Study Guide

A Room of One's Own Women and Femininity

By Virginia Woolf

Women and Femininity

Chapter 2
Mary Beton

Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists, but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex—woman, that is to say—also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women. (2.2)

Everyone's a critic, right? But Woolf raises a good point: how come women aren't qualified to write about women, if men seem to think they have every right to talk about them?

Chapter 3
Mary Beton

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, of a suppressed poet. (3.8)

This is a funny way to think of history: Woolf isn't looking for evidence that women writers were there, but instead showing us where they could have been. It makes a good story—but we wouldn't try it in history class.

Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance [...] But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten, and flung about the room. (3.3)

Yeah, we can't exactly picture Cleopatra doing the household mending. Woolf's starting to get at the difference between women as objects that men are writing about and how they might have felt themselves, as subjects.

Let us suppose that a father from the highest motives did not wish his daughter to leave home and become a writer, painter or scholar. "See what Mr. Oscar Browning says," he would say; and there was not only Mr. Oscar Browning [...] there was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. (3.13)

This is about the exact opposite of telling your daughter that she can be anything she wants to be. What's worse, Woolf says, is that "body of masculine opinion" is exactly that—opinion. No facts involved.

Chapter 4
Mary Beton

Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Brontë. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue—write this, think that. (4.32)

Pot, meet kettle. Is Woolf being an "eternal pedagogue" too, or does she stop short of telling people what to write and think?

Chapter 5

There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of women. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into the fractions of an inch, that one can lay against the qualities of a good mother or the devotion of a daughter or the fidelity of a sister, or the capacity of a housekeeper. (5.9)

You can't measure a housewife—although maybe by now the nice folks who make the SAT have figured out a way to do this. So, here's a thought: should we even want women's lives to be more measurable?

Mary Beton

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? (5.11)

Here's something radical: it sounds like Woolf is inviting us to imagine what sexes other than male and female might be like. A third sex? Or even five?

All of these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said, [...] and went on in thought through the streets of London feeling in imagination the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life, whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo [...] or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways. (5.14)

Woolf can't seem to stop herself from hinting at all of the "unrecorded li[ves]" of women out there. Woolf does a lot of listing in A Room of One's Own. Does she always do it for the same reason?

Chapter 6
Virginia Woolf

How can I further encourage you to go about the business of life? Young women, I would say [...] you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. [...] The plays of Shakespeare are not by you, and you have never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilisation. What is your excuse? (6.20)

We can always count on Woolf to finish things on an uplifting note. Not. Why do you think she offers this discouraging kind of encouragement (besides as a joke)? Is she being sarcastic, or is there a hint of seriousness here?

Mary Beton

If one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, alien and critical. (6.3)

So, being a member of civilization and being a woman is not always the same thing. We get that. It's hard to feel like a member of your own nation and culture when you're considered inferior.

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