Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own

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A Room of One’s Own Summary

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In her feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf stresses the importance of female education and independence. As the title suggests, she explains that women need a space of their own. One of the most important female authors of the twentieth century, the piece is widely regarded as Woolf’s most significant feminist writing. Still influential, her works cause lively intellectual debate in contemporary literary circles.

In 1929, Woolf delivered lectures at Newnham and Girton Colleges, colleges within the University of Cambridge. A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay based on these two lectures. Woolf provides two main arguments: women have the right to be educated and independent; they also have the right to be respected as authors. They need, quite literally, a room of their own to write in.

The narrator is known by many names—Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, and Mary Beton. She wants readers to call her whatever name they’re comfortable with because the name doesn’t matter. Symbolically, this means the narrator can be any woman. Woolf chooses Marys from history who have lived dangerous lives, symbolizing how dangerous society is for women who are at the mercy of men.

The first point Woolf makes is that women don’t have access to a space to write and thrive unless they come from rich families. Men, on the other hand, always have space to create. They have opportunities that only a very few privileged women have. Woolf laments that it is not possible for women to leave their mark on literary tradition unless they have the same opportunities as men. She worries that we have lost a lot of talent and valuable stories over the centuries because of this.

Of course, since Woolf delivers her lectures at the University of Cambridge, she is speaking to women who have had the luxury of an education. She warns them not to take their position for granted, and to use the skills they have been given for the betterment of society. She urges them to remember that, while they have these opportunities now, they can just as easily be taken away.

Woolf touches on how her father feels about women’s education. Being very traditional, he believes that only men should read and write in a formal way. He doesn’t understand his daughter’s desire to make women equal to men, and for this reason, they never fully relate to each other. She only makes brief references to her father—the focus of the essay is not on her own relationships.

To illustrate her points, Woolf uses a fictional scenario. The narrator, Mary, is a lecturer at a pretend university. She tries to access parts of the university reserved for men—the only ones who have the right to be scholars—but she is not allowed. She cannot write her lecture notes, and so she goes for lunch. The men and women there only talk about superficial things, and she resents how the university treats her. Woolf believes this is how women are treated every day.

Woolf wonders how women writers of the past felt about their situation. She is forced to draw her own conclusions, because all she can find are accounts written by men. Women are denied the space to even talk about themselves, let alone comment on other things. However, she notes that times are changing, and there is hope for the future. Once, it was unthinkable that women would study at university. Now, since there are female students, we are getting closer to that ideal society. Woolf laments that though her generation won’t have the opportunities of future generations, the contributions they make now will help shape that future.

A Room of One’s Own is also a safe space for Woolf to discuss lesbianism; she believes women have the right to own their sexuality. She is disappointed that restraints are still placed upon female sexual expression. In her essay, she alludes to ways in which her fellow writers can discuss lesbianism without attracting criticism.

Ultimately, Woolf teaches her audience the dangers of complacency. They cannot forget the struggles of historical women, because they will lose any progress they’ve made. It is up to privileged women who have opportunities to fight for their right to be equal to men. It is up to them to create a better future for their children and grandchildren.

Woolf’s conclusion is that literature is not just for some of us, or only for men—it is for everyone. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure we all have the chance to write and enjoy literature. We all have the right to see ourselves represented in literature. For women, this means having the opportunity to write their own narratives, not just reading works written by men describing who they think women are.