Let's imagine two lab mice. Let's say they're writers (bear with us). Mouse A has a nice private cage and great food. Mouse B has lousy food and a bunch of other mice in her cage who keep interrupting her. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf argues that men are like Mouse A and women are like Mouse B. And how can Mouse B—besides the fact that she's a mouse—write well under such bad conditions?
To put it another way—without all the mice—Woolf says you need privacy, money, and good food to do good work. If you have a lousy meal, how could you be in the mood to write beautifully? If you don't have any privacy, how will you get your thought down on paper without your husband or your kid bugging you? If you have to work at odd jobs for money, how will you find time to write?
Well, that doesn't sound too radical. So what's her point?
Well, when Woolf was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, she was coming off of a couple centuries of people believing that geniuses were like brains in vats: just producing brilliance, whether they lived in a garret or a mansion.
But you know what? For most people, that's not the way it works. The brain-in-a-vat thing cuts the body out of the equation, and Woolf drags it right back in. In short, Woolf's point is that trying to separate the conditions of an artist's life from her art is harder than separating Brangelina.
Can you guess how many women have won Nobel Prizes? Go on, give it a try. We won't tell anyone if you're way off.
Got your guess?
Between 1901 and 2011, just 12 women have won the award. Is there a secret patriarchal conspiracy to keep all the Nobel Prizes in male hands? Are women just naturally stupider and less talented than men?
Well, Virginia Woolf has a different idea. She points out that women's circumstances have made it pretty near impossible to do good work, artistic or otherwise. Like what?
How about that in most cultures for most of recorded history, they were as much their husband's property as the furniture? Or that most women in most cultures didn't even get enough education to be able to sign their names or pay the household bills? Or that even educated women had to spend so much time cooking, cleaning, and raising children that they probably didn't have time to fill up the ol' quill pen?
Yeah, you try writing Romeo and Juliet under those circumstances.
The cool things about Woolf's questions—what would Shakespeare's sister have written? Why is it that men are always writing about women? Why has only one female director ever won an Oscar?—could be applied to any other historically oppressed group. For example: why are so few African-American writers studied in school?
That's right: you try writing Romeo and Juliet while enslaved, oppressed, and illiterate. And then get back to us.