Shakespeare’s sister… why she did not write a word!

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, was first published in 1928 and is based on two lectures she gave that year. It is one of my all-time favourite feminist books. Woolf was invited to speak about women and fiction and the basic premise of her speech was that a woman must have money and room of her own if she is to write fiction. This was at a time when few women worked for the purpose of being totally independent, and even fewer women lived alone or had their own rooms they could go to to write.

Woolf gives an overview of the history of women’s and men’s education in England. Shee looks at the incredible wealth of men’s colleges and universities, of the donations, fellowships and scholarships available for men. The two women’s colleges in England, that had only been set up sixty years before in the 1860s, were quite resource and money poor, hindering the education of the attending women. Why was it that men had so much money to leave to educate their sons and women had so little money to leave to their daughters? Woolf looks back through history at the differing attitudes to education boys and girls and the different positions of men and women (In England). It had been almost impossible for women to earn money and leave it to theirs daughters, and it had only been for the last forty-eight years that women were allowed to own any money they might earn or inherit. Before that, it was the legal property of their fathers or husbands.

Why was it that so many men had written so much and so few women had written al all? Woolf tells the story of going to a flash, prestigious university and trying to go into the library and being stopped (because she was obviously not a student, being a woman) and informed that she needed a letter of permission to enter. She says they can “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.” Men had always been encouraged to read and write and be independent and have thoughts and write them down. Women had not. Woolf discusses the many books that men have written about women’s mental, intellectual, spiritual and moral inferiority to men and how it has been said that it would be impossible for a woman to have the genius of Shakespeare in the time of Shakespeare for if Shakespeare had had a sister, she would have stayed home, cleaning and cooking. She would have been discouraged from reading, while her brother went to a grammar school and studied the classics. He would have moved to the city to act and write and meet lots of people. She was betrothed, refused to marry, her father beat her, quite legally, for not doing as he wished. She ran away, showed up at the theatre wanting to act and was laughed at. Some guy took pity on her, she became pregnant and killed herself and was lost from all of us forever.

Woolf found that the portrayal of women in fiction could not be further from her life in reality. “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.” Many men have written about the trials and hardship of writing a work of genius when the world is indifferent to you. Woolf wonders how women could do it when the world was not just indifferent but openly hostile to their writing. If a man wanted to discourage his wife or daughters from learning he had the writings of many learned men to back up his claims that women were not capable of learning and creating and they should be doing other things like having babies and serving men. Woolf says all this writing about the obvious inferiority of women must have affected their vitality. She says “the history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.” She thought that Elizabethan literature would have been very different if the women’s movement had begun in the sixteenth century and not the nineteenth.

Woolf thought that women should just write whatever they want, “…and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” The poet that was Shakespeare’s sister – who didn’t write a word – lives on in all of us and if we can work and earn money and have a room of our own and have freedon, we can write poetry and fiction (and we can do other stuff too!).

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. – Virginia Woolf 1928

Women who pay their own rent don’t have to be nice. – Katherine Dunn (quoted p9 in Elizabeth Wurtzel, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, 1998.

Liberty is Terrifying but it is also exhilarating. – Germaine Greer

Well-behaved women rarely make history. – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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