Woolf looks at women as writers of fiction and women as subjects of fiction throughout the essay. This is a rather short piece, my copy is one hundred and fifteen pages, but it is very powerful and full of truths. I find myself nodding my head in agreement with what Woolf's fictional narrator, Mary, is saying as I read.
Woolf speaks of the differences between women's and men's colleges. Women's colleges are poor, and therefore the education they receive is not up to par with the men's colleges. Woolf also speaks of a resentment towards past generations of women, in a very interesting passage. The women students feel that if their mothers and grandmothers had been able to earn some money the schools would not be so poor, but this feeling of resentment fades away with the knowledge that the past generations of women could not have raised money and children; any money they did earn would be property of their husbands just as they were. Woolf makes the importance of a stable income of your own very clear, as well as the idea that many women will never have the security of their own income. I had never really had a concrete answer for the why there are so many more male authors in the literary cannon than women authors, but this essay has lead to think that one of the main reasons is that women have always had to rely on others for their livelihood and when one is worried about food and clothes, one does not have much time for writing poetry or fiction.
After being turned away from a men's library the narrator states:
"...And I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in; and, thinking of the safety and prosperity of one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer" (pg 24).
Woolf makes great points about the lack of tradition and examples women who wish to write fiction had to follow or look to at the time.
In the second chapter our narrator continues her research of these topics and finds that many men of knowledge and power that are speaking ill of women's abilities seem to have an underlying tone of anger, and she questions the reason for this anger. This chapter brings up some great theories on why the gender gap has survived as long as it has. This chapter also has a great section on how men use women as mirrors and magnifying glasses in order to build and maintain the patriarchy.
This chapter started by pointing out the gap between how women are portrayed in fiction and how real women were treated at the time the fiction was wrote. Here Woolf creates perhaps the most well known symbol from this essay, Shakespeare's fictional sister; she is just as brilliant as her brother but dies by her own hand because she is unable to express her genius. This chapter's tone gets a little sassy when Woolf responds to a well known professor's statement that a women could/would never create anything as genius as Shakespeare, and I had to laugh when she brought out her sassy retort.
"Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a women" (pg 49).
Woolf at age 20
Read Part Two Here
I will be sure to share my final thoughts on this essay once I finish it, but in the meantime I highly recommend checking this out if you are a women, a writer, a women writer, or a lover of Woolf and classical lit. I really just recommend this to everyone!