Woolf tells us that the best way to address the topic of "Women in Fiction" is to give us a work of fiction that describes how she got to the conclusion that, in order to write fiction, "a woman must have money and a room of her own" (1.1).
Woolf's fictional narrator, Mary Beton, sits by a river on the campus of Oxbridge, a fictional-but-not-really university. She's thinking some thoughts, but her meditations are interrupted by several woman-unfriendly interactions: she's ordered off the grass that only "Fellows and Scholars" may walk on and is denied entrance to the library (1.3). Church? She doesn't even bother trying to go in there.
Time for lunch! It's a super nice one, and, after the scrumptious meal, she has some highbrow conversation with the other lucky people there. Unfortunately, seeing a tailless cat sort of derails the conversation. Oookay.
After lunch, she walks to a nearby all-female college, Fernham, for dinner. It's… not good. In fact, it's so bad that she can't even have a good conversation with her friend. We guess because their tummies are upset?
The next day, Mary visits the British Museum to try to understand more about why her experiences the previous day at the men's university and the women's college were so different. She decides she'll search for information about women. Unsurprisingly, she ends up with a lot of books to consult. Surprisingly (to her), most of these books are written by angry men.
Unable to find anything useful and rational at the library, Mary then checks out the history books on her own bookshelf, trying to answer the question of why women have always been too poor to, for instance, endow a university with enough money for a good dinner. Surprise, surprise, no one has ever bothered to write a women's history.
Finally, the narrator turns to her imagination and tells us a story about Shakespeare's (fictional) sister, Judith, who has all of Shakespeare's genius but none of his opportunities. She concludes that she would end up pregnant and then kill herself without having written a word.
But what about actual women writers? Mary mulls over women's writing and thinks that, except maybe in Jane Austen's books, every book is ruined by the writer's bitterness and anger. She pulls down a (fictional) book by (fictional) Mary Carmichael called Life's Adventure. While it broaches topics that other writers have never put on paper before, like a friendship between two women, Mary decides that the book is still flawed. Maybe in another hundred years a woman will be able to write a book of true genius.
The next and final day of the story, Mary looks out her window to the streets of London. She sees a man and a woman get into a taxicab together. Hm, this gives her an idea. Maybe genius works of literature need to be gender-neutral. Each person has a male and a female in their own mind, and they must unite in order to make a truly great book.
At this point, Woolf stops speaking as Mary Beton and tells women that they should work toward having five hundred pounds a year and a room of their own in which to write. And then, some day, women will produce a writer of true genius.