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Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Reading non-fiction by women for the Decades Project brings me to a classic. For March I planned to consider a book published between 1920-29, so here is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf wrote two papers for two Cambridge women’s colleges in October 1928, and combined them into the six chapters of this short book. She starts in this way:

But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? (5)

She made the connection on the next page with this famous line:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. (6)

The 1920s and A Room of One’s Own

In the first decade of last century the only nonfiction by a woman that I could find were Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening books. Eight years of suffragette activity, the Great War, ten years of votes for some women and peacetime progress came between A Room of One’s Own and Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography My Own Story. By 1928 the impediments to women’s fiction had been removed, claims Virginia Woolf with her tongue in her cheek: the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after 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 five hundred a year in 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 and twelves. (111)

What struck me as I read this essay for the third time was Virginia Woolf ‘s description of how deep the impediments were entrenched in English society. It is a blast against exclusiveness – ‘how unpleasant it is to be locked out’ (25).

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is not gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my min. (76)

The novelist and A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf brings her skills as a novelist to make the case that women’s lack of financial independence has been an underlying cause of the failure to produce fiction in the past. She follows an imaginary young woman, Mary Seton, on an day in Oxbridge, dining first at a man’s college, where she has been denied entry to the library and shouted at for being on the grass. Then she is entertained to supper at a women’s college, altogether a more meagre affair. She visits the British Museum (meaning the Library) where she looks for books on men and women. The books on women are all written by men. Men, she observes, had also taken it upon themselves to define what women could write about – and certainly they could not write critically of men. Some of her quotations of men writing about women make your eyes water.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. (37)

I think of all those women speaking out in the #MeToo campaign about how they were abused by men. We can understand the abusive behaviour as serving to magnify a man’s natural size.

She invents a sister for Shakespeare and shows how, despite Judith’s talents being equal to her brother’s, she would not have been able to succeed in the theatre in the 17th century. In her lyrically argued prose, Virginia Woolf explores the state of mind women necessary to write fiction. Having been required to attend to a restricted sphere, the new art form of the novel provided the opportunity to use their understanding of human interactions. She notes three of the first novelists used male names: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and George Eliot. She also pointed out that a writer’s ideas and artistry depends upon what has already been written.

The core of her argument is that women need financial independence and privacy. Since 1928 it has become very clear that the problems for women are deeper than £500 a year (or its equivalent) and a room of one’s own with a key. Deeper even than the pram in the hallway. We must still struggle against male patriarchy especially now we have come to understand how it is bolstered by physical abuse and sexual violence.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1928. I used my falling apart Penguin Modern Classics edition. 112 pp

The Decades Project

In 2017 I considered one novel by a woman each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade. For next month I am hoping to find my copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first two books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project, Virginia Woolf

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

I did love reading My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. This book was chosen for January by my local book group. I don’t always welcome memoir, but the case was made for it and I began reading it as soon as it arrived. I found myself enjoying it way more than I had expected. Let me count the reasons after a brief introduction to the book.

Introduction to the book

Gloria Steinem is perhaps best known for co-founding the influential American feminist magazine Ms. in 1971.

I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine. [from 2011 Documentary – Gloria: In her Own Words]

Spring 1972

My Life on the Road reveals that the magazine was only one part of a much broader pattern of activities addressing equality issues, especially in relation to women. She describes her career in these terms.

At first I was a journalist telling stories, then a sometime worker in political campaigns and movements, and most consistently an itinerant feminist organizer. (xxiii)

Can you imagine telling the careers officer, ‘I plan to be an itinerant feminist organizer’? If I had had such an idea in my head in the early 70s my career would have been very different.

The itinerant part turns out to have been extremely important, for travelling allowed Gloria Steinem to have hope encouraged by all the people she has met. Travel brings hope by passing on stories; being on the road forces you to live in the present; it provides alternative ways of looking at human activity. So I honour her efforts and her latest book by passing on something of my enthusiastic responses to her book.

  1. Her father’s story

Leo Steinem, her father, led an itinerant life, and was a big man in many ways. Gloria Steinem describes him as an unusual, restless man, open to change and differences. Many fathers pass on their political attitudes to their offspring, whereas Leo Steinem’s big-hearted generosity can be seen in his daughter’s story, the value of travel. A life on the road was his legacy.

  1. Nostalgia

Nowadays we refer to the Second Wave of feminism, but living through that exciting time of growing awareness in the late 60s and early 70s felt like a tsunami. Reading once more about this period of my past I felt something similar to when I read Harriet Harman’s recent autobiography. It was an exciting time to be alive and to take part in the struggles, some of which stretched across the Atlantic. Consciousness raising, cooperative and direct action, building the sisterhood, these were the lessons we learned. Some of us were propelled into the abortion debates. Later we battled against the placing of cruise missiles on Greenham Common, or supported the fight for fair wages with the Dagenham women and so on. Gloria Steinem tells of parallel struggles in the US.

Raissa Page, Greenham Common 1983

  1. Some specific women she met

I found myself wishing I had met so many of the women she describes. Many were activists who have been compelled to take action by local issues, standing up against inequality in their neighbourhood. There was Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation. And Hillary Clinton, in whose race for the Democratic nomination she worked and then helped unify when she lost to Barack Obama. Robin Morgan, another writer, and many, many more. How lucky to have met all those wonderful women and worked alongside them.

  1. The significance of listening

Women have expressed dismay at inequality over the years. What Gloria Steinem identified and reported in the book is the importance of listening to these experiences. On the individual level that was why consciousness -raising groups were so important: they gave women both a forum to speak and a forum to be heard. We are learning more and more about how women are silenced (I refer you to Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain things to Me and Mary Beard’s Women and Power.).

In My Life on the Road Gloria Steinem describes how listening was the basis of her learning. It was the basis of cooperative, democratic actions. She did not bring answers, but modelled listening and finding local answers.

  1. Feminism is everything

By writing feminism is everything, I do not mean that it is the most important thing, I mean it connects every aspect of human life: the personal, the political, the physical, the relational, the economic, and so on. Gloria Steinem demonstrates a set of values that are not bounded by feminism, rather link her responses to inequality based on gender, to inequalities based on race, or class or undemocratic actions.

  1. Gloria Steinem

We must honour our heroes, and Gloria Steinem is undoubtedly one of mine.

Gloria Steinem 2012

  1. The struggle goes on

There is still a long way to go, and it is likely to take many more waves. The book was published in 2015, that is before some of the most depressing undemocratic developments of the last 18 months. But in addition to the election of a misogynist US President, and a referendum which will cause especial difficulties for women, who always bear the worst of the burden of social problems, we are today in a time of fighting back.

Steady progress has been made in respect of LGBT+ rights and expectations. Victims of male violence, and especially of male sexual violence are speaking out and naming men as never before, and being applauded for it. I write as Hollywood honours the #MeToo campaign at the Golden Globe awards and it becomes possible to think that a step has been taken that cannot be untrodden.

And there are the role models and actions that brave women are taking. I especially honour the example of Senator Elizabeth Warren, from whose actions the hashtag #shepersisted was coined. Remember how the majority leader tried to silence her when she read Martin Luther King’s widow’s letter to oppose Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General? Sessions had used his position against black voter registration. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

I like persisters. I think Gloria Steinem is a persister too.

Ms. Magazine 2007 – 35th anniversary issue

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, published by One World in 2015. 312pp

Additional picture credits:

Ms. early and anniversary issues from WikiCommons Liberty Media for Women.

Author Photo via WikiCommons. Jewish Women’s Archive by Joan Roth, March 2012.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews