In the autumn of 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered two lectures on the subject of women and fiction at the women-only Girton and Newnham Colleges in Cambridge, which she would later condense in her influential long essay, A Room of One’s Own. Few pieces of writing have the power of sending my mind into an emotional firework frenzy like this powerful reflection on female creativity and voice, which Woolf delivered at a time when women were virtually absent from the Literary establishment, consumed by domestic work and impeded from gaining any sort of financial independence that would allow them some space to indulge in creative pursuits. In 1928, the colleges at which she gave her two lectures didn’t allow women to vote nor hold positions of power, nor earn degrees equal to those granted to their male counterparts, even after completing the same examinations. Academic equality between men and women would, in fact, not be achieved in Cambridge University until 1948.
Whenever I read or just flick through A Room of One’s Own, a mixture of rage, frustration, bitterness, sympathy and love for Virginia Woolf invades me with pretty much the same intensity as the first time I read it. It pains me to imagine her being rejected entry at the Library in Cambridge because she is not accompanied by a man and to read her account of how she’s told off by a campus warden for walking on the turf, where only Fellows and Scholars (all male, of course) are allowed to walk. Virginia Woolf is anything but a victim, nonetheless. A Room of One’s Own is, in fact, testimony of her pride, her wit and her determination to emancipate her sex from the long standing patriarchy that has kept women silent, alienated from Literature and the Arts.
Virginia Woolf is a towering figure in the female struggle for equality in England and the rest of the world. Thanks to her and other intellectual heroines who preceded her, the long and bumpy road to female vindication was opened and, even if slowly, we continue to advance firmly along it. Woolf’s famous affirmation that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write” remains a real challenge for many but the good news is that as more women gain financial independence and positions of power across all professional fields, more opportunities arise for others to succeed. Of all places, a Fellow from Girton College at Cambridge, Nancy Lane Perham, wrote a Cabinet Office report in 1994, in which she refers to The Rising Tide of women’s influence in the fields of engineering, science and technology. Indeed, the rising tide that started out as an almost imperceptible disturbance on the surface of Academia, stirred by courageous women like Virginia Woolf, has grown in prominence throughout the decades, turning into an unstoppable force, not just in Academia, but also in sports, politics and entertainment.
My urge to reflect, ever once more, on my heroine Virginia Woolf and her trailblazing essay, A Room of One’s Own, was actually sparked by a new pop culture phenomenon in the American film and TV industries, set into motion only a few years ago by the Hollywood actress and producer, Reese Witherspoon. It was only after I watched Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere last year, produced by Witherspoon’s ‘female focused’ production company, that for the first time in my life I experienced the joy of watching drama series that spoke directly to me, sparking conversations that I am truly interested in having and depicting women and our complexities under a familiar and, to a certain extent, comforting light. As Reese points out in her memorable speech at Glamour Women of the Year Awards in 2015, stories about women, written by women, had been virtually inexistent from the American film and television industry, pretty much until now. This new-found genre -hopefully soon to be trend- of female driven dramas has been a revelation to me because, as much as I always enjoyed blockbusters and indie films on the big screen as well as comedies and dramas on the small screen, I had never, ever experienced the privilege of being catered for as an audience.
The beauty of this titanic quest for women’s rights which passes through Virginia Woolf, Reese Witherspoon and every single one of us women of different shapes, colours and ages who have inhabited this big globe since the beginning of time, is that there is a thread that inextricably binds us all, for progress is gradual and continuous. I will finish by adding a long excerpt from A Room of One’s Own and I beg you to watch Reese Witherspoon’s speech from 2015, which I have also included at the bottom of this page. Even though almost an entire century separates Woolf’s lectures and Reese’s speech, and their context and circumstances couldn’t be more different, the message remains pretty much the same: It is in the nature of women to make things happen and even though it takes courage to step out of the mould, once you are out, the opportunities are endless.
“How can I further encourage you to go about the business of life? Young women, I would say, and please attend, for the peroration is beginning, you are, in my opinion, disgracefully ignorant. You have never made a discovery of any sort of importance. You have never shaken an empire or led an army into battle. 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? It is all very well for you to say, pointing to the streets and squares and forests of the globe swarming with black and white and coffee-coloured inhabitants, all busily engaged in traffic and enterprise and love-making, we have had other work on our hands. Without our doing, those seas would be unsailed and those fertile lands a desert. We have borne and bred and washed and taught, perhaps to the age of six or seven years, the one thousand six hundred and twenty three million human beings who are, according to statistics, at present in existence, and that, allowing that some had help, takes time.
There is truth in what you say -I will not deny it. But at the same time may I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 -which is a whole nine years ago- she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good. Moreover, the economists are telling us that Mrs Seton has had too many children. You must, of course, go on bearing children, but, so they say, in twos and threes, not in tens or twelves.
Thus, with some time on your hands and with some book learning in your brains -you have had enough of the other kind, and are sent to college partly, I suspect, to be uneducated- surely you should embark upon another stage of your very long, very laborious and highly obscure career. A thousand pens are ready to suggest what you should do and what effect you will have. My own suggestion is a little fantastic, I admit; I prefer, therefore, to put it in the form of fiction.” Virginia Woolf, October 1928.
Women at Cambridge University: a great summary based on an exhibit named after Nancy Lane Perham’s 1994 influential Cabinet Office report, The Rising Tide.
Reese Witherspoon at Glamour Women of the Year Awards, 2015, What do we do now? It is worth noting that she continues to successfully invest on and promote work written by women, about women. I particularly recommend her latest series on Amazon Prime, Little Fires Everywhere.