In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote a manifesto in prose form, the well-known A Room of One’s Own. In this essay, short text, whatever you want to call it, she reflects on the relationship between women and fiction. Overall, she exposes to the greater audience the idea (and reality) that 1. through history, women have been denied the position of writers, 2. women need freedom in order to be writers, and most importantly, 3. women can be and are writers (so long they have the physical and psychological space to be):
“All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved. I have shirked the duty of coming to a conclusion upon these two questions—women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.”
We all need a room of our own, our independence as beings in order to be(come) writers.
But how does the idea that women can be writers become such an issue, rather than being just a part of reality, accepted by the majority? I would like this question to be a bit more difficult to answer than it actually is because at least I could find some comfort in the complexity of the issue and a reason why it is taking us so long to change the situation. As Woolf explains:
“I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night. They had no money evidently; according to Professor Trevelyan they were married whether they liked it or not before they were out of the nursery, at fifteen or sixteen very likely. It would have been extremely odd, even upon this showing, had one of them suddenly written the plays of Shakespeare, I concluded, and I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare.”
Woolf asks a very simple but important, key question: how can we be writers if we don’t know that we can be writers?
We need to know we can be writers in order to be writers; that is because we want and we have the need to be so.
Woolf proposes that in order to become writers, we actually need the time to write, as well as the space, but most importantly: the possibility. That is, the freedom to choose we want to write or the freedom to write if we feel the need.
“Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race. It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole.”
Further into the essay, Woolf explains to us that if she has enough money to live, she doesn’t need to depend on anyone. She is free. She has the independence she needs to become a writer, and with that, other realisations come out. She has money and a room of her own. It is irrelevant to think about men or any other being than herself out of necessity, for there is nothing needed in the practical, everyday world. When there is no need, there is freedom. When we are finally free, there is nothing to blame for our imprisonment.
What makes A Room of One’s Own a manifesto is the fact that Woolf is able to clearly state, on the one hand, that women are writers, and on the other, how a woman becomes a writer. It is a declaration of principles, but also a guide.
Something to bear in mind is that manifestos normally state a set of new ideas, which are not always popularly accepted by the general public, and more problematically, they are sometimes not accessible when it comes to a general understanding of the ideas exposed. I cannot help but think that it is great someone can finally write down and show the world what Woolf is saying; unfortunately it is not accessible to everyone, nor at a theoretical or practical level because at a theoretical level, there are people to ask to make space for ourselves, in other words, society to accept that women can also be writers, and at a practical level, there is an actual lack of economic possibilities for (some) women to acquire their room, their freedom.
Although we have come a long way since Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, this piece keeps being a relevant manifesto in our days because the ideas embedded in it are still not universally put in practice. Let’s jump to 2012 and talk about Kate Zambreno’s Heroines in order to get a better idea of this contemporary relevance I am referring to.
Heroines is a (rather naïve yet necessary) text on women and literature, a contemporary revisit of the topics Woolf tackles, this time from a 21st century, white middle-class perspective. The reasons why I think this book is naïve because 1. I don’t think the author is angry enough about having to write this book in order to remind (herself and) society that we are still not being taken seriously as writers, and 2. I don’t think she takes into account that other segments of society are being faced with the same kind of discrimination (i.e. all of those writers that don’t fit into the great white male novelist canon). With a powerful and thoughtful voice, Zambreno points out with names and surnames some of those women in the western canon that have been mistreated (both them and their writing) by the patriarchal system that first, didn’t recognise women as writers, and later, tried to repress their existence when they became writers.
One could argue Woolf was too ahead of her times; she had to talk about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in order to make her point clear and not make anyone too angry. Zambreno can finally use real examples: Zelda Fitzgerald and Scott, Anais Nïn, June and Henry Miller, etc. Same story, same problem, just a more direct example of storytelling because the ideas exposed in the text are being supported by facts.
Kate Zambreno knows we can be writers, but she is also aware that we are told not to be. That is why she needs to write and tell us about her insecurities as a writer, to remind us the (now finally existent) history of women and fiction; women writing fiction; and especially women being overshadowed by men because… they were writers first?
“We cannot wait around to be discovered. If you can’t write masterpieces why write? the doctors said to Zelda. Perhaps the goal is not to be the next Great American (Male) Novelist. This is perhaps closed to us anyway. The point, perhaps, is to write—by god to write—to write and refuse erasure while we’re living at least—and to use up all the “channels possible through which to scream, to sing, to singe. All of these things. To write because we desire to, because we need to—and to refuse to be ignored. Or stopped.
The key is to convince ourselves, as Fitzgerald and Flaubert, Eliot and Ezra did, of our eventual genius.”
In her time, Virginia Woolf discovered that we can be writers. In our time, Kate Zambreno sees the struggles of being writers and not being recognised our status. But being a writer is something that solely depends on our will to be:
“We are writers because we say we are. We reassure each other of our potential genius. Because so much of being a writer is, I think, about identity.”
We need our space, we need our independence, we basically need everyone who is not a woman to shut up and let us do our thing.
I cannot help but return to Sheri Hellberg’s article about the Tove Ditlevsen situation in Denmark as a last remark to exemplify what I am trying to say. In her article, she explains, in a more elegant way than I might be doing, how a Danish critic expresses his scepticism of the increasing interest in Tove Ditlevsen by going after Olga Ravn and the creative writing school she co-founded. He calls this school, Hekseskolen (i.e. The Witches’ School), a place “where young women can learn how to fight against pater familias, and where students should, preferably a few times a day, take a selfie and slap it on Instagram; thank goodness for “selfies against patriarchy”, and suddenly, pouting lips and doe eyes become blazing weapons courageously borne in the fight against the arch-enemy.” Hellberg uses this as an example to further discuss what she argues is a wider phenomenon in the Danish literary scene. I totally agree with her, but in my point of view, this can also be used to exemplify phenomena beyond Danish fronteers.
I cannot help but think that the reason why this man wrote such words is solely because Olga Ravn is a writer, and is a woman. A woman writing fiction (and poetry), a woman who probably has found her way into having a room on her own, and probably writes because she wants to, or because she needs to, but above all she writes.
It is 2018 and (ironically) we are still being accused of being witches for getting together and trying to fight structures of power that repress us. We are being pointed out for seeking our own freedom and creating our own spaces in our own lives. In other words, we are being attacked because we are getting a room of our own.
I guess the problem with A Room of One’s Own was that at the time, Woolf’s ideas were so theoretical, so new and not put in practice yet, that Woolf couldn’t see that, unfortunately, no one has ever told us we could be writers because they didn’t want us to be writers. But that shouldn’t stop us. We have to keep being writers, we have to keep fighting for a room of one’s own. In Zambreno’s words, at the end of Heroines:
“The only way our narratives will be told is if we write them ourselves. I urge you to write your own selves, your true and complicated selves. My scribbling sisters. We are amateurs. We are dilettantes. We are all those terms they use to dismiss the girl writing. We need, perhaps, to reclaim these terms, as well as these categories of “minor” or “outsider” or “illegitimate”.”
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Heroines by Kate Zambreno