Women and Social Class In Society
“One would expect to find a lady of title meaning with far greater encouragement than an unknown Miss Austen or Miss Bronte at the time would have met with. But one would also expect to find that her mind was disturbed by alien emotions like fear and hatred that her poems showed traces of that disturbance. Here is Lady Winchelsea, for example, I thought, taking down her poems. She was born in the year 1661. She was noble by birth and by marriage; she was childless; she wrote poetry, and one has only to open her poetry to find her bursting out in indignation against the position of women:
‘Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime,
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our utmost art and use (44)’”
“…It was a thousand pities that the woman who could write like that, whose mind was turned to nature ad reflection, should have been forced to anger and bitterness. But how could she have helped herself? I asked, imagining the sneers and the laughter, the adulation of the toadies, the skepticism of the professional poet (45).”
While women’s rights have come such a long way since the sixteenth century, parallel societal expectations still dominate. The media particularly displays these uniform expectations. Cosmopolitan Magazine passionately advocates today’s woman as one with a bold career, a phenomenon so common today, but unheard of in the sixteenth century and even in Woolf’s generation. However, accompanying pictures meant to exemplify the average American woman do so, but quite unrealistically. The pictures show celebrities and models, in designer clothing, with hair and makeup professionally done. A “makeup tips” page typically follows an article like this. Cosmo glorifies the independent woman but its publications are infiltrated with dating and sex advice. All of this is what came to my mind upon reading Lady Winchelsea’s statement about “good-breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play.”
The pictures below are examples of women either conforming to or defying their gender role
Maybe 200 years from now, the fact that women were once advised in magazines to look a certain way will be as shocking as is to us today, the plight of the female writer in the sixteenth century. We certainly have our own “Virginia Woolfs” and “Lady Winchelseas” many of whom have also been “forced to anger and bitterness” as a result of all the “sneers and laughter” they’ve received from society. It seems as if society’s outcasts often end up glorified by culture eventually.
The chief idea of the passage is the role social class plays in opportunities for women. Lady Winchelsea was in the best possible position for being able to write because of her high standing in English society. She certainly was given far more opportunity than writers of lower class, like Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Lady Winchelsea, however, was given a room of her own and only that. To Woolf, the bitterness in Lady Winchelsea’s writing was not ironic, despite her position and level of opportunity. Lady Winchelsea experienced natural human emotions that produced an outlook on society far ahead of its time. While she was given a room of her own, she was dissatisfied, despite society’s beliefs, at the fact that her writing would never travel further than that room. Woolf implies that a schism in social class such as this is destructive, because writing does not necessarily differ among women according to financial and social circumstances.
In today’s society, wealthier women are given more opportunities and they set social standards. Women like Queen Elizabeth, Kate Middleton, and Michelle Obama are expected to adhere to certain ideals because of their power and wealth. Perhaps they too disagree with something in society, whatever that may be, just like Lady Winchelsea disagreed with the status of women in writing.