Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

Why Have There Been No Great Women Writers?

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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.


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