A Room of One's Own: a review

Dear Hannah,

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has the honor of being the first time I've heard patriarchy used as a pejorative and haven't wanted to throw anything at anyone.  Most of the time a woman says patriarchy she's a nutcase, but none of that is visible here.  None of the blaming of "rape culture" for a man making a pass or a woman making a mistake; none of the irrational calls for an equal wage that isn't equal; none of the blaming society when a woman is fat and she knows it; and none of the crusades against slut-shaming when a woman is dirty and flaunts it*.  Virginia Woolf is sensible in a woman's way.  She's a hundred years old and a breath of fresh air.  If feminists knew where they came from they probably wouldn't stand where they are.

Perhaps most striking about A Room of One's Own is how quickly she admits what many modern feminists don't: that if women had always been working like men, there would very likely be nobody to enjoy its results.  It's easy to say that men have the power because they bring home the bacon.  But without women, who would we bring the bacon to?

We oftentimes credit men with the building and defending of society, but this only proves we've got it all backwards.  Woman builds society, and because she's busy building it, man is left to fashion it.  Man brings home the bacon, and thus becomes the means.  Woman is the end.  Children are the end.  All the glory in warring and exploring and politicking and theorizing and engineering and industrializing is worthless if at the end of the day there's nobody to do it for.  But women are the purpose.  And because women are the purpose, men are terrified of not being loved by them**. 

Woolf's essay really shines here: she knows that there are lots of nasty things men may say about women (we are very different, after all, and difference is the mother of opinion), but that the majority of nasty things men historically say about women are written out of fear -- that we have nothing a woman wants.

Unforutnately Woolf was convinced it was a matter of culture, when in fact this fear is something experienced simply because you're a man.  The immense power that women have over us; the ability to make us feel things that men can't; that sensation that you've got to throw everything away to get her; and the terrifying experience of wondering if you're worthy, is much less a matter of being born in England or Botswana and much more like the process of being born.  You don't get to choose it or when it happens.  All you know is that the feeling strikes and it strikes often.  And caught between yourself and an endless tide of lust and worship you begin to feel lost, and powerless, maybe frustrated.  As though you were being pulled in a million directions.  Not enough to get you anywhere you wanted to go, but enough to ruin your day wherever you are.  Perhaps enough to tear you apart.  It's the origin of chivalry and of harems; the West's fawning over damsels and the East's hoarding and hiding them.  Woolf mocked man for fearing woman, but she never felt what it's like to be a man.

Admitting that women are the end is of course counterproductive to the feminist movement; and so it's in their interest to always play the victim.  They never mention that men do everything for them, because the moment they admit everything's for them their claims to everything become redundant.  So what feminists did is as stupid as it is brilliant.  They decided to no longer be the end.  They threw away the one thing they always did better than men, because men were incapable of doing it.  They decided to stop bearing and raising their children; and as though they were rid of the ends, they got rid of the means by encouraging men to be homosexuals and housekeepers.  They believe that by sharing responsibilities equally they'll be equal.  What they've done is made sure that nobody will be able to do the responsibilities properly.  Their children (if they have any) are crammed into daycares and raised by strangers who are overwhelmed and indifferent.   When women get home, their womanly husbands are fostering children instead of reading the newspaper.  And then they wonder why our children are terrible and our politicians are worse.  It might be because many women are no longer mothering, and many men don't have time to think seriously about politics.

Woolf was too sensible for all of this.  What we appreciate her for especially, aside from not saying men and women are the same, is her ability to recognize what each has to offer.  There's no worshiping work at the expense of childbearing; and no worshiping childbearing at the expense of work.  Both are work.  Both are necessary.  Both are valued in completely different ways because they do completely different things; and should we say one was more important than the other and force ourselves to choose between them we'd eventually get rid of both.  Woolf was wise enough to know that there are many things worth celebrating and many people worthy of celebration -- and that the people worth celebrating don't necessarily need to do the same things.

She knew that diversity, if it's ever going to benefit us like the liberals say, doesn't mean all the same means and all the same ends.  A beneficial diversity is two people being radically different and still being able to contribute something that we love -- not because we were forced to say so, but because we were free enough to really enjoy it.  The patriarchs' big mistake wasn't loving man's work.  It was that they didn't properly value women's.  All the poetry they wrote and all the wars they fought were a waste if at the end of the day they came home to a woman they didn't appreciate -- a goddess without a cult, a heroine without any praise, and a laborer without any pay.  As such feminism doesn't exist because women are stupid.  Feminism exists because men were pig-headed enough to not say thank you for the daily things we couldn't live without, and really from the bottom of their hearts mean it.

Your father,

*The BBC says half of all "misogynistic" tweets came from women, and this is cold comfort to me  Not only because everyone already knows that nobody hates women as much as women, but because nobody's more ignorant about misogyny than womankind.  A woman's idea of woman-hating has little do with hating women, and more to do with women being called the things that make us hate individuals.  She swears that using the term slut means you can't stand women, and misses what it really means --  that you really hate sluts.

**One really obvious example of fear-based misogyny is Schopenhauer's essay On Women -- written by a sour, balding, toothless old man who obviously couldn't ever get women, who couldn't enjoy them, and spent his time convincing himself he was superior to them.  He couldn't quite forget them so it's obvious he tried to scorn them.  His essay is more insulting for the things he gets right than the things he gets wrong; but Woolf the feminist and Schopenhauer the misogynist agree on one thing: that men's and women's brains are generally different.

Woolf is smart because she says this and then refuses to explain it, leaving the reader to admit the things we already know but have a hard time precisely defining.  We have an idea why she kept her mouth shut.  Brushing aside genitalia and the secondary sex characteristics, the qualities of men and women are difficult to sum up in checklists, and are something better perceived with the heart rather than defined on a paper.  We simply know them when we see them; and although Woolf was never able to describe the mechanical differences in the organs she was describing, she was perhaps just as capable of recognizing their effects.

Anyone remotely familiar with the concepts of races and beauty will be remotely familiar with my concept of the sexes.   We know that if we take a thousand photos of random Norwegian women and blend them together, we end up with a picture of a woman who's not only gorgrous, but unmistakably Norwegian.  The same goes for the definition of the sexes.  We make a checklist, and a woman may miss a box here and there and throw off the ideal picture, but we can't get rid of the idea she's a woman.

The problem for Woolf, so far as her argument goes, is that women who think differently will eventually do differently; and if we have an unmistakable pattern of behaviors to divide the sexes, we'll eventually have a series of expectations by which to judge them.  The whole idea of culture is the development of our natural inclinations into something beyond their original rudeness; and if we believe that anyone can be expectably different, we begin to build an idea of how they will differ; a process which is most commonly known as thinking, and the development of which is typically known as refinement.

This, of course, puts Woolf back right where she started.  Some women, in fact, can do some manly things as well as men.  And some men can do some womanly things as well as women.  The question is whether we should throw away our generalities for the sake of the exceptions.  We admit that there are difficulties in defining the cultural expectations of the sexes.  But getting rid of our expectations means we would have to take all the great things we love as really manly and womanly, the cultural development of the stuff the sexes are made of, and throw them all away because a few of us were good at the other.  Telling a tomboy to be womanly may be cruel to a tomboy.  But to say nobody needs a womanly woman is cruel to all of humanity.