In other words, the time has come, my little friends, to discuss feminist issues. I promise this blog will be relatively brief and mostly painless. While I do consider myself a feminist, I certainly don’t consider myself a liberal one. I think the feminist movement can and does go too far in some areas, but those areas aren’t the focus of this blog. Instead, this blog is going to focus on a quote from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” an essay about women and fiction/literature.
Woolf (1882-1941) obviously lived in a time when women’s rights were just beginning to be discussed in a larger arena. True, other women wrote about women’s issues earlier than Virginia Woolf and even before groups of women began campaigning for civil liberties, specifically the right to vote and be educated equally. I’m thinking of certain authors like Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman specifically to discuss these issues. Woolf, however, was living in an age where women held more liberties than ever before, but Woolf was still able to see the lack in true equality.
In a fascinating passage, she researches what the lives of women were like in the Elizabethan Era, or even earlier. Very little is written about the actual lives of actual women during that time, particularly about the lives of working class women. What was written about them proved that they were nothing more than property of men. It was not frowned upon for men to beat their wives or daughters. It was common for women to be forced into marriages with men they didn’t love. Most women were not educated or allowed opportunities to travel or even to really leave the home. The Elizabethan Era, however, was full of plays and sonnets dedicated to the idea of romance and ideal women. With what does this leave the modern reader? It leaves one with the disparity between the woman presented in the fiction and the woman who really lived. To paraphrase Woolf, women cover the pages of poems and plays from that time period but are almost entirely absent from history books. They are put on pedestals in these works of romance, while they are ignored or seen as inferior in real life.
How could women let themselves be treated this way? Woolf wonders why her ancestors didn’t earn money and fund scholarships for future women in the universities. Woolf discovers two reasons why not: women could not work, and, if they did, their earnings belonged to their husband. This created an environment of dependence and subordination for women. It is for this reason that Woolf states women require money and a room of their own in order to write fiction, or (I would argue) to do anything.
My mother, who was and is a working mom, has always raised me to be independent. She has always encouraged me to learn to take care of myself, whether it’s paying my own bills or changing my own tire or living on my own. Without knowing it, my mother has the mindset of Virginia Woolf, and she imparted that same mind set on me. Every woman needs her own money and her own space if she wants to be sane and successful. End of story. My parents (married for almost 29 years) both work, have their own bank accounts in addition to a joint account, and give each other space in their own home. And it works for them.
A thought struck me the last time I watched a sitcom. The traditional American sitcom portrays a two-parent household in which the father works and the mother is a homemaker. There are certain inevitable jokes that always arise around that situation. The first? That the woman doesn’t have a “real job” or that she does nothing all day. I will be the first to say that being a stay-at-home mom would be an exceedingly difficult job. I could never do it, but I would also never want to do it. However, it is insulting for the women who choose to do it to be looked down upon, especially by their own husbands. The second joke? That the family’s money is “his money” because the husband earned it, to which the wife always responds in the negative. In my opinion, a married couple should share some funds, but the husband is completely correct. It is HIS money because HE worked for it, which places the wife in a position of dependence and subordination. She has less power in financial decisions because she is not directly involved in wage-earning. Watching instances like this (even in a “humorous” setting on tv) only serves to reinforce my decision to never be a stay-at-home mom.
And here’s why. The woman who is a stay-at-home is giving something up. She gives up the part of herself that would be discovered and fulfilled by engaging in a career. She gives up her autonomy, her independence, her ability to be the equal of her husband. A woman who is financially dependent on her husband has, by the rules of logic, less freedom than he does. She cannot spend his money without permission or explanation. She does not have an equal vote in financial decisions. A woman’s ability to actually own property in her own name, to keep wages in her own name, is relatively new. In my opinion, that right should be appreciated. I never want to ask my husband for money so that I can go out and get a haircut or a sandwich or buy my kids clothes. I want the freedom to do these things for myself. If I don’t have that freedom, the relationship suffers for it. Thanks to the women who have come before me, I have the ability to go to university, to develop my intelligence and knowledge, to excel in academia and the workforce. I don’t want to waste any of those opportunities. When I become my best self, I have more to offer in a relationship and to the world at large.
In the words of Virginia Woolf, “I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.” There! In those few words, Virginia Woolf captures the essence of this dilemma! Only a woman who is financially independent can truly love her husband as a free woman. She is with him, not because she needs him, but because she wants him. And if she doesn’t want him, she needn’t be with him. When women cease to be reliant on men, there is no longer any need for “man-hating feminists.” Why hate something that has no control over you? As trite as it sounds, money is power. However, a woman does not need to be rich in order to have power. The simple state of financial independence is powerful enough to free her from the control of men, no matter how loving those men may be. Until a woman is free NOT to love a man, she won’t really be able to truly love a man.
The other half of Woolf’s requirements is that a woman needs a room of her own. In other words, she needs space. For Woolf, that meant space to write, to create. Ultimately and universally, it means that women need space to think, to grow, to be themselves. A woman can’t spend her whole life serving her husband, her children, or her boss. She needs space to breathe. Even if she is the boss, taking time for herself is important and essential. A woman can’t simply be the “looking-glass” for a man. She needs to be her own person, not just the image of the man in her life. What better place for her to discover herself than in a moment of solitude or the time spent not in a relationship? One must be daring enough to risk those moments of loneliness in order to truly know and learn to be content with one’s self.
The ability for a woman to be free to be alone is relatively new. Cherish it, ladies. You have choices that aren’t marriage or a convent. Don’t waste them and don’t take them for granted. No matter what path you choose in life, don’t do it without serious consideration of all your options and all your freedoms. And don’t define yourself only by your relationships. Don’t be a looking-glass. Be your own person, first and foremost. Appreciate all the freedoms that you have and don’t be afraid to ask or demand more freedom in order to achieve true equality.