Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no
bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
In as little as sixty pages, Virginia Woolf covers the entire span of humanity’s greatest chasm- the inexplicable notion of ‘male’ and ‘female’, the unending debate on the cycles of gender oppression and denial. This short fictionalized account from 1929 considers what it would take for the world to have more women writers but the essay covers so much more than just women’s ability or inability to pen down their thoughts through the ages. Ms Woolf talks about why there is so little to be found of women’s autobiographical accounts of themselves and how that has led to a vicious chain of suppression for women writers. .
I can say more but I would rather pen some quotes from the book which conveyed the point much better:
“Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.””Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price. Life for both sexes- and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement- is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate that imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By feeling that one has some innate superiority…”
“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques–literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.”
“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.”
“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
“All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.”
And so, despite its often unsavory topic, this essay was not a bitter, distasteful rant but a reasonably concluded commentary on women’s role in recorded history over the ages. Ms Woolf expresses an optimism about the future- and indeed, we can look back now and feel fortunate that so much has changed and writing is such an easy and fluid occupation for women today than it ever was (of course, to be truthful, writing is hardly ever easy and often excruciatingly rigid in its flow). This essay does not lose its timelessness because it is unapologetic about the past of one half of humanity and yet does not beg or pray or demand but releases softly into the world a delicate truth that must have taken it by storm when it first appeared in print.
PS: The one glaring absurdity she expresses is a belief that a woman (or man, for that matter) cannot write unless she has a steady income and a room to call her own. She says that impoverished individuals cannot be good writers which is a bluntly snobbish statement to make.