Woolf has been asked to talk to a group of young women scholars on the subject of Women and Fiction. Her thesis is that a woman needs "money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." She will now try to show how she has come to this conclusion, deciding that the only way she can impart any truth is to describe her own experience. So she adopts the voice of a narrator. The name of this narrator is unimportant, since she represents every woman.
The narrator begins by narrating her day at a college of the fictional university Oxbridge (a combination of Oxford and Cambridge). Trying to compose her lecture, she seizes upon some important thought and rushes across one of the college lawns but is stopped by a Beadle, a guard, who tells her that the lawn is reserved for Fellows and Scholars. She is shut out of several other areas in the same way before going to a lunch party, where she is inspired by the bright conversation of the men and women there. Later, she eats dinner at the fictional women's college Fernham. The meal here is quite different, the fare simple and the conversation gossipy and uninteresting. Reflecting on her day, the narrator realizes that women have been shut out of education and the financial and intellectual legacy that men have always had access to.
The next day, the narrator goes to the British Library and finds that it is a masculine institution through and through. There are shelves of writing by men about women, but she detects anger as well as curiosity in the men's scholarship. She theorizes that women have been a mirror in which men have always seen themselves enlarged and strengthened, and that men have used their literature and scholarship to affirm the inferiority of women mostly to protect their own superiority.
Looking back on the legacy of women writers, the narrator finds that there is hardly any information about the average woman's life, what she did, what she liked, and so on. So she invents the story of William Shakespeare's sister, Judith Shakespeare, a woman with the potential for genius, but who is never able to write a word and ends up committing suicide because of the way that society is structured against women.
But now, the narrator asserts, it has become possible for women to write. The narrator lists the history of women writers and their influences on each other. With each generation, women should get closer to being able to write the "incandescent" poetry that Shakespeare was able to achieve. But the library of literature produced by women so far is fraught with bitter, twisted writing, stories that are unable to rise above the poverty and limitations imposed on their sex and flow freely.
Having provided this history, Woolf sheds her persona and considers how she will conclude her lecture with an inspiring call to action. She charges the women of Newnham and Girton colleges—her audience—to create a legacy for their daughters. She believes that fiction is for the common good, not just the individual good, that there is something universal and powerful and good in it, and so she charges them to write voraciously. She conjures the image of Judith Shakespeare lying dead, buried beneath the streets of a poor borough of London, but says all is not lost for this tragic character. Since poets never really die, but are reinterpreted and given life by others, the women in her audience have the opportunity to bring Judith to life and create the history that Judith never had.