This is one of the first essays written about feminism. While it invites everyone to be a feminist, it also points out that feminism has an “Achilles heel”. A heel she hopes to heal!
Woolf didn’t want to wave a magic wand to change man into woman, to her that is just a cosmetic difference, and she merely wanted to start a conversation about gender equality.
In 1929 Virginia Woolf wrote a brave and unprecedented essay about feminism and about woman’s status during different times in history. The essay is separated into six parts, each one dealing with a separate issue of feminism. This essay was meant to talk about “Woman in fiction” but she doesn’t stop there. She is vexed by all that misogyny and ignorance and she speaks out.
She stands alone, in a room of her own searching for the truth about gender relations of different eras. During this essay she ruthlessly criticized her fellow writers, both male and female, and the unnecessary role they are giving to literature, because to her literature is self-sufficient. She also criticized the hypocrisy found within generalizing statements for one gender or the other.
Woolf in pursuit of truth
The first thing she finds out about the matter is that everybody has a different opinion. Goethe honoured them, while Napoleon thought them incapable and Mussolini despises them. In some ancient myths woman are seen as goddess, and in others they are seen as sacrifices for some greater causes.
While staying alone, in a room she demands that every woman should have, she stumbles upon a book written by Professor von X and engages in writing his monumental work entitled “The mental, moral and physical inferiority of female sex” .
While reading this she uses Freudian theories to figure it out what made this ominous man say this awful things about woman. “This man was rejected by all girls when he was young. When he got married, his wife despised him and went out with a handsome cavalierly officer” she said while pondering and drawing the face of the man she obviously hated.
When she was done she looked upon the paper and realized she had drawn a monster. “Anger had snatched my pencil. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom – all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them?” wrote Woolf as she realized she had projected her hatred onto the sketch. Obviously, she had done the same thing to him, projected her anger onto the sketch of the man she despised even though she never really knew, nor saw his face.
Then she wanted a different perspective, perhaps a feminist one, so she started reading a book by Rebecca West, “the arrant feminist!” where she made, possibly the most uncomplimentary statement about the other sex, when she called all men snobs.
In a split second veneration turned into disgust! This made her realize that “We are not that different after all!” it was absurd to blame any class or any sex as a whole.
Without paing to much attention she found an analogy similar to this situation: Rich people are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to size their wealth. In this case some people want to keep their wealth or superiority by announcing that the others are poor or inferior.
That why she declares that: “I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing more than I do to give me.” Just like that she found herself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race and feminism in general.
She acknowledged that there were feelings of fear and bitterness and turned them into pity and tolerance, just then came the great release of freedom.
Actually this essay was written as a response to an article where a Bishop was quoted saying “Cats do not go to Heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare”.
She argues that imaginatively woman is of the highest importance, practically she is completely insignificant. She provides poetry from cover to cover; she is all absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was just a slave of any boy that forced a ring upon her finger. Considering this she accepts that in Shakespeare’s time women couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s play, but not from absence of talent but from absence of freedom.
From ancient times women have dominated human imagination. Characters like Cleopatra, Antigone, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Madame de Guermantes are indispensable characters of fiction but debarred from real life because they lack money and a room of their own.
Since facts are hard to come by, she imagines what would have happened if Shakespeare had a wonderful gifted sister whom she calls Judith. While Shakespeare was perusing knowledge, learning Latin, read Ovid, Virgil and Horace, his extraordinary sister remained at home. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide or to set fire to them, because nobody would bother read what a woman had written. Later, before she was out of her teens, she was betrothed to the son of a neighbouring wool—stapler. She cried out and refused and was severely beaten by her father. She had to accept this fate so it wouldn’t bring shame upon her family.
Just like Shakespeare, her genius was for fiction, so she left in pursuit of a life she would be proud of. She is pushed around and ignored just because she was a woman who knew how to write. She was just an intruder on the rights of men. The theatre rejected her, the publishing companies laughed in her face. Later she cout some sort of illness and died alone while roaming the streets of London.
This is more or less how a story like hers would run, so Woolf accepts that during that time women had no chance to write Shakespeare’s plays. For a genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people. It is not born in England among Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working class. How could it have been born among women were ignored and shunned aside?
So she concludes that during that time a woman poet, with Shakespeare’s talent, would end up alone, alienated or in a psychiatric ward.
Flows of early feminists
One of the first feminists that ever wrote some sort of poetry was Anne Finch, but Woolf wasn’t pleased with her ether. She found her writing to be lacking character. Her poems were fouled by fear and hatred, and showed traces of disturbance.
How we have fallen! fallen by mistaken rules,
And education’s more than Nature’s fools;
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dull, expected and designed;
And if someone would sore above the rest ,
With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,
So strong the opposing still appears
The hope to thrive can ne’er outweigh the fears
Woolf thought that if Lady Winchelsea had freed her mind from hate and fear, the fire was hot within her.
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
The fault by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, paly,
Are the accomplishments we should desire?
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,
Would cloud our beauty and exhaust our time
And interrupt the conquest of our prime.
Same goes for the English philosopher Margaret Cavendish. She claimed that it is pity to waste all that talent on senseless resentments.
Same also goes for Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot whom ether were too angry or too scared to treat literature as a self-sufficient.
It was only Aphra Behn that totally freed her mind and motivated young girls to go to their parents and say “You need not give me an allowance, I can make money by my pen”.
The tradition got passed on by Jane Austen and so on women liberated themselves by writing without dictation of gender.
Poets are androgynous
When it came to poetry she didn’t see gender. She claimed that poets are androgynous. In poets mind two genders co—exist.
She claimed that a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine. It is pity to kill or ignore the other part because it is that part that helps the writer see world as a whole. A singled gendered poet lacks suggestive power. And when the writing lacks suggestive power, however hard it hits the surface of the mind it cannot penetrate within. She adopted the phrase Man-womanly and woman-manly when it came to literature.
For masterpieces are not single and solitary births, they are outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people so that the experience of the mass is behind a single voice.
Written by Rrona Jaka
By Rrona JAKA
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