A Space of Her Own
The following statement could have been written in ancient Greece, 18th century Europe or colonial North America. Some of it still applied, in places (such as Scandinavia, Cyprus, Gambia, and the United States), in the 1940s. Some of it still applies, in places, in the 21st century. When I started writing it, I was casting my mind backward to the first wave. When I finished it, I found myself in the present day.
Women are free to gather together, within reason; in a kitchen or on wash day, in the sickroom or the schoolroom, at places and times when men cannot be with us or when our virtue must be protected.
However, we must not prefer the company of other women.
We may not gather with men in the common associations and purposes of public life. We may not vote or hold office, attend university, gain admission to a trade or profession, or own property. By custom if not law, we are the property of father, brother, husband, or son, and so are our children.
We die in war, but as victims, not as warriors. We birth and birth, until we die of it, with no recourse. Rape and the threat of rape are the unspeakable reason for our confinement, our protection.
We create, the bold few, but some of us sign our work as men, and many remain anonymous.
We have no solitude; the desire for it is considered madness or rebellion.
The world described above is the one Jane Austen lived in, though she would never have expressed it so baldly. She omitted some of the worst parts from her books - the commonplace deaths in childbirth, the wars and violence - but her barbed narratives catch both the absurd and the terrible constraints women faced.
Social restrictions make for effective storytelling: The reader soon knows the rules and recognizes each transgression, however subtle. Austen's voice is so wry and insightful, so full of "humorous sympathy," so far from anger, that it's possible to read all the way through her novels and not grasp a tenth of what she was conveying. I did it myself, in my teens.
In the last decade, as all of Austen's books have been made into movies and mini-series, I find it increasingly creepy that these charming productions are so popular - and that I enjoy most of them so much. Great dialogue and nice scenery, fine acting, wit though the thought of living as the author did gives me the horrors.
Austen wrote in a corner of a sitting room, and hid her work when anybody came in. She could be interrupted at any moment by anyone in the household, or by a visitor paying a call.
In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf reminds us that Jane Austen didn't have one. She shared a bedroom with her sister all her life. According to her brother's memoir, Austen wrote in a corner of a sitting room, and hid her work when anybody came in. She could be interrupted at any moment by anyone in the household, or by a visitor paying a call.
The first time I read Austen's Pride and Prejudice I was in my upstairs room with the many eaves and the old apple tree outside the window. I had no sister, so the room was my own. I envied Jane and Elizabeth Bennett, the intimacy of their lifelong bond, and didn't think much about how I'd feel, sharing my room under the eaves, being interrupted in the best part of the book.
Now I know the worth of the privacy I had, and the privilege inherent in it. I also know that my mother had no such room. The house was hers, for part of the day, but there was no place she claimed as her own, besides a closet and a dresser. On the other hand, she could disappear into a book as if through a door, going out of sight and hearing in the turn of a page. So, I expect, could Jane Austen.
That ability to create a temporary energetic enclosure is a survival skill for women. Austen's women looked out windows, took walks, exchanged glances and letters, as she did herself. Most of them had no money and no freedom of movement; nor did she. They could be interrupted at any time by familial demands, which she certainly was. They had no way to extricate themselves except by marriage, which she allowed them to accept, but rejected for herself.
About a century after Austen's death, Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) took a direct, uncompromising look at what a woman needs in order to do creative work: a room of her own and 500 pounds a year. (As near as I can figure, this would be about $37,000 in 2006 U.S. dollars.) This would free her to choose the piece she wanted to do, focus on it without distraction or financial fear, and keep working on it until she decided it was done.
And Woolf herself showed us that the money and the room are not enough.
This need is fundamental not just for writers and painters, but for activists and teachers, healers, carpenters, web-workers - in fact, it's true for any woman, or any man, for that matter. We have no idea what creativity, what transformative work is lost every day, for the lack of such a space. And Woolf herself showed us that the money and the room are not enough: She had both but, by the end of her life, the room was an exile from the city she loved, imposed by the husband who feared for her health, and her work was not enough to sustain her through illness and the looming onset of war.
I know women who have rooms of their own, hard won and fiercely protected, but I don't know any women who have both $37,000 a year and much time to spend in those rooms. Most of the women in the world have none of it: the space, the money, or the time. At best, most of the women in the world, the ones lucky enough to know their own purpose and to live outside a war zone, are working in the corner of a busy room, and hiding their work when anybody comes in.