I will say, I expected great things from Virginia Woolf – and to my joy, those expectations were lived up to. At the very least I can speak for her non-fiction or rather her essay, A Room Of One’s Own. What struck me early on in my reading was that, Virginia Woolf was truly a being before her time. She had such insight, into the systematic exclusion of women and really the downplay of their value. In her time she has been, I’m sure, one of the first and few with eyes open – one of few who dared to question the reality as it was, and as it had been, and possibly the way it would be in the future.
Today, close to 85 years later, I’m sad to say many points still ring true. Perhaps not everywhere in the world, and certainly it differs not only in countries but in states and cities. Some points were familiar to me, others were less so and all the more thought provoking.
“Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex – women, that is to say, also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the MA degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.”
Woolf talks about the interest of men to write about women, to explain and to discuss women. I personally think the above quote captures the central problem in several debates, for example the abortion debate. A man seems to have no issue stating his opinion on the banning of abortion – and yet, it is something that will never directly effect his life, I find it interesting that men feel entitled to voice their opinion on a matter that will never truly, should never truly, be up to them. Yet their opinions are everywhere. Or let’s talk about whether women are suitable for sports, or for school, for careers, for anything between heaven and earth. Are not men quick to share their opinion on women, qualified or not, to the world? What is perhaps most interesting is that – men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women. But I shall leave it at that for this specific point.
Woolf talks about inferiority and superiority, an incredibly interesting and insightful discussion on it. The need to prove oneself by putting someone else down, the need to have an opposite to measure oneself with in order to know of one’s own identity and superiority. This is not only relevant in the discussion on gender, but also for ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
“And since a novel has this correspondence to real life, its values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book, because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”
I think the quote speaks for itself, but this is one of those points that really hit me hard. What it reminded me of is that I sometimes have, no more than sometimes, fallen into the trap of going with this way of thinking – as it is so deep-set into our culture and our societies. I forget to question where it has come from, why fashion should be of less worth than sports, why a book written by or a movie directed by a man is so often valued of higher importance than their women counterparts, and I applaud Woolf for not allowing herself to fall into this trap. For questioning the order of things, for creating cracks into the very walls keeping the patriarchy in power.
I think I shall round up this post as I seem to discuss the topics included in the book rather than actually reviewing it. But I guess it’s not surprising, this book really packs a punch, she says so much in such a short text. I recommend it to anyone and everyone to read. It’s a fantastic feminist text, but I think it’s also relevant to the way marginalised groups are treated in many ways. Read it, and enjoy.