A Room of One's Own

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Themes and Colors
Financial and Intellectual Freedom Theme Icon
Women and Society Theme Icon
Creating a Legacy of Women Writers Theme Icon
Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Room of One's Own, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women and Society Theme Icon

In addition to establishing the necessity for women to have financial and intellectual independence if they are to be able to truly contribute to the literary canon, Woolf addresses the societal factors that deny women those opportunities. As such, A Room of One's Own is a feminist text. But it does not assign blame for the state of society to particular men or as a conscious effort by men as a whole to suppress women. Rather, she describes a society formed by the instincts of the different sexes (for example women to have children, marry early, be tasked with mending and caring for the family and not being educated) that together define society and together influence individual's behaviors and opportunities.

This is not to say that Woolf sees society as being anything other than dramatically tilted in favor of men. She explores just how it is tilted, in two ways. First, she shows how she herself has been shut out of the fictional college "Oxbridge", an amalgamation of the two elite English universities Oxford and Cambridge. For Woolf herself, this "Oxbridge" idea was significant in her life; her brothers and male contemporaries all seemed to go off to Oxbridge while she tried to challenge herself and educate herself with what little external resources she had. Second, she creates an imaginary woman named Judith Shakespeare, sister of William Shakespeare and his equal in talent. She then shows how, while William rises to fame and becomes an "incandescent" poet, Judith is prevented by the structure of society from doing so and ends up committing suicide.

A Room of One's Own also examines the more taboo realm of female homosexuality, speaking honestly about the possibility of a woman's affection for women. By putting this usually silenced topic before her audience, she creates an atmosphere where feelings and taboos are able to surface and be expressed, and moreover are able to become commonplace and understood as a normal part of womanhood. It is also worth noting that while A Room of One's Own does not seek to blame men, when describing men it betrays a definite physical distaste at times. In her description of the men at the British Library for instance, they are a ruddy, almost disgusting presence, reminding her of all the flaws she sees in society as a whole.

Finally, it should be kept in mind that A Room of One's Own was crafted out of a series of lectures that Woolf delivered to women at the first women's colleges at Cambridge. With herself and those before her, Woolf creates a sense of a new community of women emerging, the educated, even professorial woman to match the naturally professorial man. This is a message of hope but also a warning and an incitement, that in order to change at all the fragile position of women in literature, this generation must forcibly change it.

Women and Society ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Women and Society appears in each chapter of A Room of One's Own. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:
Get the entire A Room of One's Own LitChart as a printable PDF.
A room of one s own.pdf.medium

Women and Society Quotes in A Room of One's Own

Below you will find the important quotes in A Room of One's Own related to the theme of Women and Society.
Chapter 1 Quotes

All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.

Related Characters: Virginia Woolf (speaker)
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Woolf has been asked to give a speech on the topic of women and fiction, and here she admits that her speech will be limited to "an opinion upon one minor point" related to this issue. She explains that she believes a woman must have money and "a room of her own" to write fiction––two things which, historically, extremely few women have possessed. The fact that Woolf presents her main argument right at the beginning of her speech highlights the way in which this argument is both simple and non-negotiable. While other writers and philosophers had invented much more complex explanations for why there were so few female authors in comparison to male ones, Woolf insists that the only valid explanation is the socioeconomic subordination of women.

Woolf seems to intentionally downplay the weight of her argument by saying "All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon a minor point." This may be a sardonic reflection of the low expectations for women's intellectual and argumentative capacities at the time. The use of the word "minor" is certainly ironic, as Woolf's point––as she herself admits in the second half of this passage––has hugely significant consequences for our understanding of both women and fiction. Indeed, A Room of One's Own resulted in a major shift in the way people viewed the literary canon; in response to Woolf's intervention, it became common to search for or imagine the voices of people who would have been able to write had their socioeconomic circumstances been different. 


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other A Room of One's Own quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

What force is behind that plain china off which we dined, and (here it popped out of my mouth before I could stop it) the beef, the custard and the prunes?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Having described the lavish and vibrant luncheon at the men's college, the narrator goes on to depict a supper at Fernham, the fictional women's college. Although theoretically Fernham is simply a women's equivalent of the men's colleges and thus might be thought to contain the same resources, traditions, and atmosphere, the reality is quite different. Unlike at the luncheon at the men's college, the women at Fernham eat simple, unappealing food served on "plain china." While this difference might not at first seem particularly meaningful, in this passage the narrator emphasizes that it is in fact the result of an important "force" in the world: the same force that allows men to engage in productive intellectual dialogue and create great works of literature, while women are hindered from doing so. 

Chapter 2 Quotes

Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

The waiter has brought the bill, and this leads the narrator to explain her financial situation: she receives a yearly allowance of five hundred pounds from her aunt (equivalent to a reasonable annual salary in today's world), which allows her to live independently. She found out about this allowance on the same day as white women were granted the right to vote in the UK, and in this passage she concludes that––based on her experience––the money has been "infinitely the more important." This is a very significant detail in Woolf's argument, which connects to a debate that remains controversial today.

The right to vote has often been seen as the fundamental factor determining the autonomy of a person within democratic society. However, in this passage Woolf implies that the right to vote is relatively unhelpful if an individual does not also have a degree of independent economic security and freedom from oppressive social forces. Note that the narrator is not suggesting that the right to vote is meaningless, or that it would make no difference if women were not able to vote. Rather, she points out that without the freedom provided by an income, a person's agency remains severely restricted. 

This argument could either be seen as elitist or anti-elitist, depending on the interpretation. Critics such as Alice Walker have argued that Woolf suggests women without an income are unable to exercise autonomy or impact society; this seems to deny the extraordinary achievements and influence of African American slave women such as Phyllis Wheatley. On the other hand, Woolf's words foreshadow the contemporary feminist argument that legal equality means little if women largely remain economically dependent on men. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the

highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has read Professor G.M. Trevelyan's The History of England in the hope of finding more information about women's lives throughout history. She is disappointed to find very little concrete detail, and no evidence of women having any influence or importance of their own. On the other hand, as Professor Trevelyan points out, in literature––such as Shakespearean drama––women are represented as being full of "personality and character" and existing at the centre of the narrative action. The narrator does not understand how to reconcile the totally unimportant role women are assigned within history with the complex, interesting, and pivotal part women play in artistic representation. 

This is one of several points when the narrator identifies the paradoxical ways in which patriarchal society constructs the role of women. (Another example is when she highlights male authors' obsession with writing about women, yet total lack of interest in listening to women's own accounts of themselves.) Woolf shows that this use of paradox enables the sustained belittling of women without women necessarily understanding or resisting the ways in which they are oppressed.

What one wants, I thought—and why does not some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton supply it?--is a mass of information; at what age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like, had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking; would she be likely to have a servant?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Pondering the lack of knowledge about the history of women's lives––and considering the case of the Elizabethan woman in particular––the narrator suggests that what is needed is "a mass of information" about life as a woman during Elizabethan times. Note that the narrator speaks of a singular woman when in fact she is referring to any number of women. This rhetorical strategy allows her to contrast the kind of knowledge she wishes to gain with the kind that already exists. While the details of almost all women's lives have been lost to history en masse, and while existing knowledge about women tends to take the form of unfounded, subjective generalizations, Woolf here suggests that the life of each individual woman who has ever lived is worth knowing about in all its mundane detail.

Indeed, it is significant that Woolf refers to domestic questions such as "what was her house like" and "did she do the cooking." Part of the justification for the exclusion of women's lives from the mainstream historical record lies in the fact that women throughout Western history have mostly been confined to the home, and information about home life is not thought to be historically significant. Here the narrator explicitly opposes this assumption, inviting the students in the audience to take up the challenge of investigating the historical facts of women's lived experience and implying that this knowledge will prove useful.

Chapter 4 Quotes

What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has conceded that some upper class women have historically been able to pursue literary endeavors, and considers individual cases of women who have done so. One such case is Margaret Cavendish, a childless noblewoman who was widely mocked for her attempts to write poetry. The narrator clearly feels sympathy of Margaret, and expresses the idea that if she had been a man she would have been respected for her literary efforts.

Once again, the narrator invokes the concept that intellectual companionship is essential to achievement. Margaret was passionate and dedicated, but because she was a woman she remained isolated and her potential was wasted. The narrator compares Margaret's loneliness and thwarted ambitions to a "giant cucumber" choking to death a bed of roses and carnations. Here the cucumber––a phallic symbol––suffocates the flowers representing Margaret's mind. 

All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, […] for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you to-night: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:
The narrator has discussed the life of Aphra Behn, a 17th-century writer who is widely thought of as the first professional female writer in England. Unlike the noblewomen the narrator has previously described, Aphra Behn was middle-class and wrote in order to earn money after the death of her husband. The narrator admits that Behn's legacy is not wholly positive, but argues that "all women" should nonetheless honor her, because it was her example that paved the way for women to actually earn a living by writing. The narrator encourages the audience to pursue this goal, all the while implying that it is still extremely difficult. Indeed, she stresses that it is "not quite fantastic" for her to suggest to the young women in the audience that they write professionally, meaning such a career is possible, but still only barely. 

She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has spoken admiringly of Jane Austen, comparing the way in which Austen-as-the-author disappears in her novels to the genius of Shakespeare. She speaks less approvingly of Charlotte Brontë, who––despite her talent––is not able to conceal her own bitterness within her work. According to the narrator, this makes her write "foolishly" and distracts from her characters. However, the narrator empathizes with the reason for Brontë's bitterness, considering she died "young, cramped and thwarted."

Once again, the narrator depicts the experience of being a woman––and especially a woman with creative, intellectual ambitions––as being characterized by a kind of suffocation and lost potential. The word "cramped" echoes the description of the cucumber "choking" the flowers to death in the discussion of Margaret Cavendish, and strengthen's Woolf's point that without a room of her own a woman's talents will end up smothered by her circumstances. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described a hypothetical contemporary novel by Mary Carmichael called Life's Adventure, which contains the sentence "Chloe liked Olivia." Presupposing that the audience might be scandalized by this, the narrator encourages the women listening to remain calm and admit that "sometimes women do like women." This mention of homosexuality is one of the most important moments in the speech. At the time, open discussion of homosexuality was highly taboo; while male homosexuality was widely acknowledged and explicitly forbidden, many people did not believe––or at least did not openly admit––that female homosexuality even existed. However, depictions of lesbianism were beginning to emerge in contemporary literature, and Woolf highlights this as another reason why literature by women was so important. 

Note the narrator's specification that lesbianism can be discussed only "in the privacy of our own society." Public representations of lesbianism, for example in Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, had led to scandal and censure. Another important reason for the existence of intellectual spaces for women, therefore, is that they provided the conditions for lesbianism to be discussed openly. In making this point, the narrator is not assuming that the majority of her audience are lesbians, and that this would be directly meaningful to them in this sense. Rather, lesbianism is presented as a fact about some women's lives that is obscured when intellectual endeavors (and specifically depictions of women) are dominated by men. 

Awkward though she was and without the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had—I began to think—mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Mary Carmichael
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator evaluates Mary Carmichael's imaginary novel, assessing how Carmichael measures up against male authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Lamb. Although she remains critical of several aspects of Carmichael's writing, she praises the way in which Carmichael writes "as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman," which she calls "the first great lesson." This is another controversial moment in the speech. Depending on one's interpretation, Woolf might be implying that women writers should strive to rid themselves of any sense of inferiority to men; perhaps this is what the narrator means when she speaks of "forgetting" one's sex.

On the other hand, some feminist critics have identified this passage as evidence of internalized misogyny. Woolf seems to suggest that women's writing can only be truly excellent if it does not bear any marks of the author's gender. The fact that earlier in the passage the narrator compares Carmichael's work to the male authors Thackeray and Lamb could indicate that the "genderless" standard against which she measure women's writing is in fact a male standard. Indeed, later feminist theorists have argued that it is impossible to forget or conceal the identity of an author, including the author's gender. This view contends that genderless writing is a myth created by the pervasiveness of male authors whose gender is not seen as relevant because it is the norm.

Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Mary Carmichael
Related Symbols: A Room of One's Own
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Having finished reading Mary Carmichael's imaginary novel, the narrator admits that Carmichael was "no genius," but that given her circumstances the novel was impressive. She adds that if Carmichael were to receive the prescribed allowance of five hundred pounds a year and a room of her own, as well as the freedom to "speak her mind," she would write a much better novel. Again, Woolf seems careful not to overestimate women's existing literary achievements. Instead, she stresses their potential, and emphasizes the idea that the work people produce is highly determined by their social situation. For Woolf, the tragedy of women's place in intellectual history lies less within the notion that female genius has gone unnoticed, and more in the idea that women have not been able to realize the true extent of their own capabilities. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

The sight of two people coming down the street and meeting at the corner seems to ease the mind of some strain, I thought, watching the taxi turn and make off.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

The next day, the narrator observes that the people on the street around her seem indifferent to the questions about women and fiction that she has devoted so much time to considering. However, she then notices a man and woman get in a cab together, a sight that captures her attention and eases her mind. She admits it is strange that such an ordinary scene should have this substantial an effect on her, and this leads her to consider the mysterious nature of the human mind.

It seems that what she finds so absorbing about the man and woman is the naturalness of their union. This part of the speech hints at the "strain" that can result in obsession over the gulf between men and women. It is a relief to the narrator to be reminded that––in spite of all the difficult issues to do with gender, power, and freedom that she has been pondering thus far––in reality men and women go about their lives together, largely untroubled by the problems she has been discussing.

The fact is that neither Mr. Galsworthy nor Mr. Kipling has a spark of the woman in him.

Related Characters: Virginia Woolf (speaker)
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has returned to the library and begun reading a book by "Mr. A," who represents the typical male author of the time. She is struck by the fact that Mr. A does seem to write in a consciously gendered way; she observes that in response to the female suffrage movement, contemporary male authors have tended to adopt an egotistical, aggressively masculine tone. Bearing in mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge's point that the best writers are "androgynous"––meaning a mix of male and female––the narrator argues that John Galsworthy and Rudyard Kipling, two well-known male writers at the time, write in a way that is too masculine and therefore unacceptably narrow. 

This passage arguably contradicts the narrator's earlier point that the first great lesson for female authors is to write in a way that implies they have forgotten their gender. Here she seems to indicate that the best writing is indeed gendered, but that it should be a mix of both genders. Either way, her criticism of Galsworthy or Kipling for not containing the "spark" of woman would have been highly controversial at the time. Many would have considered the notion of criticizing celebrated male authors for not being feminine enough so absurd as to be laughable. However, by connecting her argument to that of Coleridge, Woolf suggests that it is not as outlandish as people at the time might otherwise first assume.  

Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.

Related Characters: Virginia Woolf (speaker), Judith Shakespeare
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final section of the speech, Woolf has dropped the narrator persona and is speaking as herself. Having reviewed several of the main issues of the speech and responded to anticipated criticism, she returns to the character of Judith Shakespeare, "this poet who never wrote a word." Although Judith's story reflects Woolf's rather pessimistic depiction of women whose ambitions were suffocated before they could ever be realized, Woolf ends on a hopeful note by implying that Judith "still lives" within herself and the audience, as well as other women who remain at home attending to domestic tasks. 

Woolf implies that women are connected to one another across the barriers of history, geography, and socioeconomic class, and that this connection inspires women to have a sense of duty to each other. On one hand, this is uplifting and inspirational, a silver lining to the tragic story of Judith Shakespeare and the countless other women whose lives and ambitions have been thwarted by sexism. On the other hand, it is possible that Woolf is being overly optimistic here in proposing a supposedly universal connection between women. Critics of A Room of One's Own have pointed to the fact that Woolf provides a sense of hope to young, educated, upper-class women, but promises nothing to other women other than vague references to female solidarity. Such promises might make little difference to the lives of women who remain socially, politically, and economically oppressed, with no hope of achieving independence or autonomy over their own lives.