I finally read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Can I implore you to (re)read it in these modern times? It remains insightful and in being so, is quite a reflection of our lack of evolution. Or perhaps a reminder that some themes may always pervade.
Woolf asks big questions about women and writing, and power between the sexes. In quite a light and comical way, actually. She’s at the British Museum, researching a speech she has to make, but entirely unproductively. She’s reading an angry professor’s rant in some book she picks up. She looks up and sees an angry man working angrily next to her. She scans the day’s paper full of angry headlines and brings it all together to ponder what an alien would make of it:
“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence. He was the proprietor of the paper and its editor and sub-editor. He was the Foreign Secretary and the judge. He was the cricketer; he owned the racehorses and the yachts. He was the director of the company that pays two hundred per cent to its shareholders. He left millions to charities and colleges that were ruled by himself…Yet he was angry.”
Why would men with so much power be angry, she asks. We could ask the same today.
Almost 100 years ago she suggests it’s because men need to protect their superiority and in homes and institutions around the world they draw on women to prop up their powerfulness with flattery and reinforcement, she writes. Which – rather inconveniently – keeps blokes in delicate servitude to women.
I’m reminded of Freud’s theory that a woman’s ultimate fear of men can be drilled down to: he might kill me. Men’s fear of women? She will laugh at me.
“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size…Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle.
“It serves to explain how restless (men) are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble…without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism.”
Ergo the anger.
Woolf can say all this, she says because she is not in this gender cycle. Her aunt left her with a £500 a year inheritance. So she can survive without needing to flatter and fawn over a man. She could do satisfying (as opposed to slave-like) work without worrying she’ll lose her job. She claims this inheritance did more for her freedom as a woman than getting the vote around the same time. It enabled her a room of her own in which she could develop her own original ideas without the ceaseless attending to of others. And the watering down of her ideas due to resentment or self-consciousness.
“Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.”
She rounds off with an observation:
“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.”
It’s an interesting one to think about a century later, hey. I think we could all – women and men – benefit from reflecting on (our own) angry resistance to change, as well as resistance to delving into why a pain-point exists for another (culture, race, sex) in the first place. Most of the battle that black people, the Stolen Generation, disenfranchised Muslim men, women who are sexually harassed in the workplace, women seeking equal pay for equal work and so on face is – can you believe it – anger from those in power. To talk about freedom requires nuanced discussions around why the pain point exists, which reflects our own part in the power dynamic, how we’ve benefited from the dynamic…and our shame. Shame sees us shut down and get angry. Even when we would truly rather have compassion. Why is Trump angry? He’s the most powerful man in the world. Are a caravan of Mexicans truly going to knock down his tower? Why do male shock jokes get angry about equal pay discussions?
Perhaps, though, I can ask all this because, in 2018 after a career (in both the work and relationship sense) as a self-conscious, hyper-appeasing looking-glass to many men around me, I can now afford a room of my own. I’ve pissed off all such shackles. And, at 44, I’ve entered that age of the Invisible Woman. Ha! Which reminds me of something Germain Greer (or was it Helen Garner?) once said about turning 50. She declared happily she was finally at an age where she was excused from laughing at men’s unfunny jokes. And could have more meaningful relationships with blokes.
Any of you know – was it Germaine or Helen?