The Short Version: Two essays of feminism and women’s rights – one is perhaps Woolf’s most famous non-fiction piece and one of the crucial texts in the fight for equality, while the second is lesser-known and far more complex, tackling everything from equality to militarism (all under the context of the patriarchy).
The Review: After the rather bracing experience of The Waves, it was nice to return to Woolf and find her (in these texts) at her most plain-spoken. This is not to say that I disliked the derring-do of The Waves, but simply that it’s a lot at times and the topics of these essays are better served by directness than artistic flights of fancy. Luckily, Woolf is a tremendous writer whether she’s experimenting or not – A Room of One’s Own, in particular, is one of the strongest essays about anything I think I’ve ever read.
And I wish I’d read it sooner. I wish more people would’ve read it. I wish that Melville House would send a copy of this essay, as they’ve sent the Senate Torture Report and other important texts, to the GOP candidates in the hopes that they’ll all read it. They wouldn’t, of course, but imagine if they did and if they took it to heart? Woolf’s argument against gender inequality is admittedly stuck in the time it was written, in terms of examples – women had only just earned the right to vote some ten years earlier – but even in a far freer world, her points not only still apply but they are still startlingly relevant (and, perhaps, not just to women anymore).
The most famous example that people remember from Woolf’s essay / the speech it grew out of is, of course, that of Shakespeare’s imagined sister. Just as gifted as her brother and yet she died unknown. Why? Because she lacked the 500-pounds-a-year and the titular room. And Woolf goes deep in explaining why, in fact, money does matter to those who wish to make a life of their own: if you want to survive in this world, to ignore the restrictions and cares and worries that weigh you down and squash the artistic soul, then you must have some measure of financial freedom. You must not be beholden to anyone. So, too, the room: you have to be able to go somewhere that is yours. And this, to me, is where the argument becomes universal in a modern context. As we see income inequality rise, as cities like New York and London become increasingly unlivable for the artistic class, Woolf’s baseline necessities fall farther out of reach for so many across all genders, classes, creeds, etc. When I took an apartment by myself several years ago, spending far more money than was perhaps wise (although still affordable, obviously), my friends seemed baffled. I tried to explain to them that space is the thing – the ability to have a room of your own, to claim ownership over that space and to use it as you will… it’s unlike anything else. They’ve all mostly come to discover this for themselves over the course of the ensuing half-decade, but I’d never put it so eloquently as Woolf does.
But for all the broader associations of the modern era, Woolf’s essay is still (quite rightly) a rallying cry for feminism and gender equality. The patriarchy – especially that of straight, white, educated, rich males – is in its death throes these days but it threatens to swamp the entire planet in the process. Artists are still grappling with the issues that Woolf was nearly a hundred years ago, in plays like Taylor Mac’s Hir or in novels like Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine or anything in the oevure of Lena Dunham – and women (or anyone who does not align as male) are still fighting to be able to truly live their own life. Just look at the latent misogyny of James Woods’ review of Fates & Furies, where he believes that Mathilde could not possibly have been Lotto’s script doctor or been his background, invisible support throughout everything… because she’s a woman. It’s 2015, people, and that review was published in The New Yorker.
It’s also 2015 and we just saw one of the most deadly attacks on a Western country since World War II. And Three Guineas opens with Woolf belatedly (very belatedly) responding to a letter from a man asking about to prevent war (World War II, speaking of, was looming). Woolf later goes on to respond to other letters, asking for support to help fund a women’s college and to help women enter the workforce, but it is this first letter that feels most urgent and like it’s grappling with something other than a topic Woolf had already addressed in this collection/duology. She had clearly had the horrors of war in mind while writing – just look at her three major novels (Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves), all of which have some measure of reaction to and reverberations from World War I. And as she attempts to grapple with this man’s query (which took her, if the fiction is to be followed, over three years to respond to), you can see how she takes apart the concept of war in the modern era and places the blame pretty squarely on the military-patriarchy complex.
Sure, wars have been fought by female heads of state in the past. No one is denying this. But war is a masculine emotion and concept, if you had to gender it. Ares was the god of war and while Athena could kick some ass, she was the goddess of knowledge first and foremost. Consider that alone and it should tell you much of what you need to know about gender and fighting. But look at our present day, even. The wars that we’ve gotten into have been blustery attempts to assert dominance, to measure our might against that of the rest of the world. And Woolf is saying, essentially: “Look, women are going to oppose war but we can’t stop it. That’s on men.”
And I think that’s very true. I had hoped that the essay (which, for my money, went on a little long) would provide more striking insight but this one has more frustration behind it than fury. She knows that nothing she or any woman can do will turn the tide of war, because even if all the wives of all the men in the world tried to assert their influence, it wouldn’t be enough. The change must come from within. 80-some years later, we’re still waiting.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The knock against this duology of essays is that Three Guineas is a little long and not as exciting or interesting as A Room of One’s Own, which is not only a tremendous piece of social agitprop but also an amazingly sharp cultural critique. Woolf takes aim at the Brontës, Austen, Eliot, and more and her insights into these early female authors just delighted me. There’s a lot to be learned for a writer in this collection, but also a lot to be learned as a person. I wish more people would read at least A Room of One’s Own today – maybe inequality wouldn’t be so intractable if they did.