Virginia Woolf Essay, Research Paper
Ken Hammond April 24, 2001
English 1111 Soroka
Virginia Woolf spends much of her time straddling the issues in ?A Room of One?s Own.? She carefully manipulates the reader by burying her points in flowery language and assumes the identity of another person so she does not have to take responsibility for what she says. She is very careful not to come off as too forceful or angry because she knows that her ideas will be disregarded if she does. Woolf is terrified of having her words labeled as ?feminist? and of attracting the stigma that the label is surrounded by. She fully understands that ?women?s issues? ignite a deep-seated resentment in the hearts of men and is conscious of the fact that at her particular time in history this resentment is running high due to the war and the women?s suffrage movement. In her essay she tries extremely hard to avoid being ridiculed by men while at the same time sparking ideas in the minds of women. Woolf desires women to have money and a room of their own so that their so-called ?potential literary genius? has the opportunity to mature and develop. She believes that working towards getting women to question their socialization is bringing them closer to this eventual goal. Her work, however, is selfish and one sided at times, but understandably so.
The preceding statement is by no means a personal attack on Virginia Woolf, nor is an attempt to discredit the work of the feminist movement. Woolf wrote in the subjective present and was surrounded by the issues of her writing. She conveyed, as best her situation afforded her, an important issue that becomes more illuminated with the partially objective hindsight of history. Woolf?s motives are pure and there can be nothing but praise for the tact of her style. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to deny women their natural yearning for basic rights unless you choose to live under a shadow of ignorance. It is only meant by saying, ?the work of feminism is selfish and one sided at times,? that feminism is only one side of a coin. The point is simply this; women living in privilege are acting selfishly by challenging roles that are functional for the survival of the masses and that by seeing women as victims of an unfair society without also acknowledging men is only covering one side of an issue.
There is no such thing as sexism if sexism is to be defined as oppression of one sex by another. There are, however, sex roles and both men and women suffer and benefit from them. Woolf wrote during a unique period in time when sex roles that had been functional at one point were beginning to be an impediment for members of the female sex. Women that were well provided for were in the unusual position of being able to challenge tradition and redefine their part in society. For thousands of years most marriages focused on survival. Survival dictated that there be a division of labor in which women raised the children and men provided for the children. Children were obligatory and both sexes were subservient to the needs of the family. Marriage was for life and the love in these relationships emanated from mutual dependence. However, as traditional society collapsed into the free market and the industrial revolution overtook the western world, a new type of situation emerged. The female role became less necessary for survival, due to a rising standard of living, allowing women more time to pursue aspects of life that had been considered exclusive to the male role. For the women that were fortunate enough to be in this position, the need for survival evolved into the need for fulfillment. Woolf is riding on the crest of this wave in ?A Room of One?s Own? and her whole essay shows she has her heart set on the distant shore of fulfillment. She feels that she knows what is needed to be complete and yearns for her ideal to become a reality. This yearning, however, is selfish in nature because while Woolf has the privilege of focusing on the shore of ideals many people are left in the wake of the wave. Woolf fails to realize or chooses to ignore in her writing that many women and all men are, out of necessity, still in survival mode. While Woolf complains about not being allowed into a library, men are being sent to war to be killed and a large portion of the population are still slaves to their families. Men, in particular, are drowned by the aims of privileged feminism. This does not discredit Woolf?s point that women are not equal to men when it comes to opportunities in the authorship of fiction, but it does put her essay in it?s proper context.
It would be an unfortunate misinterpretation if a reader were to come away from ?A Room of One?s Own? with the impression that Woolf is advocating the idea that women are victims of male oppression. The statement is simply not true and this is not Woolf?s intended message. Although Woolf does describe trivial events such as not being allowed on a lawn with male students, these descriptions merely serve as examples of existing conditions or symbolism of a deeper meaning. The core of the essay is that both men and women must be androgynous in mind and grow out their sex roles hand in hand or else friction between the sexes will only get worse. Woolf does an amazing job of making her essay resentment proof. This is because Woolf understands, or at least senses, the true reasons behind male resentment. She builds her essay in such a way that it achieves it?s intended purpose of getting women especially, but men as well, to think about their gender roles.
Male resentment of ?feminism? does not arise from a natural instinct in males to oppress female desires. Rather, it comes from men resenting the fact that women are in the position to change their roles, while they are stuck in theirs. The traditional female role makes women feel like the property of their male providers, however, men are made to feel by their role like the arm that supports the property, not the owner of it. In many ways men are subservient to property.
A large portion of the labor performed by men, not to mention war, requires that men disassociate themselves from their feelings in order to be an adequate provider. They are taught not to complain, to sacrifice, not to be sensitive, and to protect. These characteristics are practical in the work force and are attributes that make a good provider, but when it comes to inner fulfillment, the male role is an impediment because it leads to repression. Likewise women who are taught to be nothing more than the bearer of children find it difficult to achieve fulfillment in their role as well. However, the women of privilege living in Woolf?s time and the originators of the feminist movement found that they could find fulfillment by bearing children while at the same time participating in activities that traditionally go with the male role, if only men would allow them. So why would men want to deny women fulfillment? Because they feel it is unfair to allow women to redefine their roles so that they can have the best of both worlds, while men remain chained to their survival role. Why should men have only the option to provide and protect while women are given multiple options? Women can work, be politically active, raise a family, get an education, read and write, or become an artist, and all without an obligation to go to war. Men, on the other hand, are at the disposal of the family and the state should a war arise. A man?s life was seen as useless if he could not support a family, just as a women?s life was considered useless if she could not bear children. And a man?s life is quite literally useless if he cannot survive war. Men resent women fighting to be more than property, while they remain the disposable servant to the property they are obligated to provide their family.
Freedom is power and the illusion that men were freer of their sex role than women caused women to see men as their oppressors and themselves as victims. This was fuel to the fire that made men secretly tremble. While women felt they were fighting to be equal, men felt women were fighting to be more than equals. This is the true root of male fear and resentment of feminism. They feel that feminism frees women of their role, but sinks them deeper into theirs. Men of course never admitted that they were afraid of being less powerful than women. Instead they expressed their feelings through violence, anger, and oppression (protection) because men are not supposed to complain, but fight, which in turn added more fuel to the fire.
Woolf senses the reality of sex roles as opposed to sexism and it leaks out into her writing. At one point she muses on how things have not been the same since the war. She feels that there is an oversized separation between men and women, but she does not fallow this thought through to its conclusion. When a man goes to war he becomes truly disposable. He is married to the state and it is not a pleasant union. He must kill or be killed, which is a much harsher version of having to provide or fail. The work force can detach a man from his feelings, but a war has the power to numb someone to the world. When enthusiastic boys return from war they are somber men and the women whom they support have little in common with the exaggerated masculinity of their husbands. Neither sex benefits emotionally from the other and a wall goes up between them. Woolf?s most insightful point in her essay comes when she observes a man and a women together and realizes that they complement and belong with each other. She goes on to say that men and women have a female and a male part to themselves and when one part overpowers and denies the other it is impossible to fulfill your potential as a person. Woolf sees lost potential all around her because the sexes are living in different camps. She emphasizes that women need to break out of their sex role in order to fulfill their potential, but there are hints that she understands that men need to as well, although she does not acknowledge the thought.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One?s Own. New York: Harcourt, 1989.