Who’s afraid of the F-word?

This blog brought to you by a weird mashup in my head of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, feminist thought, history vs present, and writing

I’ve just finished reading A Room of One’s Own. To say I was enthralled would be an understatement. To say it’s a defining feminist text is way too academic and would fail to accurately describe the breathless excitement that forced me to pretty much copy out every page. (Seriously. So many notes. How can someone be so ridiculously quotable?)


Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929, based on a series of lectures she gave on women and fiction. In a gripping, exaggerated but largely nonfiction narrative, she leads us through a history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation, particularly in relation to women writers.

‘Why was there no woman Shakespeare?’ she asks. Simple. There couldn’t have been. To prove the point, she creates a fictional ‘Shakespeare’s sister.’ As talented a writer as her brother, the young lady declares herself as a writer and is laughed out of the house. She escapes to the city, as he did, to follow her dream, and is subsequently taken advantage of by a string of men, as there is no way for her to support herself, and no one will give her writing any credit. She ends up pregnant and alone, and is buried in an unmarked grave beside a railroad.

This is evocative, poignant – and all too real.

The most jarring moments in A Room of One’s Own are not those that are so emotional, however. It’s those where Virginia Woolf, in 1929, predicts a future of gender equality.

“… in a hundred years, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities an exertions that were once denied them.”

Well, it’s been almost a hundred years, Virginia, and I’m really sorry to report that… things are not going so great.

Feminism is still a dirty word. Women and men are afraid to call themselves feminists because of the stereotypes and false negative connotations associated with that identity. I call bullshit on this.

In addition to the fascinating study of the development of women as writers in a historical context, Virginia looks at the current situation (current being 1929), which again, is pretty much the same as now.

She has one thesis, which is in the title:

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”
Also expressed as:
“It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry.”


I got a few different answers when I tried to find out how much five hundred pounds would be in today’s New Zealand dollars, but possibly around $80,000, which is a comfortable living for anyone.


“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor.”


Which is one of the many reasons writing as a career has been dominated by the patriarchy for centuries. It’s not that there wasn’t a female Shakespeare or Voltaire or Milton. It’s that the men held the purse strings. And “To have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a soundproof room, was out of the question.” Not to mention the wide-held belief that women were incapable of intellectual or creative thought.


“There was an enormous body of masculine opinion that nothing could be expected of women intellectually.”


“A woman’s composing is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It’s not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” (Samuel Johnson)


So, we had no financial independence. We had no belief in our abilities. We had no room in which to write, both literally and figuratively.


“Literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.”


“… 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 one sex and the poverty and insecurity of the other and the effected of tradition and of the lack of tradition on the mind of a writer.”


“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?”


As much as we love to romanticise the image of the starving artist, the truth is that most of the “greats” (all male) were university men. They had families who supported them, they were able to exercise the tradition of the “grand tour,” on which young men were sent around Europe to explore and learn. Women had no such option. What then, were they to write of? How then could they expand their minds?


Their minds, of course, were otherwise occupied with those womanly endeavors of raising children and looking after homes, if they were lucky, or working extraordinary hours in low-paying arduous jobs if they were not. These were not conditions that birthed great works of art.


“To write a word of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty.”


“One remembers that these webs are not spin in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”


“Dogs will bark. Money must be made. Health will break down.”


I could not help but think of my own situation. Yes, health breaks down. Yes, you can lose your means of income. Yes, you must have to relearn how to live within the constraints of pain and financial stricture.


Beyond this, there is the voices that will attempt to break us down as we seek creative endeavor. These have not changed. They are not only comprised of men, but the underlying tone is that of the patriarchy. Virginia describes accurately some of the interactions I have had with men who would prefer that I be quiet, particularly with my feminist and political opinions.


“That persistent voice, now grumbling, no patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone.”


Unfortunately, this is often the voice in my head as well, reminding me that I am not good enough, that it is ridiculous to try and make a living as a writer, that I should stop this madness and settle down. Virginia advises Not Listening – but recognises the difficulty of such. (I thought of Stuff comments…)


“Genius should disregard such opinions, be above caring what is said of it. Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind what is said of them.”


“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”


There is much more advice for women writers, and much more hilarious and chillingly accurate commentary on the patriarchy in this short work, including this gem of a phallic metaphor for oppression:


“…as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.”


Perhaps I will leave you with that for now, and the pleading to go and read the damn thing. Oh, and one final quote to help, in the face of the realisation that, despite suffrage and the vote and the fact that yes, there is now successful independent women novelists and poets and journalists and academics and all sorts of other wordsmiths, we are still battling. That we have 14 years to see drastic improvement before Virginia’s hundred year prophecy is proven wrong. That’s not much time. But this may be of comfort:


“Lock up your libraries if you like: but there is no gate, no lock, no belt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”


3 Replies to “Who’s afraid of the F-word?”

  1. Pingback: The Seventy-Seventh Down Under Feminists Carnival | Zero at the Bone

  2. Pingback: What to do when you can’t do it | Writehanded

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