Feminist icon Virginia Woolf exemplified the direction that feminism would take in the decades after the First World War. No matter how many legal rights and professional opportunities women gained, feminists like Woolf continued to express condemnation of all men and conviction of oppression. In her landmark 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Woolf turned to alleged psychological oppression to justify her deep sense of grievance.
By the end of the First World War, feminism had achieved its expressed aims. The barriers to women’s full participation in politics, higher education, and the professions had either fallen or were in the process of falling. Determined and talented women could, with greater freedom and public support than ever before, shape their lives as they wished. In North America and Great Britain, the end of World War I brought the right to vote, the right to occupy public office, and the complete opening of professions such as law, medicine, and academia. Higher education had long been available to women, but after the First World War, the last bastions of elite institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford also fully opened their doors to female students.
The reaction of feminists to their expanded opportunities and freedoms was not to rethink their castigation of male tyranny, however. It was certainly not to express any awareness of male sacrifice in war (though the slaughter of the First World War was a vivid memory) or gratitude for women’s status as the protected sex. It was certainly not to acknowledge that at least some significant number of men had supported women’s advancement. On the contrary, feminist response was to continue expressing outrage at women’s victimhood. Even (or especially) women with the greatest advantages and success wrote treatises on sexism.
One of the angriest feminist voices of the period between the First and Second World Wars was a famous and admired woman, the avant-garde British writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), whose husband made it possible for her over decades to write and to cast her aspersions upon patriarchal authority. Like many feminists, Woolf, daughter of the literary critic Leslie Stephen, had a privileged upbringing far better than most men, and a rigorous education. From the age of fifteen, she had private lessons in ancient Greek and Latin literature by various classicists, two of them highly educated women who provided role models of female intellectual independence. Her father encouraged her to read whatever books interested her in his extensive personal library.
What she remembered about her father, however—and translated into her resentment of alleged patriarchal cruelty—was her father’s emotional neediness after her mother’s and older sister’s deaths. Her father, in lonely mourning and becoming deaf, relied on her and her siblings excessively, a dependency she unfairly called “brutality.” She also remembered with deep bitterness her father’s unwillingness to pay for her education at Cambridge, though it was far from clear that she was physically and emotionally strong enough to attend, being subject to nervous breakdowns and periods of suicidality throughout her life. She did eventually commit suicide at the age of 59. After her father’s death, Virginia reflected unsympathetically that if he had lived into his 90s, “His life would have entirely ended mine.”
Woolf’s life not only did not end, but became one of the most celebrated of her time. She married Leonard Woolf, an intellectual companion who supported her, protected her, and allowed her a wide degree of freedom, including having a lesbian lover for some years. She and her husband ran Hogarth Press, which published many modernist works of literature.
In 1928, in the midst of her success, she wrote her furious feminist classic A Room of One’s Own (published the following year) in which she resentfully compared “the safety and prosperity of the one sex” (all those young men killed or maimed in the trenches of World War One) to the ”poverty and insecurity of the other” (31), launching herself securely on a sea of feminist myths about male privilege, myths fashioned in the envious imagination of a woman who had had little in her life, comparatively speaking, but safety and prosperity, and who had been enabled and encouraged by men.
Woolf had been asked to speak on the subject of Women and Fiction to female students at Newnham and Girton Colleges at Cambridge University, and she used the occasion, in a disquisition full of half-truths, untruths, and unquenchable self-pity, to assert that women were not yet able to create on an even footing with men because they had been continually “snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted” (71)—in other words, subject to psychological oppression by men. She used various literary devices to illustrate her thesis, describing at the beginning how while thinking about what to say in her lecture, she lost her train of thought because a man forced her off the grass plot at Cambridge University, telling her that women must not walk there. The story was not literally true, but was meant to epitomize what men had always done and continued to do to women: prevent them from going—with their thoughts, their unique feminine creativity—in the manner they wished to go.
Woolf’s essay poured out scorn on men throughout history. She asserted that the vast majority of these men were possessed by a strong urge to assert their superiority over women by writing treatises and making proclamations about female inadequacy and incompetence. She crafted a picture of herself in the library looking through an allegedly interminable collection of such treatises, referring to one Professor von X, who was “engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex” (39).
There was no actual book with that title; in fact, there were titles by such luminaries as John Stuart Mill on The Subjection of Women (1869) about men’s injustice to women, and by Frances Swiney, on The Awakening of Women (1899) about the physiological, spiritual, and moral superiority of women, and many feminist works by the likes of Josephine Butler, Mona Caird, and Christabel Pankhurst attacking men as immoral, diseased, and predatory; but Woolf made no mention of them. She was concerned only with those men for whom “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” (45).
That was, in her opinion, primarily what men required of women—to reflect men at twice their size—and it was all they had been willing to allow women to do; men were always telling women, “You can’t do this and you shan’t do that!” (122).
Woolf’s sweeping condemnation of male bigotry leads to a question she never does address, which is how she came to be speaking at two Cambridge University colleges that had opened their doors to women almost 60 years previously: Girton College in 1869 and Newnham in 1871. A large number of men must have been asleep at the wheel when the extensive preparation for these colleges was being undertaken. How had it happened? For Woolf, “The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself” (72). She never did pause to explain how, if the opposition had been so heated and unvarying as she claimed, the emancipation had taken place at all.
But Woolf’s point was, really, that emancipation had NOT taken place. Some minor external circumstances had changed, but women were still everywhere in chains.
To illustrate the allegedly impossible situation of the woman writer, Woolf created a personage called Judith Shakespeare, sister to William, a young woman possessing equal talent and energy as her brother but cruelly prevented from pursuing her ambition and genius. (She had forgotten, perhaps that Shakespeare had a daughter named Judith). Having run away from home to London at age 17 in order to escape the marriage her father had arranged for her without her consent, Judith was barred from the theatres, could get no training, had no opportunity for an independent life, and eventually, having been seduced and abandoned, “killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omni-buses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle” (62). In consequence, Woolf implied, there was no tradition of women writers, no distinctive female style, and no honest writing about the lives of women.
Here was a melodramatic tale that has been widely cited in the many decades since its publication, despite the fact that almost everything it asserts is an exaggeration, a misrepresentation, an unprovable fantasy, or an outright fabrication. Woolf immediately undermined her own story about the lack of a female tradition by discussing acclaimed female writers in history. One of the most notable of these was
Aphra Behn (a pseudonym) [1640-1689]; Behn was born within a few decades of Shakespeare’s death, and might almost have been Shakespeare’s sister (or at least a niece) both in her influence and in the enormous scope of her writing, which included sexually daring subject matter. Behn earned an independent living as a playwright and poet in the half-century after Shakespeare. Woolf’s allegation that a female Shakespeare would have had her ambitions and talents thwarted is disproven by her very first significant example.
Woolf then goes on to discuss other widely admired female writers, in particular Jane Austen [1775-1817], the Bronte sisters, Charlotte [1816-1855] and Emily Bronte [1818-1848], and George Eliot [1819-1880], in order to emphasize the enormous difficulties they faced.
Here her ignorance or feminist intransigence are vividly evident. Woolf’s repeated insistence over many pages that these are the only four female writers worth discussing is misleading from the start. What about Maria Edgeworth [1768-1849], 18th century essayist and moralist, Mary Shelley [1797-1851], author of Frankenstein, novelist Elizabeth Gaskell [1810-1865], journalist Harriet Martineau [1802-1876], or poet Christina Rossetti [1830-1894]?
And why ignore American women writers like poet Emily Dickinson [1830-1886] and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe [1811-1896], as well as all the lesser writers, the Frances Brookes and the Fanny Burneys and Elizabeth Inchbalds, who made a name for themselves in their time and often good money from their writings.
There was a well-developed tradition of women’s literature spanning at least 150 years, yet Woolf narrows it to four names in order to emphasize scarcity and exclusion (99).
Even with the acknowledged greats, Woolf’s emphasis is on the negative. She cannot accept that a single woman writer in history was ever encouraged by her family, ever “free” to create as men allegedly were; and this conviction leads her into melodramatic theorizing and fact-free assertions too numerous to catalogue, including the balderdash that
“To Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice”—rank nonsense – and the howler that all four of her significant female writers were “compelled […] to write novels”(86) because that was the only literary form possible or available to them though at least two of the four, according to Woolf, “were not by nature novelists.” She believed that Emily Bronte “should have written poetic plays” and that George Eliot’s “capacious mind” would have been better occupied with “history or biography” (87).
But but but … Bronte DID write poetry, some of it quite good; and George Eliot wrote much more than novels, including highly significant non-fiction essays and translations from the German of works of biblical criticism and philosophy.
In Woolf’s mind, these women had to have been held back in some manner, lacking the freedom, the leisure, the “room of one’s own” and all the mental equipment and cultural authority necessary to write as men were always able to write. Whether the men ever had difficulties she does, barely, acknowledge, but always with the proviso that the women had these difficulties too and worse.
The fact that the prodigiously intellectual and acclaimed woman writer George Eliot (real name Marian Evans), writing half a century before Woolf, DID have a room of her own, lived with a man who made it possible for her to spend her days writing largely uninterrupted, and made a great deal of money from her writing is never touched by Woolf, who is too busy spinning tales about women’s artificially imposed disabilities.
Woolf’s prejudices overpowered her mind. Ten years later, her 1938 essay Three Guineas blamed all men, and only men, for war and could find no significant distinction between the Church of England and the Nazi Party. In a typically Woolfian expression of disdain, she wrote that if war came to England, as there was no real difference between Hitler’s Germany and patriarchal Britain, women should not only refuse to fight but should refuse to make munitions or nurse the wounded. The conservative commentator Theodore Dalrymple described the essay as a classic example of Woolf’s “narcissistic rage.”
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf ended by encouraging young educated women to write “all kinds of books” (142), partly to relieve her own tedium in reading male-authored “history [that was] too much about wars; biography too much about great men” (142). She could not resist, at her essay’s end, the sneer of contempt—men were SO very boring.
Ironically, her hope for women writers was that eventually they would write with what she saw as the extraordinary impersonality of Shakespeare, in whose plays nothing merely personal, no anger or prejudice or ideology, ever betrayed the playwright.
But Woolf herself, as nearly every line in the essay shows, was not ready to give up her feminist anger. In A Room of One’s Own, she set the pattern for dozens and dozens of feminist writers to come, for whom no opportunities would ever be enough, and no feminist grievance too inconsequential or farcical.