Florence Butcher

Virginia Woolf is possibly the most renowned female writer of the early 20th century, and her work and ideas still hold huge significance for readers interested in feminist literature, especially her seminal essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Her iconic words continue to inspire and guide and still hold relevance in the landscape of modern society. In ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Woolf argues that for women to be free to write and create at the level of their male peers, they need both financial independence and private space, something women throughout time have been denied. This article aims to prove that Woolf’s words still hold importance in a society that has shifted dramatically since their time and to translate her prose into a language more easily accessed by young people today.

Woolf wrote ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in 1928, the same year that women were granted the same voting rights as men, and ten years after the end of World War One. She saw this as a time of new opportunity for women, having the possibility to live independently, outside of a husband or father, and to make their own living. However, it was still difficult for the average woman to find work outside of typically feminine fields, such as teaching or childminding, which paid less than men’s work and was expected to take a sideline to raising a family; the idea that women should spend their time with their children or at home, therefore, took priority over writing, especially if it was unprofitable. Woolf herself was an exception to this, receiving £500 a year in inheritance from her wealthy family. She viewed this money as liberating, as it allowed her to live outside of what she saw as menial work or reliance on a husband. This explains the titular idea that, in Woolf’s words, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

To break down her point, Woolf uses the example of a fictional “Judith Shakespeare”, William’s sister. She creates the scenario that Judith was born with equal ability and talent as her brother and should therefore have been allowed an equal opportunity to succeed. However, while William is sent to school, Judith stays home. While William makes connections working at theatres in London, Judith is forced to marry and expected to have children. Judith eventually runs away to London and tries to work like her brother but is turned away by theatre managers who see women acting as similar to “a dog dancing”. Eventually, Judith becomes pregnant, making a life of writing impossible and, seeing nowhere else to turn, commits suicide. Woolf asks the reader to consider how many real women throughout history with this ability and talent were unable to exercise it due to lack of private space or financial independence. However, she argues that “this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.” Women, therefore, should take the opportunity to write if they feel compelled, in order to honour women like Judith Shakespeare who couldn’t.

In contemporary British society, most women will have the opportunity to live independently and access education to the level they choose, as well as access to high-paying and esteemed careers. This is reflected in the world of literature; according to The Bookseller, 75 per cent of fiction published in 2020 was written by women. This surely represents the success of the ideas that Woolf puts forward in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. But equally, a disparity still exists in terms of wealth. Men and women alike who, like Woolf, are afforded financial independence by their wealthy families will find it easier to focus on writing or education without needing to work time-consuming or tiring jobs and can afford nannies to care for their children while they work. As well as this, as Woolf argues, fiction is more female-dominated than other forms of literature as it can be written while accommodating a woman’s domestic life as “less concentration is required” than other forms of literature such as poetry that require intense focus. Therefore, the high percentage of fiction written by women does not represent a total eradication of the obstacles women (or people in general) face to make a living writing. She uses Jane Austen as an example, who did her writing in sitting rooms rather than offices and was subject to casual interruptions constantly. Additionally, access to education for women is not universal. According to World Bank, in countries affected by fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV) girls are 2.5x more likely to be out of school than boys, and at the secondary level, are 90% more likely to be out of secondary school than those in non-FCV contexts. In low-income countries, secondary school completion rates for girls also continue to lag, with only 36% of girls completing lower secondary school compared to 44% of boys. In order to rid literature of inequality, it would therefore be necessary to ensure that all people receive equal access to education at all levels no matter gender, wealth or location, which has not yet come close to being achieved.

If the ideas in this article interest you, I would recommend you read Woolf’s essay for yourself in order to achieve a greater appreciation of her work, both in understanding the context of female literature from the Elizabethan era to the 20th Century, and as a pivotal first wave feminist text. Although reading an extended essay, especially one considered challenging, such as ‘A Room of One’s Own’ may seem daunting, the subject matter of the text is not hard to grasp and it will reward you with a deeper awareness of women and fiction, as well as an appreciation of the role of education and literature in your own life.