Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own Still Holds Resonance for Today’s Female Artists

Seventy-three years has passed since Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, and yet the arguments she raised are still relevant today. Money, privacy, and respect are still issues women are struggling to deal with in their pursuit to create art. Though this is true in all forms of the arts (art, literature, music, the cinema, theater) Woolf wrote specifically about literature and that is the area I will concern myself with.

While the situation seems to have gotten better for women writers in the literary field, scratch beneath the surface and an entirely different picture emerges. Two of the more prominent issues I noticed while researching web sites were money and finding time to write. Not only do the writers of the essays I’ve found speak to the problem of fighting family, work, and other responsibilities to find time to write, but, in Nicole Bokat’s essay, “An Income of One’s Own,” she also articulates the difficulty of making a livable wage in the academic world of a woman’s college. Another issue I discovered was the way women are treated in creative writers workshops on college campuses.

Creative writing workshops exploded on the scene since the 1970s and 1980s on most liberal colleges, allowing more opportunity for students to explore the craft of writing and to develop their own style. Yet, according to a study by Myra and David Sadker, and an informal one by M. Elizabeth Weiser, these workshops are often male-dominated, both in class ratio and perceptions about style and content. These differences merge outside the academic circle, as well. A perfect example is the 1998 Modern Library list of the 100 Best Novels of the Century. Out of the one hundred selections, only seven were written by women. Since the panel which chose the books were made up largely of academics and publishing giants, it offers a glimpse into how the literary vanguard still values women writers.

Clearly, if Woolf were alive today she would find it necessary to deliver the same speech in A Room of One’s Own at some liberal arts college with a strong MFA program, albeit with a few differences. First of all, she would probably say that women ought to earn more than five hundred pounds a year (inflationary costs being what they are today), and she’d also be more attuned to the difficulties women face today in juggling work and family responsibilities. But there is no doubt that she would find as many Professor Von Xs in MFA programs as she did in the colleges of her day.

In Weiser’s article, she notes the same attitudes Woolf dissected, in this case, about gender in the workshop, during a graduate class on teaching creative writing. “One male student immediately said, “What’s that? Girly issues?” and a female student replied, “Yeah, what are we going to learn? How to put on makeup?” (Weiser 5). Woolf wrote, as long as women faced such criticism of their worth, they were inhibited from writing “incandescent” art, or, art that was unconscious of gender. While I do not necessarily agree with all of Woolf’s arguments, her original concerns and solutions still speak to the problems facing women as Weiser addressed in her article.

Woolf’s solutions for women artists, five hundred pounds and a room of one’s own with a lock and key as necessary components to the freedom and peace which she believed opened up the genius within, still speak with truth and clarity for women artists today. As a writer myself, three issues I struggle with continually is money, time, and a place to create. Salaam writes not only about finding time to create, but fighting internal distractions (sleep and rest) in order to write. After burning out putting up a web site, she spent an entire writing trip reading novels and resting.

She eventually realized that by giving in to her body’s need for rest, she was able to write better. “A few weeks ago, I fell asleep every time I tried to work on my novel. I was angry and frustrated, but I decided to surrender to it. Then, on my next writing day, I spent the entire day writing with no problem of focus or sleepiness. I use that example to remind myself, the work will be done. I am not a machine. I must sometimes give in to and rest” (www.popandpolitics.com/articles_detail.cfm?articleID=1126). Weiser, in her article about creative writing workshops, offers a 5-point plan in creating a safe and productive space for women artists in the classrooms. They are as follows:

1. Do not allow boys (and men) to dominate class discussions.

2. Encourage children to work in integrated groups.

3. Point out to students when their male characters are active, their female characters

missing or passive.

4. Ensure that students receive a balance of male/female role models from the assigned

literature, both in the authors and in the characters portrayed.

5. Consider the male/female balance in both faculty and student body when making

hiring or acceptance decisions. (www.womenwriters.net/editorials/weiser1.htm 5-6).

Whether her solutions can be instituted or make the desired effect in the class room remains to be seen. But clearly, Weiser, Salaam, and Bokat speak to the problems women still face today as artists, and how Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own continues to hold resonance. While the feminist movement of the 1970s opened doors for women, we still have much work to accomplish in order to level the playing field, especially in the literary arts. But as women, we will need much more than a room of our own. We need a means to publish, market, and support our own books, a fact Woolf herself would readily agree.

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