I began my 2018 reading challenge with A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. The essay is based on a two papers delivered in October 1928. The essay discusses the challenges women writers have faced and the possible conditions these women would need in order to prosper like their male counterparts.
The idea of reading Woolf’s essay haunted me for the last six months as I completed my master’s degree. I was exposed to the work when I was an English major so I searched my undergraduate anthologies and looked for a free PDF of the essay online. I finally found an edition (1929 no doubt) in the shelves of the local library. The due-date stamps on the card holder indicate that the text has gone years between loaning, which could be seen as a sadness for this historical commentary on “women and fiction.”
The book, with its thick pages still showing the signs of their initial cut, feels like I’ve travelled through time. The font is antiquated and the margins are wide. Paragraphing is limited. The voice feels distant as Woolf writes from her London perspective.
Yet, there is something carefully telling about Woolf’s journey towards her conclusions regarding “women and fiction.” She searches the canon for examples of women writers and finds few. She postulates the journey of a hypothetical sister to William Shakespeare and the additional challenges she would face due to her womenhood. She describes the challenges of the limited space women have within the 1920s home to write, women who often resorting to the sitting room, a space located in the front of the home, and who were often interrupted by the needs of the home and family.
We can draw correlations to the challenges facing women in the twenty-first century. Notable women who do not receive the recognition they deserve. Inequality amongst genders in many professional fields. Persistent challenges in the strive to have it all while managing family and career.
However, Woolf does take time to remind us of Jane Austen, one of the first novelist. Period. This position solidifies her membership within the canon. In her perspective in this new written form, Woolf argues that Austen could be unapologetically feminine. The additional triviality of the novel as a genre also meant that Austen would not face the same censors her comrades would years later.
Austen writes of concerns facing women of her time and covers themes like sisterhood. She also portrays the opportunities of proposals and marriage from both social and economic perspectives. Because of the timing of these novels, these viewpoints are not through the masculine lens that will later develop within the genre.
As a reader ninety years later, I reflected most on the importance of the unapologetically feminine voice. Our world is constructed around the masculine norm, but values that are historically viewed as feminine issues, such as health and education, are equally important and must remain visible. Yet, on a more personal level, I also considered how my own actions and beliefs are impacted by the masculine norm. Therefore, in my professional realm of higher education, I began discussing community, one that is based in shared objectives and aggregated supports. In my professional realm, I began discussing relationship building under the guise of social capital for all members of our community. I discussed caring and kindness when reviewing institutional values–and not in a hug-a-teddy-bear kind of way.
Ninety years later, we still have a long way to go to ready to world for whom Woolf calls “Shakespeare’s sister.” However, by promoting these values within our daily lives and recognizing the validity of historically feminine perspectives, we can improve the world for all.