Softer Than It Was Before

by Vered Arnon 

The Twenty First Century renders Virginia Woolf’s proposal in A Room of One’s Own Anachronistic. In 1928, feminist novelist Virginia Woolf read two papers to the Arts Society at Newnham and the ODTAA at Girton. Those papers were transformed into the book A Room of One’s Own. This book describes the material and social problems women have faced throughout history when attempting to exercise their creativity. Woolf proposes that if each woman were to have five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own, the material problems would be solved, allowing women to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of society, thereby removing their social obstacles as well. But now women are not faced with significant material barriers inhibiting their creative expression. The advances wrought by music and technology have changed the shape of the modern world. Woolf’s proposal is not applicable to 21st century society.

When Woolf wrote her papers, men did not respect women intellectually. In fact, they were not even treated fairly in the educational sphere. As she describes with vivid detail, men’s colleges were well furnished with luxurious libraries and sumptuous meals. Women’s colleges on the other hand could hardly afford a meager dinner, let alone maintain an adequate library (Woolf, 25). While wealthy men gave large endowments of money to men’s educational institutions, women’s institutions had no such benefactors. Men weren’t concerned with women’s schools, and there had not been a chance for women to amass any sort of fortune that they could donate to a school. For most of history, women hadn’t even been able to own property. At the time Woolf was writing, society in general shared the opinion of Cambridge professor Oscar Browning, “that the impression left on his [Oscar Browning’s] mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man” (Woolf, 53). Women had to worry about feeding themselves at their own schools, and hardly had the means of proving their worth to their male counterparts. They didn’t even have the opportunity to devote themselves single mindedly to broadening their intellectual horizons, because unlike men, they had to worry about the financial means of keeping their institutions afloat.

When Woolf wrote her papers, she was focusing on the problem of material inequity. While men had the freedom and the means to devote their time to writing, women didn’t have such luxuries. She felt that if women were able to enjoy time and space of their own without having to worry about financial stability, then they would be able to show men that they were not intellectually inferior. This is the basis of her proposal of a room of one’s own and five hundred pounds a year (Woolf, 94). Woolf’s proposal focuses on the economic well-being of women because she feels that economic struggle is one of the main factors that inhibits women from being able to express themselves (Woolf, 21). And undeniably, when a person must concern itself with where the next meal will come from, it becomes much harder for anyone, male or female, to exercise their creativity. Five hundred dollars a year would give a woman security of mind so that she could concern herself with her writing, untroubled by material worries that occupy time and energy and inhibit creativity. A room of her own would enable a woman to focus on her writing without being interrupted.

This proposal addresses Woolf’s own concerns, from a time when women were not able to write freely. Their social and economic position burdened them with material concerns, and if they did manage to write, they didn’t have acceptance. She believes that financial security is half of the answer to the problems women face in being accepted into the intellectual world by men. But the social landscape in the dawn of the 21st century is drastically different than the society Woolf was familiar with. With the established minimum wage, even a menial job is able to support a reasonable lifestyle. The quality of life, in the western world (the area Woolf is concerned with) is higher than it has ever been. Single apartments are cheaply available everywhere, making Woolf’s proposal for “a room of one’s own” out-dated and redundant (Classifieds2000). Women now engage in practically every conceivable occupation, and at least some leisure time is guaranteed by the tradition of the vacation. Women make their own choices now, so even if they don’t have enough time to be writers, this is the consequence of their own decisions, rather than their lack of options. Female writers now abound. In fact, today there are at least as many female writers as male writers. A systematic survey of Amazon.com reveals as much. Women don’t even fall into sexually stereotyped niches. While Harlequin Romances have a notoriously sexist stigma, one can find anything from fantasies and mysteries to biographies and legal thrillers written by women. The most popular legal thriller this month at Amazon.com is The Vendetta Defense by a woman, Lisa Scottoline. While Woolf’s proposal made logical sense in her own time, today it is impractical.

Today everyone who pursues a college education, male or female, has access to the same quality of facilities through the institution of co-educational schools. While women were not expected to go to college in Woolf’s time, today it is taken got granted that anyone, male or female, will pursue an academic degree if they wish to enter the competitive work force. Whether a person is male or female no longer has the same impact in the 21st century as it did when Woolf was writing. The obstacle currently facing women is not a material one, but an ideological one, as expressed by Norman Mailer in Harper’s journal. “I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them” (Francine Prose, Harper’s Vol. 296, No. 1777). This statement implicitly acknowledges that there are women writers, and they are in fact talented, and those who still don’t accept women’s writing have personal issues and are not subscribing to a general social stereotype. The only obstacle facing women is in the minds of individual men. It is not the generally accepted doctrine of society anymore.

In her papers, Woolf writes, “If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous (Woolf, 98).” In her further discussion of this concept, Woolf implies that at the time she is writing, the androgynous mind is not recognized or exercised. But now, the androgynous mind is an apt description of the rapidly developing modern creative sphere. In fact, as the 21st century dawns, creative _expression is blurring the very definition of gender. Men write popular romance novels now. This sphere was once considered solely the domain of women. But Joseph Pittman’s Tilting at Windmills ranks at number five among this month’s “Best new hardcover Romance” (Amazon.com).

The most rapidly developing cultural scene is the cyberpunk scene. The cyberpunks are the new cultural wave replacing the post-materialists of the 1990s. Cyberpunks are people who divide their time between the internet and fast-paced urban life. They have never lived in a world without high-powered technology and rapid free-flowing communication. They generally consume a wide variety of stimulants that inhibit body fat gain, resulting in a bony androgynous look, and the excessively baggy clothing that they wear completely conceals typical physical signs of gender. They use gender-neutral screen names online, and by all appearances seem galaxies away from the world of men versus women. When reading literature, they look for artistic innovation and multimedia complexity. A good author to them is someone whose book catches and holds their interest. Titles are significant, the nature of the author is not important (MSN Search).

The popular rock star Brian Molko from the band Placebo further illustrates how gender definitions are being broken down in the 21st century. Molko was voted as one of the “Sexiest People In Rock” in 1998 (The BSH). He has long hair and he wears a lot of makeup, including bright lipstick. He wears women’s clothing. But he’s not a cross-dresser. “It’s not a case of saying that you’re trying to look like a woman,” he explains. “It’s more that you are what you are. You’re choosing to dress the way that you please” (The BSH). His fans have a very different attitude than people of Woolf’s time. His success as an artist shows that he has social acceptance. He has a broad fan base, evidence that many people across the Americas and Europe share his views. He would not have been able to appeal to people who rigidly adhered to clearly defined meanings of male and female.

Virginia Woolf’s proposal is outdated and redundant. The remedy she prescribes is already taken for granted as a basic necessity by the middle class. Material needs of women are being met. Their quality of life is no longer an inhibitor of their creative potential. The very problem that Woolf is addressing is becoming extinct as the dichotomy between male and female is steadily fading. Woolf wrote with optimism about the “androgynous mind”. Her wishes have been fulfilled less than a century later. The proposal of A Room of One’s Own is not applicable in the 21st century. She did not foresee how rapidly the musical and technological scene would advance, drastically changing the shape of society. 

Works Cited:

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt, Inc. New York, 1981.

Classifieds2000. “Excite Classifieds”. Online, http://www.classifieds200.com. Excite, 2001.

Amazon.com. “Earth’s Biggest Selection”. Online, http://www.amazon.com. Amazon.com Inc., 1996 – 2001.

MSN Search. “MSN Search”. Online, http://auto.search.msn.com. Microsoft Corporation, 2001.

Placebo. “The BSH – Official Placebo Website”. Online, http://www.thebsh.com. Placebo, 2001.

 
† The title is taken from the popular song “Without You I’m Nothing” by Placebo. The song verse is “Always falling to the floor, softer than it was before.” Within the context of the song, it is describing how obstacles that are faced consistently grow less significant as time goes on. In the title of this paper the word “soft” is also intended to refer to the blurriness of 21st century gender definitions.

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