A Room of One’s Own

Annika posted today about having a place to keep her crafting supplies. I was inspired today, though, not by her main point, but by the beginning of her first paragraph.

I have always felt that the whole Room Of One’s Own business was suspect and possibly nonsense. First of all, why women specifically? I’m sure it makes sense in the context of the time when Virginia Wolfe was writing — women were not respected, and the idea of a room of her own was probably the kitchen. But now? I’m not sure it’s so relevant.

First, let us be clear on the fact that I adore Annika and everything to do with Annika, and if I go more than two weeks without snuggling Annika, or her son, or both simultaneously, I begin to twitch and sweat from withdrawal. That having been said.

I do not think I exaggerate when I say that A Room of One’s Own is one of the most important books in the history of English Literature. In Woolf’s time, a (middle- or upper-class) woman’s “sphere” was considered to be the home, which was of course also the sphere of everyone else who lived there. So while men generally had a study, or at least the freedom to leave the house unencumbered by offspring, women had no space in which to keep things just for themselves, or space to work without interruption from children or husbands or other domestic botheration.

What better characterizes a classic than timelessness? In 1929, Woolf asserted that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” She singled out these criteria because they were precisely the two things that women of her social class could not take for granted, while men of her social class could. For a contemporary parallel, one need look no further than the New York Times. In an article called “The Opt Out Revolution,” Lisa Belkin discusses the phenomenon of well-educated, upper-middle-class women who choose to leave the workforce and stay home with their children. There are as many reasons for this choice as there are women who make it, but the common fact is that women who do not have independent income are uniquely vulnerable to whatever financial mishaps befall their partners. In cases of divorce or widowhood, they are at a distinct economic disadvantage. Woolf’s contention is that only with her own money and, indeed, a room of her own, can a woman writer be similarly equipped to her male counterpart.

Women still do the vast majority of unpaid domestic work, and are still widely expected to sacrifice any need for privacy once they have a child. For a writer, such a thing is simply impossible. A writer must have some degree of privacy in which to work. Even a coffee shop is more private than the common room of your home. In a coffee shop, it is expected that people around you will respect your solitude, will not ask you to fix them a sandwich or help them hang curtains. I, and many of my friends, are fortunate in having enlightened male partners, who take on their fair share (or, in my case, more than his fair share) of domestic responsibility. But that does not negate the need for a “room of [our] own;” it simply increases the likelihood that we will actually get one.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf (1929)

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12 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    elsewhere said,

    That’s a really interesting post. For me as a single woman wanting to write, time is my greatest enemy, rather than space. I think that’s the case for a lot of women, single or not.

    The lesser issue is that I am the breadwinner, so always have to support myself, find a means of paying the mortgage, etc in one way or another.

  2. 2

    Andrea said,

    Hello there, I arrived here via your comment on Annika’s blog.

    You may have hit the nail on the head. One thing I have learned from others with experience is that you have to cordon yourself and your time off from intruders even if that intruder is achild, spouse, parent, best friend, cat, dog, telemarketer or cardinal scrounging for food in your backyard. Time and space must both be guarded and given the utmost respect by you, first, and then your family and friends. Without the one, you cannot have the other.

    Personally, I have a husband and two cats. My computer is set up back to back with my husband’s, and I find it so hard to tear myself away if he’s sitting at his desk (like right now). It’s a bit less hard to tear myself away if he’s not at his desk. Still, I sit here being completely unproductive so often and in so many ways. I think in my case it’s a complete lack of respect for myself and therefore for any of my crafts (cooking, singing, writing, replying to email, cleaning, reading, whatever). And when I do exert a bit of respect and sit down to do something, the cat(s) almost invariably join me and want to be right in the middle of it. When it comes to singing, I’ve learned to shut the door because my cat leapt at my head when I was doing vocalises. This same cat also sits right above my keyboard tray and attacks my hands if they tap her feet which are hanging over the edge of the desk…usually when I’ve opened MS Word and closed Firefox.

  3. 3

    noirbettie said,

    I think we may have passed that two week mark. I’ve been feeling a little twitchy lately.

  4. 4

    noirbettie said,

    Oh, look, wordpress logged me in.

  5. 5

    Sachi said,

    Ah. Yes, I had a grand maul about 2 weeks after leaving. I totally understand what you mean.

  6. 6

    miss kendra said,

    soon ALL of the rooms will be my own! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  7. 7

    Hyphen said,

    Modern woman or not, there have been times in my life when I had to fight for enough privacy to have just a BOX that my guy-at-the-time would stay out of.

    The lock I put on it helped.

  8. 8

    Andrea said,

    I think you’d like U le Guin’s essay, “The Fisherwoman’s DAughter,” which was a revisit of Woolf’s idea from a 1990s (I think) perspective. It’s one of my all-time favourite essays–but more pertinently, she quotes many Victorian and earlier female writers about the issue of space, and the lack of it is astounding. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote most of Uncle Tom’s CAbin with the kids underfoot, on the kitchen table, while her husband wrote in the study (and she felt guilty for disturbing him if she tried to write there too). Jane Austen did most of her writing with her mother in the room doing her needlework, and hid the writing under needlework if company came by. It was fascinating, how a woman writer’s writing was absolutely subjugated to every other responsibility she had.

    I find mental boundaries more of an issue for myself. I have the space, but it’s regularly invaded by husband and child, adn I do feel obligated to tend to their interruptions rather than booting them out and continuing to write.

  9. 9

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    Nothing annoys me more than when the Monkey’s in bed, the t.v. is entertaining, I’m knitting my heart out, and the Jman wants to talk to me. After “tending to” all sorts of infantile needs all day long, I too want my own space to be in my own thoughts. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen. I’ve often considered renting two single apts instead of one two BR. I think that would be nice.

  10. 10

    Ellen Bloom said,

    I think I saw your husband last night (Wednesday) at the Farmers Market. Were you there too, or was he pretending that the FM was a room of his own?

  11. 11

    uccellina said,

    We were both there, Ellen 🙂 He does often go by himself, though. He has a Table of His Own.

  12. 12

    Mom said,

    Here on the east coast, we each have a room of our own. That’s where I write. But for reading or grading papers, bed is best. That way, when I fall asleep, I don’t fall out of my chair.
    I do think private space, however constructed, gives one a sense of focus. It need not be a whole room, perhaps, but it must have some kind of definition and boundedness.


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