alycewilson (alycewilson) wrote,

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Channeling Shakespeare's Sister

I finally read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. It took me this long to read it, in part, because it had been recommended by many Women's Studies professors, and so I assumed it represented the old-school didactic feminist thinking which no longer speaks to me. I was pleasantly surprised to find her book intellectually exciting.

You see, I never really bought into the faulty logic that men are bad but that we should want to be like them. Now, I realize that's reductionist and enormously unfair. I'm simply saying that I no longer see life as a collection of polarities but rather as a series of gradations. It is possible, in other words, for a range of "truths" to be equally acceptable, depending on the time, place and context. The challenge of modern society is to reconcile those individual truths for a greater understanding.

In other words, dogmas are made to be broken, regardless of where they originated.

This is a topic I may expand on another day, but for now let's return to Virginia Woolf and her room and her $500 a year, because that's what she argued it takes for a woman to write freely. Of course, in those days, 1928, the annual sum of $500 was enough to afford her some security. She was fortunate to have inherited this money from her aunt, and the money gave her the freedom to live how and where she wanted. She argues that that financial freedom factored into her ability to write.

But she doesn't speak of herself personally so much as she speaks of woman in a more general sense, tracing back through the ages, looking for evidence of women's writing — or lack thereof — and contemplating the context of those historical realities.

She posits, for example, the existence of Shakespeare's sister, a fictional woman who possessed the same God-given talents as her famous brother. And yet, simply because of her gender, this poet was prevented from doing the very things her brother did that shaped him into the playwright we know and love. For instance, Shakespeare's sister would have faced opposition from her family when she wanted to leave home, getting no monetary support from them whatsoever. Upon arriving in London and showing up at the theater door, inquiring about an acting job, she would have been laughed at and told that women did not act. And so, in an act of utter despondency, she might have killed herself, never having written a word.

So, Woolf argues, goes the history of women's literature. If woman made a limited contribution in earlier times, she says it was simply because women were not in a position where they could write. Society put too many conflicting demands on them.

Now, while this might sound like an old-school feminist argument — give us the right to work and everything will be fine — she actually goes a lot deeper than that and explores ideas that are much more interesting to me. She does it all in a kind of stream-of-consciousness, conversational style that makes me wonder if she, too, was dictating it as she thought it, perhaps while walking her dog.

She establishes the setting of the piece (which actually is a synthesis of two talks she delivered) with her experiences walking across a prestigious university. There, despite the fact that she was a well-known writer, she was treated with disdain by the university community, told summarily to get off the lawn and then turned away at the library because she didn't have a letter of introduction. In much the same way, she argues, women have been routinely turned away from the gates of education and opportunity.

She, furthermore, explains that earlier women writers, subject to very stringent social mores and routine confinement, were often likewise limited in the subjects they discussed, so that even those who were fortunate enough to have leisure time to write presented a limited view of the world.

Far from arguing that all a woman needs to be a successful writer is a room of her own and $500 a year, Woolf complicates the matter by saying that women will never write to their fullest capacity until they free themselves from the old way of thinking that places them in opposition to men.

She notes that, as those liberties expanded a bit, women writers remained, nonetheless, conscious that they were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. Thus, they exhibited a lot of anger in their writing, Woolf says, as if they were trying to prove something.

Ultimately, she envisions a day when we will all find in ourselves the freedom to liberate Shakespeare's sister from her mythical past and to find the true strength of a poet's heart:

Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so — I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals — and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky, too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton's bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.

Now, to me, this argument is exciting, because when I was sitting in Women's Studies courses in college, I couldn't help feeling like we were still in that second, angry stage. The classroom conversations would be tinged by awareness of gender difference, women crying out against the injustices they'd been dealt. Yes, of course, it's important to fight injustice, I thought, but don't we have anything else to talk about? To dream about?

Not to discount the very valuable work that was done by the suffragettes, by the women's movement, by all those brave women and men who spoke up — and are still speaking up and acting up — to expand women's role in society. But didn't they take those steps so that one day we could stop fighting gender discrimination and start simply being accepted as people, first and foremost?

Like Woolf, I believe that as long as you're reduced to talking about yourself only in reference to the dominant class, then you are still under restraint. You are reduced to just one aspect of your personality, be it your gender, your race, or your sexuality. So many years ago, in 1928, Virginia Woolf envisioned a day, like Martin Luther King would 40 years later, when we would judge people on the content of their character, not on anything else. And, perhaps more importantly, that we would judge ourselves that way, as well.

If you want to get my ire up, suddenly point out to me in the midst of a conversation, "Oh, well, you're a woman." As if that explains everything. As if somehow you've now summed me up. I assure you, "you're a woman" doesn't even scratch the surface.

Unfortunately, we are still guilty of that sort of thinking in our society. People forward jokes based on stereotypes about men and women. I react to these stereotyped assumptions the same way I did in those long-ago Women's Studies classes, when a professor would villainize the male of the species. I would raise my hand and say, "Actually, most males I know do not conform to that statement. I don't think these gross generalities do anybody any favors." I was not what you would call a brown-noser.

Yes, I am a woman. Thank you for noticing. I don't make any efforts to hide it. I don't apologize for wearing makeup or putting on a skirt. But I don't want to be judged by my gender alone. I embrace the feminine, but I also embrace the masculine qualities of my personality. I'm proud of who I am, but I am more than just one aspect of my biological and genealogical makeup.

If we boil ourselves down to one X-Y dichotomy on a singular strand of DNA, what knowledge do we gain? Women do not all think alike. We are not the Borg. Otherwise, neither Gloria Steinem nor Phyllis Schlafly could have existed but, instead, might have merged to become a more mercurial-tempered sort of person, capable of seeing all sides of an issue. Imagine that.

But the stunted dichotomy still dominates our thinking. For example — not to mention any names — assuming you can appeal to women voters just by putting a woman on the ticket is like thinking you can appeal to all minority voters by putting a minority on the ticket. It's wrong thinking, either way, and we have got to get beyond it.

Ask yourself honestly, when you wake up on a beautiful late summer morning, do you inhale and think to yourself, "What a wonderful day to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant?" Or "What a great day for us bisexual Latinas!" Of course you don't. You think, "What a glorious day to be alive!"

How close are we to realizing Woolf's dream, 80 years after she wrote this book? Well, that's a matter of contention. I think we're probably a bit further along the path, but we haven't yet managed to liberate Shakespeare's sister, at least not entirely. I do think, though, from time to time, reading a modern woman writer — and writing my own works — I hear her voice shining through.

The world is not a true and false test.

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Tags: books, women, writing

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