In 1928, Virginia Woolf was invited to Newnham College and Girton College, two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, to deliver lectures on ‘Women and Fiction’. She is baffled by the scope of the topic, so she lets herself dive deep into the history of the plight of women in Britain and the world.
In studying the academic literature of the time, she finds nugatory mention of the actual plight of women. Whenever there is a mention of the female sex, she is an object of a male’s desire or the busy housewife. There is little room for her to navigate anything otherwise.
She explains that the lack of financial power with women had stifled her creative freedom and rendered her secondary to their male counterparts. She says –
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time . . .
Money, according to her, might have given women a room of one’s own.
She casts aspersions on the very existence of truth in history. She writes,
When a subject is highly controversial, one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.
She maintains that the truth about women, as accepted today, about the nineteenth century is far from what it appears to be in the countless mansplained versions of women. She, very rightly, points out that the reality portrayed in the countless ‘generous’ works are heavily contingent upon the circumstances, biases, opinions and social construct of the time. She recounts many instances of extraordinary creations of women in the privacy of their home, which – not surprisingly – never found any mention in academic literature.
As a result of the lack of ‘room of one’s own’, she cites myriad interruptions that women had to face while doing somehting dear. She underscores the need of private spaces for the proliferation of intellectual energy in the minds of women, a lack of which constrains them to failure in their endeavours.
While underscoring the fact that women were treated unequally in her society, she cites it as a reason for the unimpressiveness of their works.
It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare.
She shows how society systematically discriminated against women, how man’s talents were recognized and encouraged by the family and the rest of the society, woman’s were underestimated and explicitly deemphasized making her secretive and ashamed of it. She hastens to point out that talent alone has never been the sole differentiator of productivity.
Feminism, as a political and cultural phenomenon, has evolved constantly over the decades from the late nineteenth century to now. However, it has become much more lucid as well vague recently. We tend to confuse the contours that broadly constitute this controversial issue of our time.
The universal nature of the text, the curious understanding and empathy that the writer shows for her own gender as well as the male, the subtle sarcasm and the citations of renowned works makes this one of the most important works of feminist literary history to date.