So few women appeared in the literary canon before the 20th century, Virginia Woolf explains in A Room of One’s Own, because women lacked the education, encouragement and opportunity to become writers. Times have improved, thanks to pioneers like Woolf, but we still have far to go until women have an equal voice with men in literature and film.
Woolf proposes a gifted but uneducated sister of Shakespeare, named Judith, who eventually killed herself because she could find no outlet for her gift. Woolf argues that it is very difficult for genius to arise “among labouring, uneducated, servile people” (Woolf 1022). Those who are held down by class and convention, forced to slave away without schooling, have little opportunity to become great writers.
In spite of these repressive conditions, some female geniuses arose during these repressive times, but Western society didn’t take female authors seriously, so these women were often forced to withhold their names: “Indeed I would venture to guess that Anon.,” argues Woolf, “who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (Woolf 1023). Woolf says a woman must have a room of her own and five hundred pounds a year, so that she may have the time, independence and privacy to develop her talents.
As women take their long-denied place in the canon, Woolf writes, we will see entirely new representations of women, because there is a world of difference between women represented by men and those representing themselves: “It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose” (Woolf 1024). Seen only through men’s eyes and a haze of sexuality, it is no surprise that women in literature historically lacked dimension, appearing only as virgins, matrons or whores.
If women were to describe themselves, you might see friendships (or even romances) between women that are outside their relations with men. She would be able to “catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves . . . when women are alone” (Woolf 1025). A woman representing her own kind might be able to express new subtleties to women’s personalities and behaviors that men overlook.
Nowadays, women writers are more common on our bookshelves, and the range of representations of women in literature is expanding, but women are still shockingly underrepresented in film. Woolf’s ideas clearly inspired the Bechdel test, named after Alison Bechdel. A character below in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For proposes three requirements for a movie: “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three something besides a man.” Rather modest requirements, but, according to the website bechdeltest.com, “There are 4893 movies in the database, 2755 (56.3%) of which pass all three tests, 521 (10.6%) pass two tests, 1115 (22.8%) pass one test and 502 (10.3%) pass no tests at all.” Although Woolf and Bechdel and other great writers and filmmakers have been highly influential in helping women gain the voice they have in literature and film today, we clearly still have a long ways to go.
Woolf offers a warning, however. This newfound freedom of expression–allowing women to write and talk about something other than men–would not excuse a political tirade in the name of literature. In fact, Woolf argues that the richest writing comes from an androgynous mind, a fusion between the male and female sides of any person, an idea of Coleridge’s which she elaborates on: “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided” (Woolf 1026). Any writer, male or female, might achieve or fail at this androgynous writing, but all should strive towards it.
Bechdel, Alison. The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.
Woolf, Virginia. “From A Room of One’s Own.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. 1021-29. Print.