A Room of One's Own

by Virginia Woolf

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What does Woolf mean when she says a sixteenth-century woman with a gift of poetry was "at strife against herself"?

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A woman at strife for herself is a woman at war with herself. What Woolf means by this is that a creative woman gets mixed signals. Her society, especially in the sixteenth century, taught her that she should be a good wife and mother, a practical worker—perhaps good at a sewing, cooking, and managing a household—and a support for her husband's career. These expectations would slam straight into the needs of the creatively gifted woman poet. Such a woman would need lots of time and privacy to develop her poetic voice, but her society—and her own internalized socialization—would tell her she was a shirker and a bad person if she neglected her traditional duties of devoting herself to others to pursue her gift. A man with great poetic talents could offload childcare and household responsibilities to someone else without being condemned by his society. He also would not feel he was doing something strange or was a bad person for cultivating his gift and shirking his family.

A woman, in contrast, is constantly pulled in two directions—hence she is at strife with herself. Part of her tells her very urgently that she must carve out the time to develop her gift, while another part of her is telling her equally urgently that she should fulfill her role as a woman and put others's needs ahead of her own. It is harder, Woolf contends, for a woman to achieve her highest potential as an artist when she is constantly using up energy waging this internal battle.

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