Last Updated on October 18, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
Before the mid to late eighteenth century in the West, a person was born into a social class (either the aristocracy or the peasantry, with a few steps in between). It was taken for granted that the individual's class indicated his or her worth. That is, noble men and women were just that—more noble and somehow more fully human than their humbler counterparts. But during the age of democratic revolutions (The Enlightenment), it was asserted that all men are born equal and that social and economic differences between men are the result of differences in education and opportunity. Women immediately recognized the limitations of such theories and began to assert that just as the social system had been invalidated, so should be the gender class system in which women were considered inferior. Women, they said, have as much potential as men if given education and opportunity. These basic democratic ideals constitute the origin and crux of Woolf s argument in A Room of One's Own. She argues that there are few great women writers in history only because women were not educated and encouraged to greatness.
Woolf argues that once a woman of talent receives the same education and opportunities as her male counterpart, she is able to produce art as great as any man's. However, she also hints that this equality of opportunity does not result in the melting away of differences between male and female. This argument for difference is particularly evident in the book's final chapter in which Woolf argues that it is possible to distinguish differences between art produced by men and art produced by women. Whether Woolf believes that gender difference is a matter of biology or a result of social roles is uncertain.
Opinion Versus Truth
At the beginning of A Room of One's Own, Woolf says that she “should never be able to fulfill what is ... the first duty of a lecturer—to hand [his or her listeners] after an hour's discourse a nugget of pure truth.’’ Instead, she writes, all she can offer is “opinion.” This humble and provisional stance is highly significant. She wants to underscore that asserting that one is in possession of the truth can be deleterious, and that it is important to distinguish theory or opinion from truth. In chapter two, Woolf points out that men, throughout history, have continuously asserted that they know the truth about women, and this truth is that women are inferior in every way to men. But, as the material circumstances of women have changed, and they have begun to do the same things men have always done, this “truth” has turned out to be only opinion or delusion. Before these men were disproved, however, many women believed this opinion to be truth, to women's great disadvantage: they internalized what men said about them.
Privilege and Entitlement
In a way, A Room of One's Own is a sustained polemic on the power of privilege, confidence, and entitlement. Clearly, Woolf believes that making laws that favor women can only do so much to advance their cause and social position. Equally important to this cause, however, is a woman's sense that she deserves equality, that she is as capable as men are, and that society affirms her efforts to fulfill her potential. Woolf insists that changing both men's attitudes about women and women's attitudes about themselves is crucial. A woman full of doubt about her potential will never get very far, she suggests. Likewise, women will never achieve their full potential as long as they inhabit a world in which beliefs about women's inferiority exist.