This weekend I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf’s classic essay A Room of One’s Own. Originally begun as a series of speeches on the subject of Women and Fiction, the essay builds on the thesis that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. I’m only a third of the way through, but so far Woolf’s essay has covered far more ground than might be expected given the piece’s simple premise.
I wanted to share a passage I particularly enjoyed for its tie-in to the state of affairs in 2016. Given the ongoing political war to control women’s bodies through legislation, and keeping in mind that Woolf wrote this essay in 1929, this section seemed especially poignant. In this section, Woolf (or the fictional narrator that Woolf is writing as) is at the British Museum, aiming to find books written about women, of which she expects there to be only several.
One went to the counter; one took a slip of paper; one opened a volume of the catalogue…
. . . . .
…and the five dots here indicate five separate minutes of stupefaction, wonder and bewilderment. Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex—woman, that is to say—also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women. Some of these books were, on the face of it, frivolous and facetious; but many, on the other hand, were serious and prophetic, moral and hortatory. Merely to read the titles suggested innumerable schoolmasters, innumerable clergymen mounting their platforms and pulpits and holding forth with loquacity which far exceeded the hour usually allotted to such discourse on this one subject. It was a most strange phenomenon; and apparently—here I consulted the letter M— one confined to the male sex.
Men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women, indeed. Eighty-seven years later, and there is still so much work to do.