A Room of One’s Own is Virginia Woolf’s best-known work of non-fiction. Although she would write numerous other essays, including a little-known sequel to A Room of One’s Own, it is this 1929 essay – originally delivered as several lectures at the University of Cambridge – which remains Woolf’s most famous statement about the relationship between gender and writing.
Is A Room of One’s Own a ‘feminist manifesto’ or a work of literary criticism? In a sense, it’s a bit of both, as we will see. Before we offer an analysis of Woolf’s argument, however, it might be worth breaking down what her argument actually is. You can read the essay in full here.
A Room of One’s Own: summary
Woolf’s essay is split into six chapters. She begins by making what she describes as a ‘minor point’, which explains the title of her essay: ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ She goes on to specify that an inheritance of five hundred pounds a year – which would give a woman financial independence – is more important than women getting the vote (women had only attained completely equal suffrage to men in 1928, the same year that Woolf delivered her lectures).
Woolf adopts a fictional persona named ‘Mary Beton’, and addresses her audience (and readers) using this identity. This name has its roots in an old Scottish ballad usually known as either ‘Mary Hamilton’ or ‘The Four Marys’ and concerns Mary Hamilton, a lady-in-waiting to a Queen of Scotland. Mary falls pregnant by the King, but kills the baby and is later sentenced to be executed for her crime. ‘Mary Beton’ is one of the other three Marys in the ballad.
Woolf considers the ways in which women have been shut out from social and political institutions throughout history, illustrating her argument by observing that she, as a woman, would not be able to gain access to a manuscript kept within an all-male college at ‘Oxbridge’ (a rhetorical hybrid of Oxford and Cambridge; Woolf originally delivered A Room of One’s Own to the students of one of the colleges for women which had recently been founded at Cambridge, but these female students were still forbidden to go to certain spaces within all-male colleges at the university).
Next, Woolf turns her attention to what men have said about women in writing, and gets the distinct impression that men – who have a vested interest in retaining the upper hand when it comes to literature and education – portray women in certain ways in order to keep them as, effectively, second-class citizens.
Woolf’s next move is to consider what women themselves have written. It is at this point in A Room of One’s Own that Woolf invents a (fictional) sister to Shakespeare, whom Woolf (perhaps recalling the name of Shakespeare’s own daughter) calls ‘Judith Shakespeare’. (Incidentally, Woolf’s invention of ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ inspired a song by The Smiths of that name and the name of a female pop duo.) Woolf invites us to imagine that this imaginary sister of William Shakespeare was born with the same genius, the same potential to become a great writer as her brother. But she is shut off from the opportunities her brother enjoys: grammar-school education, the chance to become an actor in London, the opportunity to earn a living in the Elizabethan theatre.
Instead, ‘Judith Shakespeare’ would find the doors to these institutions closed in her face, purely because she was born a woman. Woolf’s point is made in response to people who claim that a woman writer as great as Shakespeare has never been born; this claim misses the important fact that great writers are made as well as born, and few women in Shakespeare’s time enjoyed the opportunities men like Shakespeare had. Woolf’s ‘Judith’ is seduced by an actor-manager in the London playhouses, she falls pregnant, and takes her own life in poverty and misery.
Woolf then returns to a survey of what women’s writing does exist, considering such authors as Jane Austen and Emily Brontë (both of whom she admires), as well as Aphra Behn, the first professional female author in England, whom Woolf argues should be praised by all women for showing that the professional woman writer could become a reality.
Behn, writing in the seventeenth century, was an important breakthrough for all women ‘for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.’ Earlier women writers were too constrained by their insecurity – as women writing in a male-dominated literary world – and this leads to a ‘flaw’ in their work.
But nineteenth-century novelists like Austen and George Eliot were ‘trained’ in social observation, and this enabled them to write novels about the world she knew:
Jane Austen hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper. Then, again, all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion. Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room. People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes. Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels.
But even this led to limitations: Emily Brontë’s genius was better-suited to poetic plays than to novels, while George Eliot would have made full use of her talents as a biographer and historian rather than as a novelist. So even here, women had to bend their talents into a socially acceptable form, and at the time this meant writing novels.
Woolf contrasts these nineteenth-century women novelists with women novelists of today (i.e., the 1920s). She discusses a recent novel, Life’s Adventure by Mary Carmichael. (Both the novel and the writer are fictional, invented by Woolf for the purpose of her argument.) In this novel, she finds some quietly revolutionary details, including the depiction of friendship between women, where novels had previously viewed women only in relation to men (e.g., as wives, daughters, friends, or mothers).
Woolf concludes by arguing that in fact, the ideal writer should be neither narrowly ‘male’ or ‘female’ but instead should strive to be emotionally and psychologically androgynous in their approach to gender. In other words, writers should write with an understanding of both masculinity and femininity, rather than writing ‘merely’ as a woman or as a man. This will allow writers to encompass the full range of human emotion and experience.
A Room of One’s Own: analysis
Woolf’s essay, although a work of non-fiction, shows the same creative flair we find in her fiction: her adoption of the Mary Beton persona, her beginning her essay mid-flow with the word ‘But’, and her imaginative weaving of anecdote and narrative into her ‘argument’ all, in one sense, enact the two-sided or ‘androgynous’ approach to writing which, she concludes, all authors should strive for. A Room of One’s Own is both rational, linear argument and meandering storytelling; both deadly serious and whimsically funny; both radically provocative and, in some respects, quietly conservative.
Throughout, Woolf pays particular attention to not just the social constraints on women’s lives but the material ones. This is why the line which provides her essay with its title – ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – is central to her thesis. ‘Judith Shakespeare’, William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, would never have become a great writer because the financial arrangements for women were not focused on educating them so that they could become breadwinners for their families, but on preparing them for marriage and motherhood. Their lives were structured around marriage as the most important economic and material event in their lives, for it was by becoming a man’s wife that a woman would attain financial security.
Such a woman, at least until the late nineteenth century when the Married Women’s Property Act came into English law, would usually have neither ‘a room of her own’ (because the rooms in which she would spend her time, such as the kitchen, bedroom, and nursery, were designed for domestic activities) nor money (because the wife’s wealth and property would, technically, belong to her husband).
Because of this strong focus on the material limitations on women, which in turn prevent them from gaining the experience, the education, or the means required to become great writers, A Room of One’s Own is often described as a ‘feminist’ work. This label is largely accurate, although it should be noted that Woolf’s opinion about women’s writing diverges somewhat from that of many other feminist writers and critics.
In particular, Woolf’s suggestion that writers should strive to be ‘androgynous’ has attracted criticism from later feminist critics because it denies the idea that ‘women’s writing’ and ‘women’s experience’ are distinct and separate from men’s. If women truly are treated as inferior subjects in a patriarchal society, then surely their experience of that society is markedly different from men’s, and they need what Elaine Showalter called ‘a literature of their own’ as well as a room of their own?
Later feminist thinkers, such as the French theorist Hélène Cixous, have suggested there is a feminine writing (écriture feminine) which stands as an alternative to a more ‘masculine’ kind of writing: where male writing is about constructing a reality out of solid, materialist details, feminine writing (and much modernist writing, including Woolf’s fiction, is ‘feminine’ in this way) is about the ‘spiritual’ or psychological aspects of everyday living, the daydreams and gaps, the seemingly ‘unimportant’ moments we experience in our day-to-day lives. It is also more meandering, less teleological or concerned with an end-point (marriage, death, resolution), than traditional male writing.
Given how much of Woolf’s fiction is written in this way and might therefore be described as écriture feminine, one wonders how far her argument in A Room of One’s Own is borne out by her own fiction.
Perhaps the answer lies in the novel Woolf had published shortly before she began writing A Room of One’s Own: her 1928 novel Orlando, in which the heroine changes gender throughout the novel as she journeys through three centuries of history. Indeed, if one wished to analyse one work of fiction by Woolf alongside A Room of One’s Own, Orlando might be the ideal choice.