In the days and weeks leading up to International Women’s Day, media and the general public practise a little more sensitivity towards women’s issues and tend to listen, but their attention span is short. As a feminist and a journalist with a special interest in marginalized groups in society, I frequently read fiction and nonfiction that speaks to the narratives of this demographic. One of the first authors I read that summed up society’s exclusion and mistreatment of women was Virginia Woolf. She died 74 years ago this month, but her texts, specifically A Room of One’s Own, still ring true. She illustrates the role of women in the world of academics and connects this to broader discrimination against women.
“Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please — it is not a matter of any importance).”
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf indicates to her readers the socio-economic differences between men and women in the early 1900s. She conveys to readers the insignificance of names and locations because the story she is narrating applies to most women seeking knowledge in that era. She works to prove that these disparities are caused by the advancement of the views of privileged individuals, particularly men, at institutions like universities.
“That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures locked safely within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I’m concerned so sleep forever.”
By saying this, Woolf tries to make it obvious that a library cannot be harmed and the knowledge within the books will not be lessened if a woman reads them. She then implies that in trying to maintain power and control, men have devalued books and knowledge by excluding women from their influence.
The issue as she sees it is not only that women cannot read the books, but also that all of these books were written by men. She makes this visible when she recalls titles of various books she encountered: Worshipped as goddesses by, Weaker in moral sense than, Idealism of, Offered as sacrifice to, Small size of brain of, Profounder sub consciousness of, Less hair on body of, Mental, moral and physical inferiority of. She uses irony to present the titles of these books as examples of the ridiculous biases spread about women by male authors in her the time.
“One seemed alone with an inscrutable society. All human beings were laid asleep-prone, horizontal, dumb. Nobody seemed stirring in the streets of Oxbridge.”
Woolf criticizes individuals for not questioning gender roles. She directs attention to the fact that nobody notices the discrimination within universities and the society they’re reflecting. If individuals are knowledgeable and enlightened, then they should realize the flaws in the educational system. Woolf acknowledges that withholding opportunities from women and not recognizing the biases of power structures is an indication of a misconstrued role of the university.
Woolf assigns responsibilities to stop the cycle of blindly following agendas of societal powers. Though the situation of gender equality in universities and in society has improved, collectively we still haven’t achieved complete gender equality. We need to remember dialogue in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own more than once a year.