Happy birthday, Virginia Woolf!
I thought this quote of Woolf’s was perfect for this week’s Writing Wednesday, particularly as we’ve just come off the back of the weekend’s Women’s Marches in the US and other parts of the world. The energy, strength and support I witnessed from hundreds of women around the world marching and sharing their experiences just blew me away. It was unbelievable, invigorating and fantastic and something that was much needed, especially when it was followed this week by Trump reinstating the global gag rule on US funds for international NGOs that provide family planning services.
Woolf’s quote – “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” originates from her 1929 feminist essay, A Room of Her Own, in which the Mrs Dalloway author explores the relationship between women’s literature and social and economic freedom. The implication here is the bar of financial and societal freedom that keeps women from being able to produce literary works equivalent to that of their male counterparts who did have the financial independence, the sanction of society and the free time to work on their own novels.
Woolf highlights this with a fictional example of Judith, a sister of Shakespeare’s, who would have had to stay at home while her brother had a college education, who is told by her parents to stop wasting her time on books and instead mind the household chores, and is forced into an unwanted marriage while her brother goes on to produce his famous works. According to Woolf, “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.” (side note: did you know that Shakespeare did have a daughter named Judith and that she was most likely illiterate? It makes one wonder that a man who was renown for so turning out so many literary classics did not see fit to teach his daughter how to read.)
Let’s face it: those of us today who are writers or aspiring writers know just how hard it is to make time to write in the midst of our day jobs, our household and family obligations. Think then how much harder it would have been for our feminine counterparts back in the day when women had no financial freedom and were dependent on the goodwill of their (usually male) guardians. If a woman was lucky, her guardian would be encouraging of her ambition to write and would support her in every which way in achieving these literary goals of hers. If she was unfortunate, her guardian would make it clear that under no circumstances would he tolerate her wasting her time on ‘writing rubbish’ and if she were to see a single penny from him or keep a roof over her head, she would fall in with his wishes. Imagine what would happen if, say, the fathers of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson saw no profit in having their daughters educated or if they disapproved of their womenfolk spending time employed in writing or reading rather than sewing or dusting? Imagine if these men had banned their daughters from their libraries or were tyrants who disapproved of book-reading and thus forbade the rest of the family to engage in any sort of literary activities? There would be no Pride and Prejudice, no Sense and Sensibility, no Wild Nights – Wild Nights! or ‘Hope’ is a Thing with Feathers.
And that’s just the freeborn women we’re talking about here. Novelist Alice Walker has weighed in on Woolf’s essay, pointing out that women of colour faced even greater obstacles, citing the example of the African-American poet Phyllis Wheatly. Walker writes, “What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day.”
Make no mistake – women today still face obstacles and derision due to their gender, not just in their writing careers but in plenty of other areas across the board too. But without doubt, it is far easier for us women to write now than it was a few hundred, a hundred or even 50 years ago. The Women’s Marches held over the weekend has reminded me anew of how fortunate I am to be living in a time where I am an independent, educated woman with the financial and social freedom and the basic human rights that should be the birthright of everyone born into this world (but sadly even now are held back from many), that the only thing holding me back from writing would be myself.
It seems the fashion now for people to jeer at feminism, to be ashamed to admit they are a feminist or even to acknowledge they are not a feminist. And yet to those women who complain or speak disparagingly about feminism, I would say to you this: if it weren’t for the work of feminists and suffragettes in the past, of the women who marched and campaigned and risked being thrown into jail for voicing their opinions, who fought for our right to vote and be educated, to be employed and to make our own choices regarding our bodies, our marriage status and even our right to walk about freely outside our homes without a chaperone or a duenna hovering at our side, you would not have the social, economic and human rights you have now, you would not even have the ability to pick between the choices available to you or the chance to raise your voice and be heard.
But back to writing. When reminded of the obstacles faced by Wheatley, or of Anne Finch, a countess who was reluctant to publish her poems due to the derision other female writers faced at the time, or of George Eliot who published under a male name so that her works would be taken seriously, I realise how foolish and absurd I am to moan about procrastination or writer’s block or how I have to choose between staying home to write or going out to town for drinks.
Once cognisant of this good fortune of mine, I am more determined than ever to keep writing, to buckle down and never give up, and to remember that behind me I have my own ancestors, the feminine suffragettes, and hundreds of women (and men too) who have fought to establish these basic rights for women today so that I can now sit down with ease and write a novel at my leisure and follow this literary ambition of mine, the literary ambition of my sisters throughout the ages past.
I write for myself; I write for my readers too; and now I am reminded also that I write for my sisters – past, present and future.