I find it incredibly difficult to discuss the works of authors that I adore. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews for this site over the years, yet on someI find it incredibly difficult to discuss the works of authors that I adore. I’ve written nearly 300 reviews for this site over the years, yet on some of my favorite writers I have said nary a word. Why is it always easier to describe why I don’t like something than it is to explain why a piece of writing resonates with me? I finished this book several weeks ago but have been torn as to how to review it. I didn’t want to just rate it and mark it read, but I don’t really know how to express how this short essay affected me. I’ve written three other drafts of this review so far and none have been able to get to the crux of how I feel about this seminal piece of first-wave feminist writing.
First published in 1929, A Room of One’s Own collects a series of lectures that Woolf delivered to two women’s colleges on the topic of women in fiction. A broad topic, to be sure, Woolf approaches it with all the cool logic intermixed with vivid imagery which made To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway such essential reads. Rather than focusing on how women in fiction have been portrayed throughout history, she turns her analytic eye on the lack of women writers asking the crucial question, “why is there no female Shakespeare? Why is it that it wasn’t until the advent of Austen and the Brontes that women began to tell their own stories?”
Her answer is so well known at this point that it could be canon. In order to be able to create, a woman needs a little bit of money and a room of one’s own. Basically, she needs to be freed from the daily demands of unpaid carework and domestic labor with which she has historically been saddled and a space where she can sit uninterrupted in order to coax the muse into cooperating with her. For a long time it was the latter half of this statement that really resonated with me. I’ve never had a room of my own, sharing with siblings while growing up, roommates while at university, and with my spouse until recently. Every piece of writing I’ve managed has been done while surrounded by people, words frantically inscribed during lulls in conversation or while trying to block out the sounds around me. I can only imagine how much more productive I could be were I to have a space I could seclude myself.
It wasn’t until the events of this year that I’ve realized just how important the first part of the statement is as well. Since coming out I have been lucky enough to meet a wide assortment of trans women, nearly all of whom are incredibly smart talented and absolutely brimming with creative passion. Yet almost without exception most of these women are forced to expend all of their energies on simply surviving. The endless struggle to find and retain employment, the constant threat of violence (physical, sexual, and emotional) that we are subject to whenever we are in public, the lifelong need to have access to the medical care that keeps the epic mindfuck that is dysphoria at bay- these are the struggles that the women I love spend their days consumed with. All the space in the world can not help you create if your every waking moment is filled just with the struggle to feed yourself and keep a roof over your head.
So if I want to read stories that are reflective of my own experiences, if I want to see films that feature trans characters that don’t rely entirely on the offensive stereotypes so often promulgated by cis people who have probably never met a trans woman, if I want to hear music made by girls like me, then economic security should be the primary place I should lend my efforts as both a trans woman and as an activist. Because I very much want to see more creative works made by trans women. I feel that we have a very unique perspective on not only gender and sexuality but human relations as a whole and that reading trans women’s stories is of benefit not just to me or to people with trans people in their lives, but to our entire culture.
So with all of that, with how much I very much relate to what Woolf is espousing in her typically beautiful way, why have I only rated this three stars? Because this slim volume suffers from the same problems that plagued feminist theory from its first incarnations until the early 1980s and which, though there is an increasing amount of criticism against it, continues to this day. That is the lack of awareness of how Woolf’s class status and skin color afforded her the privilege to be freed from care work and to have a room of her own in the first place. By not recognizing that her emancipation came at the expense of other women, Woolf’s emancipatory ideal ended up contributing to the silencing and marginalization of working women and women of color whose status in society did not afford them the luxury of either money or a room. That by not recognizing how the money that afforded her the opportunity to write came from a source that profited from the violence and exploitation of British colonialism, it reifies an inaccurate and damaging perspective. We should always strive to be aware of how the advantages we have come at the expense of others.
This is not meant as an indictment of Woolf, however. The concept of intersectionality is a relatively recent one and far be it for me to anachronistically apply it in my judgment of this thin volume. However, I do feel that it is necessary to read works like this with a critical eye and the knowledge that what Woolf is presenting is necessarily limited by her own experiences as a wealthy white woman in the early 20th Century. Even still, despite this glaring flaw, this is an exceptionally important book and absolutely belongs in the canon of feminist writings. ...more