“Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman”, wrote Virginia Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Based on an analysis of misogynist prohibitions, solid ramparts of male superiority whose reality seems seriously shaken, Woolf defines the conditions of existence and the specificities of artistic creation for women. However, from the very first page Woolf already explains that she will not be able to fulfil the objective of every lecture to “deliver a pure nugget of truth”, but can only offer an inconsequential opinion: “to have five hundred pounds and a room of their own”. From this simple statement, the text then overflows and opens its reflexion in a dizzying way on women in Anglo-Saxon literature, history, society. This has made this avant-garde and revolutionary essay the epitome of women’s liberation throughout the 20th century, Woolf’s call to reclaim the female voice that is to this day, still overwhelmingly relevant.
The lack of space, economic dependence, together with the persistence of certain institutions such as the Church in limiting women’s power, give rise to “suppressed poets”. Woolf openly criticises patriarchy, highlighting that “literature has been incalculably impoverished by the doors that have been closed to women”, confining them to being simple props to male counterparts, characters centred around men’s stories. Literature should indeed be a direct and undistorted reflection of the reality in which we live, yet this is limited. The world of literature is governed by men who consistently impose their perspectives, and women are simply reduced to a domestic body. With this, Woolf’s argument continues, not so much in clearing up doubts as opening up more questions: why do men drink wine and women water? Why do men write about women but women not about men? Well, Woolf points out that everything is subject to questioning, nothing is self-evident and that nothing is justified by the idea that “it has always been this way”. The historical, sociological and anthropological review she does is in function of justifying her initial thesis. Woolf attempts to fight against the tyrannical and dominant discourse of her society in order to build a new one. The metaphor of the room, for example, recalls the extent to which the “private is political”, it recalls the place in which artistic creativity is given. Women’s literature has firstly revendicated for women the right to be a man and has then started to revendicate the right to also be a woman without the social limitations. It is a literature that has affirmed itself against the logos, against the masculine discourse that seems to detain every law, a writing of the clandestine sex that pours itself in the official sex. The idea of the room has a symbolic dimension that encompasses the whole question of gender. In itself, one may perceive it as a sort of sub-theme for patriarchy for the themes Woolf raises throughout her argument, are marked by literature written by men. “England is under the rule of patriarchy” and in that sense, women’s incapability of writing stems from an unjustly intrinsic gender poverty.
This essay is constructed on a series of questions, counter examples, confrontations and long introspections on society and its norms. But the questions consistently come back, insist, combine and move, bleeding out an energy of intense curiosity, portraying Woolf as seemingly unsatisfied by the speeches of her time. This energy coupled with the continuous expression of frustration, anger and irony insists on the reality of women being reduced to a silent object of study. Indeed, it appears that for centuries creation was reserved to men leading the notion of a “great writer” to being undeniably masculine. In reality women’s ‘room of their own’, considers a scope going far beyond the equipment: all you have to do is enter any room on any street and all that extremely complex force of femininity is thrown in your face. For women have sat inside their homes for millions of years, so that now the very walls are imbued with their creative power.
Virginia Woolf seeks to capture the extent to which cultural practices in turn contribute to the gender socialization of individuals, as well as to the reproduction of definitions of masculinity and femininity. Not only does her work demonstrate, in clear and precise language, the gender pervasiveness of cultural practices and their weight in learning or reformulating gender norms, but it also highlights, from an intersectional perspective, how social determinants contribute to the constitution of cultural likes and dislikes and modify, or even complicate, the impact of gender.
As culture is male-dominated, cultural production naturally reflects more male perspectives. Cultural expressions influence perceptions about gender identity and gender relations. If there is a gender imbalance among creators, it is likely that this imbalance will be found in cultural content. The perspectives translated by diverse cultural expressions are then false and necessarily give rise to distorted visions of gender identity, their relationship and equality. But a holistic approach that examines gender differences leads to speaking of gender relations (as mentioned above), a social construct that influences the living conditions of each gender and determines their position in society, rather than of one single gender isolated from the other. To talk about discrimination and inequality is to talk implicitly of power and as with all power-based relationships, gender ones are complex. Gender is a global logic that organises society, a system of bicategorisation hierarchised between the sexes (men/women) and the values and representations associated with them (male/female), and, in the arts, women have for far too long been confined to the role of simple muses inspiring male artists.
Jane Miller examines the complex relation of women to culture and literature, theory and politics. She focusses on how women experience themselves within ideas and traditions which simultaneously include and exclude them in their society. The guiding metaphor of seduction that gives name to her work, is at the very heart of her ideas: theoretical accounts of language, politics and culture as we know them to be written, seduces one, and especially seduces women, into accepting master narratives. As Miller states: “we are all seduced by dominant accounts of the world, by values translated into ‘nature’, ‘the universal’ and ‘common sense’”. Indeed, what one knows to be “common sense” and “natural” is, in fact, only the result of social construction. But culture is neither innate nor universal, and therefore cannot constitute human nature in the strict sense. It is constructed and it alone can give man the means to realize his humanity, which is why all ideas that are socially and culturally instituted are changeable and refutable. So, it appears normal for the values translated through the narratives written to be perceived as “the universal”, the norm. Just as Woolf defines the specificities of female talent through their socially limited ability to become authors, Miller uses the device of seduction as “a means of inserting sexual relations as an absolute central term for any understanding of how power is experienced in societies based on inequality”. In Jane Miller’s ‘Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture’, Elizabet Larsen farther states that “seduction rests both in the power of the seducer and the consent of the seduced”. With this, Miller herself admits to the influence of these “seductive” master narratives on herself. In the chapter ‘The One Great Silent Area’, she emphasises Raymond William’s influence on her thinking: he has served as the seducer of Miller’s intellect. However, despite her admiration, Miller also suggests that William has a rather superficial vision of women in culture, making them appear, in his work, as overly simplified. He writes of men rather than of people, suppressing women as participants, transmitters and makers of culture. Larsen states: “she points out the way the concept of family in his work becomes an all-absorbing entity that suppresses individuals in the family”. Indeed, much like Woolf, she sheds light on the continuous limitation of women as domestic bodies. To Larsen, William’s thought depicts a rather thorough absence of women, proving, more generally, that theorists have ignored women’s experiences in “cultural-meaning making” and women’s actual centrality in culture. The power of this seduction tells us about women’s significance in the world men believe to dominate and own, limiting them to only being aspects of men’s private lives rather than as part of a nexus of relations. Miller’s resistance to gendered roles only proves theoretical discourses as the actors seducing women into setting themselves aside as makers of culture.
Feminist theory is based on the assertion that women have always been oppressed either physically, economically or intellectually by social and cultural structures, a view which inevitably implies the importance of socio-sexuality in the perception of these social, cultural and linguistic structures. Virginia Woolf and Jane Miller have become great figures of female emancipation by presenting feminism in the sense of considering gender differences and their place in society. Both have shown that the multiple institutional obstacles and the ferocious oppositions that women have had to face, constitute a minefield that has required the utmost courage. It is this common commitment against the male monopoly of knowledge and the critical research within this discipline, that constitute the deepest unity of their approach. So, what is detrimental to the mental process of artistic creation is the fact that men and women seem to create art from their sexual condition, always keeping in mind that they are part of a sex that limits or, on the contrary, increases them. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘Seductions’ examine in an extremely pragmatic way the condition of women, what could be done to enable them to gain autonomy, for themselves but also for the general good and general unconfined development of individuality.