Making Room for Mrs. Seton: Economics, Masculinity and Virginia Woolf’s Room of Her Own
That Virginia Woolf’s epic essay “A Room of One’s Own” would be greeted unenthusiastically by its 20th-century male critics goes without saying. That it has managed to become a foundation of modern feminist thought since its publication is also hardly surprising. That so many men alive during the early decades of the turn of the 20th century failed even to understand the underlying message is perhaps the least surprising thing. For how could any man raised on the millennia-spanning ideological explanation that women were oppressed due to an inherent failure on the part of the character of their sex possibly grasp the mountains of meaning that women the world over could instantly understand in a passage like the one in which Woolf bemoans the lack of opportunities for women—personified in the specific figure of Mrs. Seton—to pursue their love the arts through actions like establishing fellowships, funding prizes and offering scholarships. Opportunities denied them not as a result of inferiority of intellect required to make aesthetic judgments as worthy as any male benefactor, but resulting from pure, base economic depravity.
What woman could not instantly grasp the achingly familiar recognition of the inhuman indecency of inequitable treatment that obstructed an unknown bounty of potential artists from creating magnificent works of prose, drama, or poetry simply because they lacked what little financial independent might have been required to allow for carving out the time necessary for such pursuits? What woman of artistic or rebellious temperament didn’t feel a cold dagger pierce her heart as Woolf pulls the rug out from under the fantasy demonstrating how all that could have been possible if only Mrs. Seton had enjoyed the same avenues of opportunity to go into business at the age of fifteen as any fifteen year old boy would have enjoyed:
“If only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry. Only, if Mrs. Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been—that was the snag in the argument—no Mary” (Woolf 26-27).
For any man to instantly apprehend the complex importance of that entire passage, he would have to first accept the basic truth that oppression and inequality stems not from any inherent motive, but from system of dominance dependent on economics and domesticity and ambition and the acceptance that ambition must be denied to maintain the happiness and welfare of not just the family unit but by extension all of society. Once Woolf had exposed the lie that gender inequality and the oppression of women was based on matters of inferiority, by definition it also exposed the lie of male superiority. Even more importantly, the revelation that the long history of unequal treatment of women was undeniably the result of economics, the revolution of women’s issues would have to expand beyond the limitations imposed upon it by the lie to transform it into what was really human’s issues. A definite link can be established between the oppression of women and their lack of accomplishment which serves an ideology of inequality that comes down to the unfair choice between being a mother and being anything else. Woolf’s cry for a room of her own was not just the distress signal of creative artist thwarted by domestic responsibilities; it was an affirmation of recognition that within that complex economic history that determined their status, women were little more than product to be consumed by men until their surplus value had been exhausted.
The years immediately following the Russian Revolution which held the promise to be a sexual revolution every bit as much as an economic revolution was the perfect moment in time for Woolf to publicly inquire about issues such as “what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind” (29). Even more to the point was Woolf’s intellectual positioning allowing her to answer what turned out to be a rhetorical question for her, but an answer so perfectly attuned to the buzz of Marxist contravention of historical certainties it almost borders on the miraculous. Doubtlessly, the steely cold arrow of fear pierced the heart of many who dared to read further and discover the answer to her queries about cause and effect: “the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other” (29). Even more frightening must have been the consideration of what might happen if women of intellect and vision the equal of Woolf’s got their hands on her manifesto.
Which, of course, they did. And the fear of those men enjoying their safety and prosperity at the cost of reproducing a system dependent on the poverty and insecurity of women would soon be realized in ways many of were likely incapable of imagining possible on the basis of the relatively non-confrontational activism which marked the half century leading to Woolf’s revelations in “A Room of One’s Own.”
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That Virginia Woolf’s epic essay “A Room of One’s Own” would be greeted unenthusiastically by its 20th-century male critics goes without saying. That it has managed to become a foundation […]