Conjuring Shakespeare’s Sister

Last month Jessica wrote about her struggle to read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. She never did make it through the whole text—and unless you are the worst kind of nerdy English major, it is a tedious read. Nevertheless, she found that in her middle age she had gained an appreciation for Woolf’s central point:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.

Because I am that worst sort of English major—one who attended a small liberal arts college in the countryside and lazed away the hours in the local cafe reading, drinking black coffee, and smoking cheap cigarettes—Jessica’s post inspired me to try and reread Woolf’s treatise. I wanted to see if my 43 year old writing self would respond to her arguments differently than did my 20 year old self.

I was immediately struck by something I hadn’t noticed during my earnest undergraduate years. Woolf believed intensely that women were making progress in their quest for equality, a claim I now found suspect. Her lengthy trip through the history of women in English history decidedly indicates legal and political progress. Woolf points out that women could now own property, work in most professions, attend university, and vote. However, her analysis of women’s cultural equality as writers and artists doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of linear progress. She is writing in October of 1928 and laments that even though women are now writing books at almost the same rate as men, their writing is not taken as seriously and many critics still insist women are intellectually and artistically inferior to men. She also admits because historically women were kept from education and the learned professions they still, as a group, lack the wealth necessary for complete intellectual freedom:

[T]o have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since her pin money, which depended on the goodwill of her father, was only enough to keep her clothed, she was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle, all poor men, from a walking tour, a little journey to France, from the separate lodging which, even if it were miserable enough, sheltered them from the claims and tyrannies of their families. Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

While a 17th, 18th, or 19th century woman from a rich family might have the luxury of a room and time for writing, her words were considered useless. A middle class or poor woman had no ability to secure paid work and thus couldn’t break free from her prescribed roles as daughter, wife, and mother. And at this point you may be thinking, “Well, maybe Woolf was right. Conditions for women are better now.” I was thinking the same thing until I got to the section where Woolf tells her tale of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, Judith. Judith had the soul and talent of a great poet so, like her brother, she ran away from home one night at the age of 16 and went to London looking for a job as an actress in the theater. William, as the story goes, rose from actor to playwright and poet. Judith, however, was turned away again and again because she was a woman until one theater manager “took pity on her” and took her in in exchange for sexual favors. Judith then finds herself pregnant and commits suicide.

While reading Judith’s story this week I couldn’t help but think of Harvey Weinstein and the hell he put actresses through. Still today, women who want to be artists are told they must endure harassment, assault, and even rape at the hands of men who hold the keys to their success. Woolf ends her extended essay by telling her female audience (the essay was originally a lecture) that they have made enough progress now to be able to write consistently and to be the inspiration for women writers a hundred years from now who will be able to write with enough freedom to bring Judith back from the dead and allow her to become the poet she was meant to be.

Well, it is one hundred years from Woolf’s writing (89 years to be exact) and I don’t think we’ve come far enough to conjure Judith from the grave. Sure, Weinstein has been exposed and seems to be facing a swift and fierce punishment. But the patriarchal system that allowed him such power over women’s artistic and economic ambitions is still very much in control. One only need look at the current occupant of the White House to know that.

Woolf writes that women have to move past writing about their own oppression before they can be truly great writers, but that requires the continuation of the progress Woolf saw in 1928. That progress has stalled—maybe it was an illusion all along—so we are not at a place where we can move beyond our oppression, our anger. As Janelle so beautifully points out on her blog Renegade Mothering, sometimes women get angry, and sometimes that anger is the catalyst for greater things. Women cannot stop writing and creating art based on their anger because things haven’t changed enough. More of us can now earn enough money to have a room of our own, but once we take our art outside that room, the material and intellectual conditions are the same.

We don’t just owe Judith our art, we owe her the conditions she lacked. Women’s anger at being marginalized created women’s theater groups and women’s writing and artist colonies—groups that would have welcomed Judith when she knocked on the door. These communities born out of righteous anger are not signs of progress or equality, they are tools for our survival. My own feminist anger led me to a group of women that meet each year to write in solitude for one glorious week, the same group that then created this blog in the hope it will serve as a welcoming community for all of Shakespeare’s forgotten sisters.

who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body? Virginia Woolf

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