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From the Stacks: “Virginia Woolf on Women”

December 18, 1929


Terse, exacting, and unflinching, Louise Bogan was one of the best-known poets of the first half of the twentieth century, as well as a prolific literary critic—The New Yorker’s on-staff poetry reviewer for 38 years and a regular contributor to The New Republic. She was also something of a model for female writers who despised any assumption of softness owing to their sex. Her rigorousness was called upon in 1935, when literary editor Malcolm Cowley—a friend since the early ’20s, when they had been, as he later put it, “punk kids together in the Village”—asked her if she would help edit a New Republic poetry anthology. “I suppose that you have seen the various anthologies printed in The New Republic during the last few months,” Cowley wrote to her in 1935. “There have been damned few female poets represented among them. I am against the idea of setting the ladies apart, but when gents edit anthologies they seem to leave the ladies out.” Bogan, as she illustrates in this potent review of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, was one lady the gents could not ignore.

Mrs. Woolf has brought together and expanded in “A Room of One’s Own” two papers on Women and Fiction read by her to the Arts Society at Newnham and to the Odtaa at Girton.

Her argument, shorn of the alternately loose and caught-back style, the point-to-point method which she has perfected—like the technique of a moving camera, that projects the argument through space and time, as it develops, by means of such phrases as "I thought, opening the door," or "I repeated, standing under the colonnade among the pigeons and the prehistoric canoes"—is this: Women have always been busy and poor. They have had children, households and husbands to tend. Their money, when it existed at all, was, up to a short time ago, under the control of their male relatives. They have had, at best, imperfect educations; they have been oppressed by the weight of social decorum and by the fantastic legend of their mental inferiority. In English literature, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, while men by the hundreds became as articulate as mating birds, not a creative female voice was heard. Woman appears in literature in every form, from the Wife of Bath to Lady Macbeth. "Imaginatively, she is of the highest importance; practically, she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history." Women of the middle class for centuries had nothing to say for themselves at first hand—not a poem, not a letter. The first women to break the silence shrouding their sex were women belonging to the privileged classes: Lady Winchilsea, and Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle. Later, Aphra Behn made a break in tradition, and earned her living by her plays and her wits, at the expense, it is true, of that man-treasured ornament, her moral character. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought in women who, surprisingly enough, took as their own the new medium of the novel. Three or four isolated spinsters living in the bosom of their families dropped the slavish imitation of men's minds and learning that characterized the blue- stocking, and, looking at the limited scene about them, wrote it down in feminine terms. Fanny Burney was the link between the woman as wit and the woman as creator. She was followed by Jane Austen, the Brontës and Marian Evans, that spinster who dared to live in social obloquy with another woman's husband.

Meanwhile, as before, men ranged freely. They lived in laboratories, counting-houses, jungles: empire-building, money-getting, the classification of data, the tools of the arts and sciences, were still in their hands. They wrote epics, histories and dissertations; they drank good wine, smoked good tobacco and met in clubs outside the family circle to exchange masculine experiences and opinions. Women, however, after the industrial revolution, appeared in large numbers as wage-earners. Mid-Victorian women wrote poetry, and this astonishing and unheard-of development, like the three-headed calf that presages the downfall of an empire, was followed by the untoward spectacle of women in control of their own money, and, after a great war, women enfranchised and free to enter masculine professions.

Mrs. Woolf is not content with giving the mere historical background of women's final emergence as writers. From her point of view, their emancipation is still far from complete. They are hampered in the present as in the past by interruptions, and financial dependence. A room of one's own is the symbol of the solitude and leisure necessary for any creative work. The talented woman is still very often the nexus of a family. She has not yet appropriated the full benefits of man's mysterious and glorious solitudes, those libraries and "studies" sacred in masculine tradition. Moreover, she can be hampered by conscious or subconscious dependence on purely masculine criteria—those often far from dispassionate reasons that men give for women's failure to attain distinction in many of the arts. Mrs. Woolf's chief exhortation is that woman break completely with the man-mirroring function that has been hers for so long, and in turn examine masculine concepts and reasoning. As the shelves are empty of women's epics, tragedies and the critical examinations of men, so are they full of men's volumes dedicated to investigations of, and opinions on, women. 

Mrs. Woolf slyly places as a slight explosive under one typically masculine attitude toward women's creative and imaginative powers—an attitude that stems, it is to be deduced reluctantly, from pomposity and even fear—her acceptance of Coleridge's theory of the androgynous mind. Men, she says, who create with the male, assertive side of their mind and nature alone, must lose depth and power of suggestion; their work, to the sensitive reader, appears incomplete and immature. For, according to Mrs. Woolf, it is the androgynous mind alone that is at once "resonant and porous, that transmits emotion without impediment, that is naturally creative, incandescent, undivided." Shakespeare had such a mind, "Keats, Cowper, Lamb, Coleridge, Proust." Such minds do not lean too hard upon arid intellectual processes, but have the leaven of feminine wit and (invidious term!) intuition within them.

Women, then, Mrs. Woolf remarks in conclusion, should - cherish no hatreds for their own sex (for women notoriously dislike and misunderstand other women), or their brothers'. They should write themselves and their observations down calmly and completely, and not waste the sub- stance of their talents in fears, discriminations and hatreds. They should look upon reality with that fixity, that wit, that honorable justness of proportion, which can be so char- artistically female, not hesitating to state what, as women, they feel on any subject, and passing over as not to the point any ponderous masculine judgment passed upon them. For if women's work in fiction, and in literature in general, has, up to the present, been marred by touches of hysteria and sentimentality, it must be remembered that, as opposed to men's work in literature, as in any other field, there are fewer examples of it. Women, one might add, urged, as Mrs. Woolf urges them, to solid work in literature, philosophy, history and the sciences, need not worry about hysterical lapses in the presentation of their findings, if they look critically at the hysteria implicit in Rousseau's passion for social reform, Shelley's poetry, Novalis' mysticism, Schopenhauer's philosophy and the terrific compensatory historical bias of Carlyle. They may trust that their work will in time and through travail become increasingly perfect and whole, and enter into a full period of production, free at once of their former bitterness in subjection, and of their present rather tiresome gestures of romantic escape.