Set at Oxbridge (a veiled Oxford University) and at sites in London, A Room of One’s Own critically examines the intersection of women, writing, fiction, and gender. The work is nontraditional in terms of its format (the chapters can be read as one continuous essay or independently), content (historical facts mix with stories and memoir), point of view (an intimate first-person female voice), and audience (by a woman for women; male readers must read through women’s eyes in a reversal of the male gaze). A Room of One’s Own is a groundbreaking, genre-expanding inquiry into the effects of gender on literary production.
Based on lectures Virginia Woolf delivered at Newnham and Girton colleges in 1928, the six interrelated essays seek to answer why, historically, fewer women than men have written. The title of the book refers to Woolf’s belief that a woman writer needs privacy, space, and sufficient financial means to practice her craft. Additionally, Woolf calls for an expansion of the literary canon to include “room” for works by women. Initially, Woolf announces that she will speak in the persona of another—“call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please”—but the author’s musings supersede these personas, each of whom will make an appearance in a chapter—while Woolf’s presence is felt throughout.
Several incidents that Woolf recounts in A Room of One’s Own, including being driven from male-exclusive university turf, are drawn from her own experiences as a woman barred from men’s venues. In the essays, Woolf approaches the literary canon as a male realm from which women have been excluded.
Woolf begins her first chapter with an apologia. She informs readers that she will not be able to provide them with either the truth about women or about literature. Instead, she offers her opinion that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The arguments presented in this and subsequent chapters support her assertion of these two requirements. Woolf continues her discussion by contrasting the education of men and women; her visits to representative colleges reveal the wealth of the first and the poverty of the second. The men’s abodes have private rooms; the women share tight quarters. Men’s colleges boast well-stocked libraries; women’s colleges provide sparse classrooms. Male students feast; female students sup. Woolf observes, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Woolf explains this disparity as one based on tradition, whereby, for centuries, women have been legally barred from possessing wealth, and their education has been held in low regard by society. While it appears that Woolf scolds the founders of women’s colleges for not providing more amenities, in actuality she honors them for making the effort despite social custom and female penury.
In chapter 2, Woolf relocates her investigation of women and fiction to the British Museum in London. Searching the card catalog, she is amazed by the multitude of works about women composed by men, but notes that few women have written books about men. Men, it seems, cannot agree on what they think of women. Depending on the reference one consults, women have either little character or characters that surpass those of men. These texts agree, however, on the general superiority of men over women.
Woolf next refers to and consults a fictitious reference book called The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex and concludes that the professor who composed it had been angry. (She wonders why all the professors who have written about women were angry.) Drawing upon the practice of psychology, she reasons that men have demeaned women to inflate their own sense of importance. Woolf concludes that labeling one gender inferior grants superior status to the other gender by default. In short, male superiority is not proven or earned; it is simply stated.
(The entire section is 2,618 words.)