their relation to men. [but the fictional author Mary Carmichael shows women in relation to each other, as sisters, mothers and daughters, friends, romantic interests…] (101)
This is like the Bechdel test! Which is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added. And it’s so annoying to do this test and realize how few shows and movies pass the test.
Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them, how literature would suffer! ...literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women. (102)
Professors, schoolmasters, sociologists, clergymen, novelists, essayists, journalists, men who had no qualification save that they were not women, chased my simple and single question - why are some women poor? -- until it became fifty questions. Every page in my notebook was scribbled over with notes. … the page was headed quite simply, “WOMEN AND POVERTY,’ in block letters, but what followed was something like this:
Condition in Middle Ages of, Habits in the Fiji Islands of, Worshipped as goddesses by, Weaker in moral sense than, Idealism of, Greater conscientiousness of, South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among, attractiveness of, Offered as sacrifice to, Small size of brain of, Profounder subconsciousness of, Less hair on the body of, Mental, moral and physical inferiority of, Love of children of, Greater length of life of, Weaker muscles of, Strength of affections of , Vanity of, higher education of, Shkespeare’s opinion of, Lord Birkenheads’s opinion of, Dean Inge’s opinion of, La Bruyere’s opinion of, Dr. Johnson’s opinion of, Mr. Oscar Browning’s opinion of,... (40) [she then lists man after man’s opinions: women has a soul, doesn’t have a soul. Morally superior to men, morally inferior to men. etc.]
Does it explain my astonishment of the other day when Z, most humane, most modest of men, taking up some book by Rebecca West and reading a passge in it, exclaimed ‘The arrant feminist! She says that men are snobs!’ The exclamation, to me so surprising - for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex? - was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.
But yet it seemed absurd, I thought, turning over the evening paper, that a man with all this power should be angry. Rich people, for example, are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their wealth. The professors, or patriarchs, as it might be more accurate to call them, might be angry for that reason partly, but partly for one that lies a little less obviously on the surface. Possibly they were not ‘angry’ at all; often, indeed, they were admiring, devoted, exemplary in the relations of private life.
Fave themes: Which is it: are women a beacon or have no personality? utmost importance or worthless? The fact versus fiction versus missing history--almost nothing written about women before 18th century (45) ~ If Shakespeare had a sister reveals everything: there are so many even if’s that get stacked into the highest scariest scaffolding--there’s no way she could have done it --not through fault of her own or lack of intelligence but the world around her down to every last detail: education, tasks of stew and stockings, early marriage, greatest asset chastity, violation by men, barred from acting, ridiculed laughed at for writing. ~ The miracle of writing, publishing--how hard it is even for men to bring a work to life, especially one worth reading and the state of mind impacts how and what makes it (the “world’s notorious indifference” and the self doubt: “it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him.” 55) but for women there was hostility on top of the effort “you can’t do this, you are incapable of doing that” 53
Susannah: Chapter 4
Fave themes: Waste of “untutored intelligence” …”what a waste that…” instead of being given a microscope, direction, the slightest encouragement Margaret Cavendish--noble and childless which gave her the freedom--wrote broadly including on the subjects of philosophy and science but was met with fawning and jeering. ~ Like the 4 minute mile, once Aphra Behn was able to support herself through writing it broke the impossible barrier that a writing woman was a deranged or foolish one...but that it would remain very difficult because there was no female “tradition behind them”which is required, all the frameworks were made by men (74) ~ Masterpieces have a pedigree “and are not single and solitary births” (64) ~ State of mind impacts the quality of writing (Charlotte Bronte was too much in a rage, too foolish, writing too much of her own satisfaction...i was puzzled at this thought but agree that women writers, myself included, are often saying things out of “aggression, or by way of conciliation” 73) ~ Her discussion of what makes a great novel (the integrity and conviction versus the disappointment that it “came to grief somewhere” 71)
Samuel Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher said “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” (68) She says this attitude persists in many different fields.
Looking back, we can’t imagine a time when women were told they couldn’t write. Couldn’t teach. Couldn’t act. So in 100 years when we look back, what field will we look at from our day and think “I can’t believe we used to think women couldn’t do… x,y,z.” Think of the Google manifesto about women’s inferiority in tech. That’s going to read just like one of these archaic, outdated texts that we find so insulting but ridiculous. But in the meantime, it hurts a lot of girls and women, and individual potential is wasted because girls are discouraged from trying and don’t see examples and precedent around them. I didn’t know about the Google manifesto :(
Though there are professions where women are still under-represented and many or most that undervalue the women doing that work, I’m more curious about what a healthier balance of the sexes could do for individuals living into being their truest selves because of less of a need to prove, compete, fit into a sense of what is expected of their sex. This would radically change the quality of life for all whether single or in partnerships or marriage and families because that inferiority/superiority still plays out. Whose job is more important? Who makes more? Who literally decides and what decisions do they consider? I am fascinated by equality because it liberates people to do, think, dream, and live in a way that is truest to themselves and if they are doing that valuing every single person they come in contact with of worth of that same liberty, there would be less depression, addiction, etc. We numb out because we are all rats in a race of production, efficiency, competition, and it doesn’t feed us….
Moreover, it is all very well for you, who have got yourselves to college… to say that genius should disregard such opinions; that genius should be above caring what is said of it. Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind most what it said of them. Remember Keats. Remember the words he had cut on his tombstone. Think of Tennyson; ...it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others. (70)
This is one of the reasons I love Woolf. She takes human emotion into account. She admits we are impacted by it. She is willing to be vulnerable herself, and that makes her relatable. And, here she points out that issue that Shannon and I discussed on the episode of The Yellow Wallpaper about whether women really are more sensitive and emotional in general. Who knows. But here Woolf points out the fact that men are sensitive and emotional and care about others’ opinions just as much! Think of composers as well - Rachmaninoff’s hero Tolstoy criticized him and he went into a massive depression. Men feel this way too; they just have to pretend they don’t. And that’s not healthy for them! I totally agree! Men are very sensitive and care as much. They are tortured with self doubt just as we are.
Fave theme: That contemporary women writers are writing more broadly across genres is true and a happy thought, but it will take time to figure out how to struggle against the reality that “literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women” (81). Mary Carmichael “will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been…[on reading about Chloe watching Olivia put a jar on the shelf] “That is a sight that has never been seen since the world began” (82) ~ Tragic question “The majority of women are neither harlots nor courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon. But what do they do then?” 86
[On mentioning Goethe, Cowper, Shelley, Voltaire and Browning] “But we should wrong these illustrious men very greatly if we insisted that they got nothing from these alliances but comfort, flattery and the pleasures of the body. What they got, it is obvious, was something that their own sex was unable to supply; and it would not be rash perhaps to define it further...as some stimulus, some renewal of creative power which is in the gift only of the opposite sex to bestow.” 84
That idea of the two sexes needing to be Interesting thought: That the suffragette movement negatively impacted some men’s ability to write well because “he is protesting against the equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority” so Shakespeare lived at a time when there was no women’s movement and was never bothered by having to prove his superiority--enabling him to write androgynous…
I love how she “anticipates the two criticisms” 1) comparative merits of the sexes and 2) too much the importance of material things.