Virginia Woolf: Words Touching Women. For a new generation of thinkers, she showed the necessity of a space of one's own
AS a young woman of a certain age at a certain stage, I had a passion for Virginia Woolf. Call it a crush if you like, but I was not alone. Every female English major at my college, and even a few history majors, copied the Virginia Woolf look. We pulled our hair up in buns, wore black scarfs, and practiced musing expressions in front of the mirror.
A group of us unofficially formed a club dedicated to discussing her books, and just as important, to collecting minute details of her life as hungrily as some people shop for antiques. Virginia Woolf was for us what Jack Kerouac was to the guys our age: a symbol of sorts. A literary guru for a generation.
We didn't want to go ``on the road,'' though. We wanted to take full advantage of the gains for women in the 1980s, without being overcome by them. We needed someone to give us a sense of the difficulties women encountered in the past, so we could make the most of our future. Virginia Woolf, through her essays and novels, served that role perfectly.
So my college friends and I devoured those essays and novels, not to mention her diaries and the mountain of books on the famous Bloomsbury group, to which Woolf and her husband, Leonard, belonged. You could only get into our group by quoting excerpts from Bloomsbury teatime conversations, say, an exchange between Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.
Over dinner we would discuss the history of the Hogarth Press, which began in the Woolfs' basement. It started when Leonard encouraged Virginia to learn how to operate a printing press. He thought that the physical labor involved would be a good release for a genius given to bouts of depression. Later, the press became famous, publishing the works of Woolf and other notable authors such as T.S. Eliot.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder why we collectively chose Woolf as our champion. Why her, as opposed to other women who wrote in the 20th century? I think it had more to do with her special sympathy for women, both in the past and future, than her fiction or her persona.
Woolf made us feel fortunate to be living in a time when women had more options than ever before. As women coming of age in the early '80s, we could go to law school, or medical school, or enter the business world. Our heads were turned at the array of possibilities.
Yet many of us were troubled by problems we would face in the longer term: problems of raising children and still staying competitive with our male colleagues at work. We weren't sure how the conflict between the demands of work and the ties of home life would be resolved.
Woolf's writing, especially her essay ``A Room of One's Own,'' made us realize how fortunate we were to have such problems. She writes of not being allowed to go into a library in Cambridge, England, because it was open only to men. She created a hypothetical woman, ``Shakespeare's sister,'' Judith, who was equally as gifted as her brother William, but never got an education or a chance to try her hand in the all-male London theater world. Woolf imagined that Judith would end up taking her own life, the same choice Virginia later made for herself. Yet ``A Room of One's Own'' also offers a more optimistic vision for women.
Woolf singles out three ingredients necessary for worldly success: economic power, education, and a space to sit in privacy, uninterrupted by the demands of children and housework. She foresaw a time when women would have that space, and easier access to other advantages.
We - my college friends and I - liked to think she was addressing her message to us. That she had us in mind when she wrote. She made us feel, at a turning point in our lives, that along with our new opportunities went obligations. We owed it to generations of women - who had been locked out of libraries and schools - to make the most of our education and careers. We owed it to them to live our lives as fully as possible.
Even though we sometimes feel sorry for ourselves living in the late 20th century when the cultural concept of women is constantly shifting, Woolf charted a course for my generation. As our standard-bearer, she passed on to us a sense of optimism and determination as we came of age.