Thursday, January 25, 2007


Today is the anniversary of Virginia Stephen's birthday. You probably know her better by her married name, Virginia Woolf.

I haven't read lots of Woolf's works, but my reading and teaching were deeply influenced at one time by her essay A Room of One's Own. I don't think I'm unusual in that, amongst female academics who've studied literature.

She does a couple amazing things in that text, setting up the comparison between meals at the men's college and at the women's college at Oxbridge and using that to tease out the ways that economics affect women's scholarship even when we have basic access. I think that's one of the most important aspects of her text, along with the discussion of the ways men's text "other" women, in a sort of orientalizing gesture. (Yes, I realize I'm anachronistic.)

But her creation of Judith Shakespeare has been most influential. In a nutshell, she asks what would have happened to an equally talented and ambitious sister of William Shakespeare, and imagines that sister going to London to get into the theatrical scene, only to find herself forced into prostitution and ending with an early death. It's a powerful narrative, and does a good job helping readers think about the ways some things just weren't possible for women as they were for men.

On the other hand, Woolf was working on A Room of One's Own in the 1920s, and didn't have access to or knowledge of the many works of earlier women writers. Unfortunately, some people read Woolf's essay and assume that she's completely right about the absence of earlier women writers. But lots of people were inspired to look for those very women writers, and in the process gave us a much better sense of the lives of early modern English people and early modern English culture.

When I started writing this morning, I hoped I'd find something really pointed to say about the patriarchal practice of women changing names at marriage, and how that had to do with economics and male dominance and lack of opportunity. I find the practice at once totally incomprehensible (why would someone want to change her name?) and totally comprehensible (because I grew up in the culture, and women changed their names without question). I dislike the practice, and think women who change their names without giving it some good hard thought are doing themselves and society a great harm. On the other hand, I think it's totally someone's personal business what name they choose to use.

I sort of see this as relating to how some people feel about abortions being legal. They may hate the practice and choose never to do it, but they don't think their position gives them the right to force someone else to carry a pregnancy to term.

Secretly, though, just as I've never gotten married, and so never had to make a decision about changing my name to a husband's, I think a lot of those women have never been in a situation where an unwanted pregnancy was putting them in an untenable or unliveable position.


  1. Well put. I like this a lot.

  2. I need to re-read "A Room of One's Own." I really do.

    I like the parallel you're drawing in the choices women make during their lives.