On 28 March 1941, and, after leaving a suicide note for her husband Leonard and filling her pockets with heavy stones, Virginia Woolf strode into the River Ouse near their home in Sussex. It would be three weeks before her drowned body was finally discovered, washed up beside a bridge near Southease. As well as writing some of the greatest novels of modernist literature such as To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, Woolf was a gifted essayist who produced one of the canonical books of feminist literature, A Room of One’s Own – a work that, in light of the recent #MeToo scandals and increasing evidence of the gender biases of the tech industry and social media, remains as relevant as ever.
Published in 1929, it was based on two papers that she read to female undergraduates in Cambridge, having been invited to speak at the Arts Society at Newnham College and the ODTAA Society at Girton College, in October 1928.
In a diary entry for 27 October 1928, she recorded:
‘I am back from speaking at Girton, in floods of rain. Starved but valiant young women – that’s my impression. Intelligent, eager, poor; and destined to become school mistresses in shoals. I blandly told them to drink wine and have a room of their own. Why should all the splendour, all the luxury of life, be lavished on the Julians and Francises, and none on the Phares and Thomases?’
Woolf herself never attended university and didn’t obtain a degree, but the book that resulted from these talks called for the acknowledgement of a tradition of women writers and artists, one freed from the condescension of male critics. It also looked forward to an age when women writers might be liberated from domestic confinement and financial slavery.
While not going so far as to read Arnold Bennett’s book itself, Woolf took it upon herself to offer a few choice criticisms of [its] assumptions about gender, and artistic endeavour and output
The roots of A Room of One’s Own, though, could arguably be traced back to a correspondence published in the New Statesman nearly a decade earlier. Woolf wrote to the magazine after reading an article by the literary editor Desmond MacCarthy (writing under the nom de plume ‘Affable Hawk’), about a new book by the then popular and prolific novelist Arnold Bennett.
Bennett, author of Anna of the Five Towns and Clayhanger, had written a non‐fiction book titled Our Women. It included a chapter called ‘Are Men Superior to Women?’ that might just have well have been titled ‘Men Are Superior to Women’. MacCarthy favourably quoted sections from the book in his weekly ‘Books in General’ column. While not going so far as to read the book itself, Woolf took it upon herself to offer a few choice criticisms of both Bennett and MacCarthy’s assumptions about gender, and artistic endeavour and output.
To the editor of the NEW STATESMAN – published 9 October 1920
Sir – Like most women, I am unable to face the depression and the loss of self respect which Mr Arnold Bennett’s blame and Mr Orlo Williams’ praise – if it is not the other way about – would certainly cause me if I read their books in the bulk. I taste them, therefore, in sips at the hands of reviewers. But I cannot swallow the teaspoonful administered in your columns last week by Affable Hawk. The fact that women are inferior to men in intellectual power, he says, ‘stares him in the face.’ He goes on to agree with with Mr Bennett’s conclusion that ‘no amount of education and liberty of action will sensibly alter it.’ How, then, does Affable Hawk account for the fact which stares me, and I should have thought any other impartial observer, in the face, that the seventeenth century produced more remarkable women than the sixteenth, the eighteenth than the seventeenth, and the nineteenth than all three put together? When I compare the Duchess of Newcastle with Jane Austen, the matchless Orinda with Emily Brontë, Mrs Haywood with George Eliot, Aphra Behn with Charlotte Brontë, Jane Grey with Jane Harrison, the advance in intellectual power seems to me not only sensible but immense; the comparison with men not in the least one that inclines me to suicide; and the effects of education and liberty scarcely to be overrated. In short, though the pessimism about the other sex is always delightful and invigorating, it seems a little sanguine of Mr Bennett and Affable Hawk to indulge in it with such certainty on the evidence before them. Thus, though women have every reason to hope the intellect of the male sex is steadily diminishing, it would be unwise, until they have more evidence than the great war and the great peace supply, to announce it as a fact. In conclusion, if Affable Hawk sincerely wishes to discover a great poetess, why does he let himself be fobbed off with a possible authoress of the Odyssey? Naturally I cannot claim to know Greek as Mr Bennett and Affable Hawk know it, but I have been told Sappho was a woman, and that Plato and Aristotle placed her with Homer and Archilocus among the greatest of their poets.
That Mr Bennett can name fifty of the male sex who are indisputably her superiors is therefore a welcome surprise, and if he will publish their names I will promise, as an act of that submission which is so dear to my sex, not only to buy their works but, so far as my faculties allow, to learn them by heart.
– Yours. etc., VIRGINIA WOOLF
Virginia Woolf’s follow‐up letter to the New Statesman following a somewhat dismissive reply by ‘Affable Hawk’, 16 October 1920:
To the Editor of the NEW STATESMAN,
Sir – To begin with Sappho. We do not, as in the hypothetical case of Burns suggested by ‘Affable Hawk’, judge her only by her fragments. We supplant our judgement by the opinions of those to whom her works were known in their entirety. It is true that she was born 2,500 years ago. According to ‘Affable Hawk’ the fact that no poetess of her genius has appeared from 600 BC to the eighteenth century proves that during that time there was no poetess of potential genius. It follows that the absence of poetesses of moderate merit during that period proves that there were no women writers of potential mediocracy. There was no Sappho; but also until the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there was no Marie Corelli and no Mrs Barclay.
To account for the complete lack not only of good women writers but also of bad women writers I can conceive no reason unless it be that there was some external restraint upon their powers. For ‘Affable Hawk’ admits that there have always been women of second or third rate ability. Why, unless they were forcibly prohibited, did they not express these gifts in writing, music, or painting? The case of Sappho, though so remote, throws, I think, a little light upon the problem. I quote J. A. Symonds:
‘Several circumstances contributed to aid the development of lyric poetry in Lesbos. The customs of the Aeolians permitted more social and domestic freedom than was common in Greece. Aeolian women were not confined to the harem like Ionians, or subjected to the rigorous discipline of the Spartans. While mixing freely with male society, they were highly educated and accustomed to express their sentiments to an extent unknown elsewhere in history – until, indeed, the present time.’
And now to skip from Sappho to Ethel Smyth.
‘There was nothing else [but intellectual inferiority] to prevent down the ages, so far as I can see, women who always played, sang and studied music, producing as many musicians from among their number as men have done,’ says ‘Affable Hawk’. Was there nothing to prevent Ethel Smyth from going to Munich? Was there no opposition from her father? Did she find that the playing, singing and study of music which well-to-do families provided for their daughters was such as to fit them to become musicians? Yet Ethel Smyth was born in the nineteenth century. There are no great women painters, says ‘Affable Hawk’, though painting is now within their reach. It is within their reach – if that is to say there is sufficient money after the sons have been educated to permit of paints and studios for the daughters and no family reason requiring their presence at home. Otherwise they must make a dash for it and disregard a species of torture more exquisitely painful, I believe, than any that man can imagine. And this is in the twentieth century. But ‘Affable Hawk’ argues that a great creative mind would triumph over obstacles such as these [ . . . ] It seems to me indisputable that the conditions which make it possible for a Shakespeare to exist are that he shall have had predecessors in his art, shall make one of a group where art is freely discussed and practised, and shall himself have the utmost freedom of action and experience. Perhaps in Lesbos, but never since, have these conditions been the lot of women. ‘Affable Hawk’ then names several men who have triumphed over poverty and ignorance. His first example is Isaac Newton. Newton was the son of a farmer: he was sent to grammar school; he objected to working on the farm; an uncle, a clergyman, advised that he should be exempted and prepared for college; and at the age of nineteen he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge. Newton that is to say, had to encounter about the same amount of opposition that the daughter of a country solicitor encounters who wishes to go to Newnham in the year 1920. But his discouragement is not increased by the works of Mr Bennett, Mr Orlo Williams and ‘Affable Hawk.’
The fact, as I think we shall agree, is that women from the earliest times to the present day have brought forth the entire population of the universe. This occupation has taken much time and strength
Putting that aside, my point is that you will not get a bigger Newton until you have produced a considerable number of lesser Newtons. ‘Affable Hawk’ will, I hope, not accuse me of cowardice if I do not take up your space with an enquiry into the careers of Laplace, Faraday, and Herschel, nor compare the lives and achievements of Aquinas and St. Theresa, nor decide whether it was Mill or his friends who was mistaken about Mrs Taylor. The fact, as I think we shall agree, is that women from the earliest times to the present day have brought forth the entire population of the universe. This occupation has taken much time and strength. It has also brought them into subjection to men, and incidentally – if that were to the point – bred in them some of the most loveable and admirable qualities of the race.
My difference with ‘Affable Hawk’ is not that he denies the present intellectual equality of men and women. It is that he, with Mr Bennett, asserts that the mind of woman is not sensibly affected by education and liberty; that it is incapable of the highest achievements; and that it must remain forever in the condition in which it now is. I must repeat that the fact that women have improved (which ‘Affable Hawk’ now seems to admit) shows that they may still improve; for I cannot see why a limit should be set to their improvement in the nineteenth century rather than in the one hundred and nineteenth. But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience; that they should differ from men without fear and express their differences openly (for I do not agree with ‘Affable Hawk’ that men and women are alike): that all activity of the mind should be so encouraged that there will always be in existence a nucleus of women who think, invent, imagine, and create as freely as men do, and with little fear of ridicule and condescension. These conditions, in my view of great importance, are impeded by such statements as those of ‘Affable Hawk’ and Mr Bennett, for a man has still much greater facilities than a woman for making his views known and respected. Certainly I cannot doubt that if such opinions prevail in the future we shall remain in a condition of half‐civilised barbarism. At least that is how I define an eternity of dominion on the one hand and of servility on the other. For the degradation of being a slave is only equalled by the degradation of being a master.
Yours, etc., Virginia Woolf
Extracted from Letters to Change the World: From Pankhurst to Orwell (Ebury) edited by Travis Elborough