The keen observer, that is to say, anyone who possesses a better memory than I for specifics- may have noticed that A Room of One’s Own By Virginia Woolf, did not appear on my Summer reading list. It is the nature of ideas, the world, and particularly of books, to lead me curiously on many a tangent, after anything that tantalizes my fancy in the course of any given day to pursue it without regard to other imaginary creations such as chores or deadlines. So, much as Alice was drawn to follow the white rabbit who appeared during the monotony of her studies, A Room of One’s Own was one such impatient distraction that arose during the course of a lecture I was giving on the early women’s suffrage movement.
Nothing more than a one sentence reference to the book elicited a guilty feeling in me that I had never bothered to finish reading this book. It was first assigned to me as part of a women’s fiction course I quickly dropped out of in my early twenties- because the subject quite literally bored me to tears! I had enrolled in the class in the hopes of transferring from the equivalent of community college to the equivalent of a 4 year college in order to embark on a Bachelor’s degree. At that time I did not know anyone, save my professors who had a university education and I erroneously concluded that this course represented what I could expect of it. The texts, all 19th and early 20th century works were, for me, impenetrably boring, irrelevant and concentrating on the superficial lives of wealthy highborn women overly focused on men and marriages, dresses and carriages. In short, even if translated into a more contemporary scenario, things I had not the slightest interest in. I attempted to read the books while on a month long stay with my grandmother in Australia, my country of birth. I cried to my grandmother that I didn’t know how to get through it. She, a pragmatic woman who had not seen education beyond the sixth grade, as was the norm of her day, had no advice to offer but to read it or set it aside at my choice. I thus promptly withdrew from the course and went on to distract myself with other affairs while in her home, and read instead (with shocking revelation of the nature of the scandalously detailed romances) the mills and boons novels that were her daily fodder and the only readable items beyond the newspaper to be found. I had with me 6 of those awful literature texts for my class and I couldn’t bring myself to finish one. In order to dampen my negative feeling this week, I obtained a copy and begun reading the short 128 pages of the work based on two speeches on women and fiction, compiled with extended musings into a 6 chapter book.
In her peroration (a fancy word I didn’t know, for the conclusion of a speech) Woolf proclaims that “when a woman speaks to women she should have something very unpleasant up her sleeve.” In this, I can see sense, on the very day I taught about the suffragettes and inspired myself in the present undertaking I saw cause to ponder that women are- as Woolf stated- hard on women, that day as I stepped exuberantly over the threshold of my department door I was told I was showing too much cleavage. “I wouldn’t” the objection-er proclaimed, “want to arouse “passions””. So I believe Woolf would approve if I was less than romantic about her work.
If Woolf was alive today I would object that she, with her inherited money had the opportunity, not afforded to most, to live in a life of luxury, and who was she to proclaim that we must strive to make 500 a year and have a room of one’s own and the ability to idleness in order that we have the potential to write- when it was in fact handed to her. I would ask her directly, what she thought of the situation of women such as myself who have striven to education herself in a world now in which the equivalent of 500 a year (adjusted to our times) barely covers what I am indebted each year for the privilege of the education I have received. No, as Woolf sat down and wrote that these things would improve ones writing and we must pursue regardless, she knows all too well that these things are a privilege of the wealthy. In her day, as in ours one needed an income that allowed one the days and freedom of mind. She proclaimed that 100 years into her future that women may be able to have these things more easily than they did with the constraints of her day- but the world she envisioned still ignores the socioeconomic disparities we still have. She rallies that women of her day had won so many advancements that our foremothers were without. (at which juncture my spell checker attempts to redirect my words to say forefathers- as if we came not from the womb and breast of women but from men). “What is your excuse?” she asks. The washing machine and equal access to employment may have freed us of some burdens but systemic patriarchy is alive and well in obscure corners of our literary lives – including not least our computers- reminding us even now as Woolf says– it is men that built these things in the world, and yet it is still mainly men. “In 100 years time”, Woolf wrote 90 years ago – “women may be poets”.
At 38 I tally the years of my life- what I was doing when and what now, to my calculation, in 10 years I might just be free enough to be a poet. Until then, I will lay my lot with Woolf and dare to continue to believe as I write a blog post that will only be shared with a private circle online, as the women of her day may have shared their words in a parlor, “that work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”