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Virginia Woolf and Women Writing

Updated on August 25, 2013
Virginia Woolf in her early 20s
Virginia Woolf in her early 20s | Source

Introduction to Feminism

In a misogynistic and patriarchal society, feminism could be compared with a quest for personal identity. Unlike the other schools of thought such as new criticism, structuralism and deconstruction, where the emphasis was placed primarily on the text, the core of feminism (and all other “identity studies”) consists in the celebration of diversity and multiculturalism.

Started as a political movement, the fundamental concept in feminism is about gender equality. Thus, feminism calls for emancipation; at its most rudimentary level, beginning in the mid nineteenth century with some movement about women being educated, the feminist movement has undergone transformations regarding the cultural and political agenda. But the concepts most relevant for feminist criticism are the ones connected with the portrayal of women throughout literature and media, their social contexts and relations, as well as the history of female writing. Thus, given the up mentioned contexts, feminist criticism is all about deconstructing the essentialised images of gender and sex while taking pride in the cultural and gender diversity. This essay will provide insights and sketch connections with the evolution of female writing by looking at Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” and continuing with “The Madwoman in the Attic”, a work by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Virginia Woolf and "A Room of One's Own"

Born and raised in a very sexually conservatory society, Virginia Woolf is often seen as an influential landmark in terms of female emancipation. Invited to discuss the topic of “women and fiction” at two women colleges in Cambridge University, Virginia Woolf’s lectures would eventually be materialized in the book “A Room of One’s Own”. However, of particular interest is the imaginary sister of Shakespeare. Inheriting the same literary talent, Woolf argues that “Judith Shakespeare” would not have had the same impact as her male counterpart. Moreover, she would have been subjected to a discouraging ridicule. Because Judith is not fitting in the typology of the humble, sixteenth century servile woman, and with no access to education, Woolf claims that “any woman born with a great gift […] would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some cottage outside the village”. Thus, it is easily noticeable that the objectification of women and the essentialised gender roles imposed by the medieval society result in a dramatic internal conflict, that will eventually lead to psycho-pathological illness.

Everyone needs a room of one's own. Perhaps that's how it felt for women.
Everyone needs a room of one's own. Perhaps that's how it felt for women. | Source

The Madwoman in the Attic

Written at the peak of second-wave feminism, “The Madwoman in the Attic” analyzes the (hindered) female authorship in the Victorian Age. Overwhelmed by a dominant male culture, the writers ask where is it possible to place the woman writer? Drawing upon the concept of an essentialising society, the female artist has an “anxiety of authorship” rather than an “anxiety of influence”. This clearly complements Woolf’s line of thinking. Trying to resolve the tormenting problem of identity, the writer experiences a continuous and a contradictory struggle between her male predecessors and her own literary identity. Therefore, it is difficult, (but not impossible), to establish a “matrilineal heritage”. Obviously, the outcome of female authorship is not as grim as portrayed by Woolf, but in my opinion, it urges women to claim identity.

Since the history of female writing is significantly shorter, history has to create space for the woman writer within the the patriarchal culture, and for that reason she feels an anxiety of authorship. Because of the compact sphere of “authoritarian” male writers, the woman fears that the act of creation has an alienating effect (for more on alienation, check my hub on Marxism; link is at the bottom). Thus, the transition from Woolf’s ideas to a more modern context is again evident. Nevertheless, the difference resides in the fact that in Gilbert and Gubar’s work, women are already active parts in literature, whereas Woolf’s essay has the purpose of raising awareness, more like a proto-feminist manner. This demonstrates the evolution and acceptance of society towards women in the chronological gap.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is easily noticeable that the concepts developed by Woolf find continuity in Gilbert and Gubar’s work. The political implications that result from both pieces of writing are in tune with the feminist philosophy: emancipation, individuality and independence. By establishing a strong cultural background based solely on women, I believe that they are one step closer in achieving their goal. As far as I am concerned, feminism is not only about finding the “room of one’s own”; the main purpose of this movement is to create a world free of discrimination and prejudices.

Hear more from Virginia Woolf herself!

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    • The Touch Typist profile image
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      Walter Dark 5 years ago from Amsterdam

      Hello Blessed,

      Thank you very much for your good thoughts. It is extremely relieving to see that there are still some people who still take their time and learn something new.

      All the best,

      Dragos

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