Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

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The Big, Bad (Bold) Woolf

virginia_woolf-a In Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf mentions many precarious topics.  Most of the essay is spent dissecting why women have not had success in writing, how they are oppressed by men, what she thinks they can do to become successful writers.  Woolf also brings up issues surrounding gender, sex, and homosexuality.  In today’s world, these topics and analyzed and discussed through and through, but that was not so in Woolf’s world.

Woolf writes about her experience with a fictional book, Life’s Adventures, by a fictional author, Mary Carmichael.  She begins by saying that, Mary has potential to be a good writer, but she has not yet figured it out.  Her sentences are interrupted, unlike the sentences of Jane Austen.  However, Woolf reaches an interesting sentence, “Chloe likes Olivia…” (56) At first glance the relationship seems nothing more than a friendship.  This is still odd because at that time, especially in novels, women were not friends.  Woolf mentions later that in most fictional relationships between women, the women are opposing each other.  We know that in the Early 1900’s women were expected to stay home, care for children, the home, and their husband.  Their relationships and interactions with other women were scarce.  So for these two women to be in the same room together, alone, with no male present, it was a big deal.  This had the potential to change the view on women’s writing.

Upon further reading, one may notice a foot note regarding the mention of Sir Chartres Biron and his opposition of one of the first lesbian novels by Radclyffe Hall.  This foot note brings a whole other aspect to the relationship between Chloe and Olivia.

Woolf says, “For if Chloe likes Olivia and Mary Carmichael knows how to express it she will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been.” (84) Homosexuality was and still tends to be a taboo topic.  Around the time of Woolf’s essay, homosexuality was pretty much not spoken of, ever.  The history of sexuality in general was very much changing in the time of Virginia Woolf.  Especially in the 1920’s and the emergence of the “flapper,” a women’s sexuality was more apparent than ever.  This was a scary occurrence for many and threatened everything that they have ever known.  From that time forward terms and different movements have evolved both supporting and opposing homosexuality


Woolf seems to find faith and hope in this new perspective provided by Mary Carmichael.  She wrote boldly about topics that we less discussed and many that were controversial.  What would Virginia Woolf think about of the great women authors there are today and the amount of fictional novels written about woman and women relations?   I believe that women today have found what Woolf had described many years ago in A Room of One’s Own. I think that if she was to come back into our lives, she would be impressed, but who knows?Well of Loneliness Virago


Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, and Me

Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen, was one of the great modernist English writers of the twentieth century. She is credited with numerous novels, short stories, and essays but is most well-known for her experimental novel,  “A Room of One’s Own.

VirginiaWoolf                                             340793

In the novel, “A Room of One’s Own”, Woolf utilized a modern, stream-of-consciousness writing style. This contemporary method of prose was shocking in the way that it represented human thought in its blatant, raw form; contrasting greatly with the traditional, detached ways of composing literature. Although Woolf’s method of writing did have an innovative edge, its newness did not distract from her innate ability to hook her readers and make them genuinely interested in what she had to say. Woolf wrote as if she was speaking directly to the reader; in fact, she was speaking to a direct audience, as “A Room of One’s Own” was originally a combination of speeches that she gave at woman-supporting Girton and Newnham Colleges, both in Cambridge, England. Ideas in her narrative flow in a natural, colloquial form, as Woolf seamlessly references past literary works, authors, and important thinkers to support her argument for the necessities of woman writers. One reference that I found particularly interesting was to an anonymously written poem entitled “The Ballad of Mary Hamilton”.  (I found a video of a contemporary vocal rendition of the ballad, happy listening!) 🙂

This ballad begins by introducing four Marys; Mary Beaton, Mary Seaton, Mary Carmichael, and Mary Hamilton. It goes on to describe the account of  Mary Hamilton, a servant to the Queen of Scotland, who, through a secret relationship with the King, becomes pregnant. In an act of desperation, Mary kills her child as she cannot support the burden of caring for it. The crime is uncovered and Mary is sentenced to death.

399px-The_Four_Maries,_from_an_Edwardian_children's_history_book                                                    Pavel_Svedomskiy_001

                                         The Four Marys from H E Marshall’s ‘Scotland’s Story’, 1906                           Mary Hamilton Before Execution by Pavel Svedomskiy, 1904

Woolf alludes to the four Marys in chapter one saying, “Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please– it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river deep in thought” (pg 17). The fact that Woolf suggests that the name with which you should address her is not of any importance is particularly significant. By giving a name— usually a form of personal identification– a lack of importance, Woolf is creating a general, subjective identity with which the readers can identify. In this way, the narrative of Mary Beton/Seton/Carmichael becomes a universal narrative; one that can be applied to every woman reader, regardless of that woman’s characteristics.

Woolf continues the allusion to the four Marys throughout “A Room of One’s Own” by conversing with a Mary Seton about the poor accommodations at the women’s college luncheon in chapter one,  (pg 24-25) and reading and critiquing a novel written by a Mary Carmichael saying, “It would be better, instead of speculating what Mary Carmichael might write and should write, to see what in fact Mary Carmichael did write” (pg 60-61). But her use of Mary Beton in Chapter 6 is the most striking application of the ballad, with the character of Beton as a symbol of Woolf herself. She writes, “Here then, Mary Beton ceases to speak…she has asked you to follow her flying into the arms of a Beadle, lunching here, dining there, drawing pictures of the British Museum, taking books from the shelf, looking out of the window. While she has been doing all of these things, you have no doubt been observing her failures and foibles and deciding what effect they have had on her opinions. You have been contradicting her and making whatever additions and deductions seem good to you” (pg 67).

With this reference, Woolf is embodying the character of Mary Beton and using her to critic herself. Woolf understands the obstacles that she, and all other woman writers, are up against when they compose literature. She recognizes that as a writer, especially being a modern woman writer, readers are constantly questioning her merit while searching for ‘feminine flaws’ in her writing. The use of Mary Beton is merely a general representation of all women who are attempting to challenge the boundaries that are set before them, Woolf included. Personally, I liked that Woolf took this introspective moment in her narrative; it showed that she was not writing for the sole purpose of criticizing other writers, but for the criticism of society and its effect on women writers as a whole. By drawing the same attention to herself and her struggles as a woman writer, Woolf appears more human and more relatable to her female counterparts.


DeShazer, Mary K. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. New York: Longman, 2001. 17-67. Print.

“Virginia Woolf.” Wikipedia. N.p., 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2013

“Stream Of Consciousness.” About.com Classic Literature. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Mary Hamilton.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 June 2013. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Joan Baez – Mary Hamilton 1960.” YouTube. YouTube, 19 Aug. 2009. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Across the Page.” Across the Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

“Weekend Music Thread – Girl Power | PlanetPOV.” PlanetPOV RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2013.

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A Room of One’s Own

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she talks about how a room of a woman’s own was so important to her success as a writer and as a woman. She talks about one particular topic that I will extend on:

Once more I looked up Women, found “position of,” and turned to the pages indicated. “Wife-beating,” I read, “was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low. . . . Similarly,” the historian goes on, “the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion. Marriage was not an affair of personal affection, but of family avarice, particularly in the ‘chivalrous’ upper classes. . . . Betrothal often took place while one or both  of the parties was in the cradle, and marriage when they were scarcely out of the nurses’ charge.” This was about 1470, soon after Chaucer’s time. (DeShazer 35).

In this video, a woman who was forced into marriage, merely at 16 years of age, escaped and was living in a safe house. Although it is not too recent, it is a perfect example of what Woolf stated in the above quote. In order for a woman to have choices, as Zahida Minhas tried to achieve, they had to go through running away. The custom of arranged marriage and an inability to have a place of one’s own, was the difference between a free woman and a dead woman; death didn’t always mean physical death, but an internal death of choice and freedom.

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A Room of One’

In Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own; Woolf writes of incandescent mind.  Woolf mentions having a “unity of mind” a writer must possess.

The passage:

“Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives. But some of these states of mind seem, even if adopted spontaneously, to be less comfortable than others. In order to keep oneself continuing in them one is unconsciously holding something back, and gradually the repression becomes an effort. But there may be some state of mind in which one could continue without an effort because nothing is required to be held back.” (63)

Woolf seems to be admitting that a state of mind that is disconnected from the rest of mind will negate the incandescence. For instance, if a mind is angry, you must try and unify your mind so that you are able to reach a state of mind where “nothing is required to be held back.”

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Women in Fiction Breaking Boundaries


In Virginia Woolf’s piece of iconic literature, “A Room Of One’s Own,” she describes the constant struggle a woman faces in the world of writing fiction.  Woolf speaks fondly of writer, Jane Austen. Much like many female writers of her day, Austin was forced to write in secret. Woolf poses the question to herself,

“Would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if Jane Austen had not thought it nessary to hide her manuscript from her visitors?” (49).


Not only did Austen seamlessly carry on her piece without fail; I believe she used her experience of gender inequality and female expectationsas fuel for her literature.

She wrote “Without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching” (Woolf 49).

Which, so often is not the case. Many individuals feel they have to bulk up their writing to compare to the men around them. Austen did not try to be one of the boys, but rather, she stuck to her true personal identify, which Woolf admires her for.

As Woolf sits down to read, Mary Carmichael’s first novel, Life’s Adventure, she begins to critics her writing, comparing her sentence structure

“Like being out at sea in an open boat” (55).

But Carmichael surprises us all, by introducing her readers to a place where no one had dared to go, a lesbian relationship.

“Chloe liked Olivia,” (56).

Those three simple words held so much controversy, yet so much importance. Carmichael describes the two women working together in a laboratory, and Chloe watching Olivia with longing an admiration, so much compassion andtenderness, how a person acts when they are truly intimately attracted to another. Unfortunately, her thoughts are too often interrupted by the need for her to go home and care for her children, as if it were almost too good to be true. Although Carmichael takes a giant leap towards a positive direction, she takes a few steps backwards by referring back to the domestic sphere, as if they were just playing in the laboratory, and their real work was to be done at home with her husband and children. Must this always be the case? Why is it that women must be mothers first and true human beings, with needs, second?  Although none of us would be here without out mother, why must this always be a scapegoat?  Women need to embrace their choices, as writers, as mothers, as lesbians, as heterosexuals, as painters, as musicians, or as all of the above. We must make our OWN choices, and do everything we love whole-heartedly. We must stop letting the world scare us into making choices, and embrace our gender.



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Women be Women?

Virgina Woolf

In Chapter 5 of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, Woolf mentions how women writers should be just that. She highlights the “creative powers” that women posses and men don’t. She is telling women to be women, write like women, and live like women.

“But this creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men. And one must conclude that it would be a thousand pities if it were hindered or wasted,for it was won by centuries of the most drastic disipline, and there is nothing to take it’s place. It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men. (59)”

Although she highlights the positive outcomes that come from being a women writer, she also warns women writers not to consider sex and gender while writing.

“It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex (67)”

I think when she says this, what she means is that women can’t think inside the box that they have been placed into. In the first and second chapters, Woolf talks so much about gender roles and how women were not allowed to do certain things like go into the library, be on the grass, eat the good food, and even eat off of the good dishes. Women were look on as inferior and as a whole, they were seen to be beneath men. When she says not to think of gender I think she is saying not to write weak and timid and not to fall in line like they were expected to do back then. I also think she meant not to be so closed minded. On page 72 she mentions how diverse reality is. That means that even though people wanted to believe that women fall in love with men, had kids, and lived happily ever after, that is not how things really were. There were women who loved other women but it wasn’t as public as it is today because people could have gone to jail or even been killed for things like that.

Yes. Woolf did believe that everyone should be equal and she was not affraid to point out how men were looked on as superior to women. Some have argued that Woolf is a feminist. And I would have to agree with that, She put her own freedom and life in danger to make others aware of how women were treated and looked down upon. In a book entitled “Virgina Wool as a Feminist” By Naomi Black, Woolf’s feminist ways are studied. Black  reviews Woolf’s life, books (including A room of One’s own) and letters that she had written to show the inequalities between men and women. In the following video, Virgina Woolf’s feminist theory is highlighted.

Another thing that is highlighted by Woolf is how men and women should work together to create the best outcome.

“And I went on amatueurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain, the man predominates over the women, and in the women’s brain, the women predominates over the man (64)”

In this passage Woolf is explaining how the best way to write in a well rounded fashion is to equally think like a male and a female but not to let one dominate the other. When a man writes he will naturally appeal to people who thinks like him and the same thing with a female. Woolf is saying act like a women and think like a man http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eS4FYJBAxg I also think she finds it wery important to hold true to the essense of what makes a women writer because they hold a power that men don’t. (59)

To conclude, I think Woolf wants women writers to be as sensitive and creative as they are known to be, but demand the respect as a writer from men and women alike.

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Why Have There Been No Great Women Writers?

Throughout Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she thoroughly expresses how women lacked the opportunity to write. Yes, Woolf may in fact struggle with the notion that women may have expectations that hindered their writing careers, but she also explains the outside influences. During this time, it was only expected of women to be mothers and very domesticated without little to any say against their husband or father. With this, a fictional character said to be Shakespeare’s sister who was brought up in the same home, but had very different opportunities, giving an understanding as to why she in fact was not a successful writer. With little to nothing to do with her skills to express herself through words, but strictly on how many things were not offered to women during the 16th century and years to come.


On page 38 she states, “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.” As you can see, this bright young woman was thought by Woolf to have the intelligence, but she had other things to tend too, once again being interrupted. She lacked this opportunity in her life to strive and create work that could have possibly been compared to that of men at this time. While Shakespeare was away learning the ins and outs of this art, she was at home getting dinner ready and preparing herself for marriage.

During this time, this was expected of women and many found themselves lost in the gender roles and traditions of this time. Woolf uses this fictional character to show the possibilities of what could have happened if these women pressed for these rights. She explains how even when poor Judith Shakespeare was granted a moment to herself she would just scribble some words down and burn any evidence. She further goes on to explain that:

“…genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people. It was not born among the working class.” (39)

Wasn’t that exactly what women were at this time? Simply just uneducated degenerates who could not function in this patriarchal society? It is clear that she believes that only the elitists can possess such knowledge. To me, I feel as though Woolf is confused. it is clear that she respects Shakespeare enough to value his genius, but her feelings about the capabilities of women get in the idea. She struggles between this idea of whether women could or could not possess the “genius” of Shakespeare at this time. She says it herself that “..is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard feared and mocked at.” (39) But it is hard to say because little record was kept about women at this time. Personally I feel as though Woolf may have been mistaken. I believe that there were many talented women writers at this time, but it was clear that they wouldn’t have ended up in a playwright or anything like that. She has a very somber tone when discussing the outcomes if this talent was present in a woman’s life.

In a way, I feel as though she is oppressing women by over and over again repeating that this genius was unreachable by women. The intelligence was there, the opportunity was what was missing. With the similar thoughts of Woolf, any hope that a talented young girl was to share her poetry with the world, she ended up disillusioned by this patriarchal society in which she was brought up it with little room for change.

Many those who had a chance ended up just like poor Judith Shakespeare, dead, alone and at strife against herself.


In reference to Woolf, this sort of thinking was not just present in the world of literature, but also in the art world. Being an Art History major, I am very familiar with Linda Nochlin’s work, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Although there are many parrallels between both Woolf’s and Nochlin’s work, I feel as though one of her ideas in particular fits the best. When Nochlin says:

“Could it be that the little golden nugget–genius–is missing from the aristocratic makeup the same way that it is from the feminine psyche? Or rather, is it not that the kinds of demands and expectations placed before both aristocrats and women- the amount of time necessarily devoted to social functions, the very kinds of activities demanded-simlply made total devotion of profession out of the question, indeed unthinkable, both for upper-class males and for women generally, rather than it being a question of genius and talent?”

It is evident that she recognizes the external factors of an artist just as Woof expressed her knowledge of the same thing when speaking of women writers. But she also puts it into a new perspective when discussing the aristocrats, predominantly men, showing that this lack of “genius” may not be encircled around the sex of a human being, but in fact the lack of opportunity and personal experience for each individual.