"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,"1 Virginia Woolf declared in her most famous essay, entitled A Room of One's Own. Woolf had both of these—a rarity for a woman in early-twentieth century Britain—and the fiction she produced with these tools of independence continues to challenge readers today. Using flowing, stream-of-consciousness language, Virginia Woolf ventured into uncharted literary terrain—the landscape of the human consciousness. She saw writing not as a tool to represent reality, but as a way to break through the superficial veneer of reality to get at a deeper essence of truth hiding underneath. Woolf, along with her husband Leonard Woolf and their circle of intellectual friends known as the Bloomsbury Group, helped to advance modern thought about art, literature, gender and sexual identity. They were among the wave of mid-twentieth century artists that we now call modernists: people frustrated with the limitations of existing ideas and willing to push boundaries to find a way of expression that fully captured their new reality. A pioneering self-publisher, Woolf and her husband founded their own printing press to put forth her works and those of other artists that the existing mainstream publishers weren't ready to deal with. Woolf argued passionately for the right of women to create and think independently. Her eloquent advocacy of her gender's capability has made her a lasting feminist icon.
Mind you, Virginia Woolf had only a certain type of woman in mind when she spoke or wrote of equality—educated, upper class, intellectual elite women like herself. (Her scornful depiction of working-class women in her fiction sometimes verges on obnoxious.) She was a product of a very specific social class in a rigidly stratified society. And although she spent a lifetime pushing limits, ultimately she could not break down the tormenting barriers of her own mind. Beset by a lifelong struggle with mental illness, she committed suicide at the age of 59. Her death was a sad coda to an accomplished life, but Virginia Woolf's goal was never to be a spokeswoman for all womankind. For as she writes in A Room of One's Own, "When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else."2 In her unbending determination to be only herself, Virginia Woolf paved the way for other artists to do the same.