Virginia Woolf’s Messages for Today

Although I read many of her novels as a teenager, I only came to reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own somewhat late in life. I have recently reread it. On a second reading I am even more struck by it than I was the first time. It is still so horrifyingly relevant, even 90 years on from its first appearance in print. Its message for women is as loud and pertinent as ever, but much of it equally applies to minorities and to anyone not brought up in security, affluence and kindness.

I was prompted to pick the book up again by way of reading a very different book about the society in which Woolf lived and, more particularly her personal household. This was Alison Light’s Mrs Woolf and the Servants which discusses the tangled relationship the Woolf couple had with their own servants. In part the complications were clearly a product of their time, as live-in domestics (particularly the women) found new ways to earn their keep beyond the house as a consequence of the First World War and increasing urbanisation. In part they clearly reflect the way the Woolfs lived and the privacy they dreamed of but never quite seemed to achieve when domestics were around. Being deprived of this privacy Woolf seems to have been quite an unreasonable despot towards her two long-term servants, if the excerpts from her diaries and letters quoted in this book are accurate. For a left-wing idealist she was a terrible snob, something that was far from uncommon in this period with its changing social mores and class structure, although it would seem she never noticed the conflict between reality and the ideal in this sphere.

But back to Virginia Woolf’s own essay, a mental exploration of the absence of women – in books but also as the authors of books and poems – essentially throughout history. Why this absence, she asks, and responds with the answer they lacked ‘a room of one’s own and £500‘. In other words, they lacked the ability to be independent and to think independent thoughts away from the throng, the servants and demands of family. They didn’t have the peace to go inside themselves to find the words they wanted to write. As her own career developed she began to have the security her earnings gave her (though she was upper-middle-class enough to have investments producing their own unearned income), but she usually was surrounded by her cook-general who intruded into her space. Hence it would appear she always felt the absence of a room that was really just her own private inviolable space even with the £500 in hand.

There are various notable quotes about women’s condition in the book relevant, still, to the world we live in. However I would posit that some of these remarks apply just as well to other minorities. It would be good to believe that the modern practice of blind marking has eradicated the inbuilt bias expressed by the oft-quoted Oscar Browning (a Victorian historian and educationalist), who

was wont to declare ‘that the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that irrespective of the marks he might give, that the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.’

Nevertheless blind marking doesn’t always occur. As an external examiner at one institution recently I have had to press to ensure that it really does happen in practice as well as intent. For projects and much experimental assessment it is just about impossible for it to take place anyhow. So, if examiners can think – as a teacher here in Cambridge has been quoted as saying – ‘why doesn’t she write like a man’, whatever that may mean, then women may still be being disadvantaged.

So, why doesn’t the female ‘write more like a man‘? Because (again to quote Woolf) a male author’s writing might suggest:

..such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself.  One had a sense of physical well-being in the presence of this well-nourished, well-educated free mind, which had never been thwarted or opposed but had had full liberty from birth to stretch itself in whatever way it liked.

Many men would not feel they had that liberty, but I would hazard a guess (yes, it’s pure guesswork) that even more women might feel those sentences could not possibly apply to them. Girls at school encouraged to conform, to play safe and so not stretch themselves where they would. Will they have the confidence to do their own thing, whatever that own thing might be, to achieve the integrity that Woolf believed was essential if an author was to be able to produce convincing words? I believe that freedom not to spend your life looking over your shoulder to see if your actions are being met with approval, not to feel a potential outcast by virtue of what you wish to do or have dared to do, is something too many lack.

If you have made the grade as a female engineer but are constantly being met with ‘oh I wasn’t expecting a woman‘ when you turn up on the building site to head up the team; if you are a female scientist whose fashion sense (or bodily shape) is constantly being commented on by male peers as you try to carry out your experiments, you are likely to waste time and energy combatting the anxieties produced by the comments. That means you have less to devote to the task in hand. I am quite sure there are equivalent situations if you are a BME or fit into some other minority category; I suspect this applies equally if you are a male nurse.

For many (women but possibly even more particularly men) I am sure there is the sense they ‘went to the wrong school‘ – or some other equivalent. I once heard a view along these lines expressed by an offguard Government Minister, who implied he felt more vulnerable as a non-Etonian than his more fortunate (i.e Eton-educated) colleagues.  Such consequent lack of security is likely to hold anyone in such a position back as they cannot attain Woolf’s ascribed ‘freedom of mind’. This is not simply and crudely a ‘woman thing’, but the situation was so well expressed in this essay in that context.

Finally, I would like to highlight another couple of sentences from Woolf that I suspect we can all recognize, at least in someone else if not ourselves.

Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with that inferiority, but with his own superiority….Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle.  And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself.  By feeling that one has some innate superiority.

This may have a lot to do with the unconscious bias I and others have written about so frequently (e.g. here). It doesn’t have to be a professor, it could be your line manager or, in the case of Maggie Thatcher with her queen bee syndrome, the Prime Minister. The fact is that if you are up against someone whose only security is to inflate their own superiority, you have a hard battle on your hands. So many of us like to kick the office cat metaphorically, in order to reassure ourselves we are not really at the bottom of the pile; it is often easy to forget the cat has feelings too and will never grow up to be big and brave if treated this way. It behoves us all to read Virigina Woolf’s words and remember that – wherever we sit currently in the hierarchy – having self-confidence is one thing, believing you are innately superior to everyone around is quite another.

A post for International Women’s Day 2014



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1 Response to Virginia Woolf’s Messages for Today

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    What an excellent article Athene. I have just taken up a new job, linked to two academic departments where, for pretty much the first time in my career, I am not “the woman” because there are a number of other senior women who have been there longer than I have. it just makes an extraordinary difference, in a way I was finding it hard to articulate until I read your article. Yes, we are sharing the “burden” of being “the woman” and that, I think, gives us all more space and energy to be the scientists we want to be.

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