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Rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in the #MeToo era

We still haven’t lived up to Woolf’s vision of the 21st century.

Virginia Woolf - portrait of the English novelist and essayist. Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Virginia Woolf, whose 136th birthday is the subject of the January 25 Google Doodle, makes for unsettling reading in the #MeToo era.

Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of the English language, and a giant among modernists. In between writing her many great novels — intricate Mrs. Dalloway, sweeping The Waves, whimsical Orlando — she also found time to become a brilliant critic and essayist.

I recently revisited Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf tries to determine why there is so little evidence of women geniuses in the history of Western civilization. It’s because you need intellectual freedom to be a genius, she concludes, and you need a room of your own and 500 pounds a year to acquire intellectual freedom — all of which Western civilization diligently conspired to prevent women from achieving.

But Woolf imagines a brighter future for women in the coming century, and it’s from the vantage point of that imagined future — amidst a storm of accusations that make it all too clear that discrimination against women is alive and well in nearly every workplace — that A Room of One’s Own starts to get very, very depressing.

Woolf is writing in 1928, and imagining how things will look for women 100 years into her future, in 2028. By then, she reasons, all barriers to women’s entry into the various trades will surely have fallen:

In a hundred years, I thought, reaching my own doorstep, women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared — as, for example (here a squad of soldiers marched down the street), that women and clergymen and gardeners live longer than other people. Remove that protection, expose them to the same exertions and activities, make them soldiers and sailors and enginedrivers and dock labourers, and will not women die off so much younger, so much quicker, than men that one will say, ‘I saw a woman to-day’, as one used to say, ‘I saw an aeroplane’. Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation, I thought, opening the door.

Ultimately, Woolf concludes, the barriers that have kept women en masse from enjoying the same intellectual freedom as men will also fall away, so that there will be nothing to stop a woman born with the same innate genius that Shakespeare was born with from exercising it fully, just as Shakespeare was able to exercise his:

My belief is that if we live another century or so — I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.

We are now 10 years away from Woolf’s deadline, but it has became painfully clear over the past few months that her imagined world of gender parity, in which men and women are granted equal opportunities to do the work of a genius, is still quite far away.

Today, contra Woolf’s expectations, there are few women in fields of manual labor; only 2 percent of members of the North American Iron Workers guild are women, for instance. In part, that’s because social barriers discourage women from entering fields of manual labor (as they also discourage men from entering the rapidly expanding service industry). It may also be because women know that if they ignore those barriers and pursue careers in manual labor anyway, they will almost certainly pay for it: A 2017 Department of Labor study found that nine in 10 women construction workers experience sexual harassment on the job.

And female construction workers are not alone. What the #MeToo movement has exposed is that throughout America, across industries, women are fundamentally believed to be sexual objects. They are treated as decorative objects there to be harassed, touched, and humiliated, not imagined to be human beings who are capable of doing their work, let alone capable of being geniuses.

“What makes women vulnerable is not their carnal violability,” writes Rebecca Traister at the Cut, “but rather the way that their worth has been understood as fundamentally erotic, ornamental; that they have not been taken seriously as equals; that they have been treated as some ancillary reward that comes with the kinds of power men are taught to reach for and are valued for achieving.”

It is possible, today, for women to acquire the financial independence and the solitude that Woolf maintained was necessary to exercise artistic genius. But as #MeToo rises and swells, it has come to seem profoundly difficult for women to enter the incandescent state of mind that Woolf argued Shakespeare achieved. A state of mind in which there is no “foreign matter,” no “desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance,” but only the work of art itself.

In a world in which women still have to prove their worth, in which their value is not assumed — the world in which #MeToo has demonstrated that we are living — it is impossible to be a genius in the way Woolf thought inevitable.

We’ve got 10 years to change that if we want to meet her 2028 ideal.

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