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Virginia Woolf, Essay Example

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Essay

It is always difficult to assess just how an artist of a certain era influences or represents a social movement, simply because the nature of art is usually more expansive.  Where the social convictions begin and the creativity ends are not easily determined.  This is especially true of Virginia Woolf.  On one level, Woolf is a feminist icon as an established and forcefully independent woman and author of the early 20th century.  Both her life and her work combine to present something of a feminist foundation.  At the same time, there has always been dispute as to the extent of her feminism:  “Virginia Woolf’s feminism is of a sort still not easily accepted today”  (Black, 2004, p. 6).  Problems arise because, in most of her fiction, Woolf chooses to examine conditions and lives from a perspective broader than gender.  As much as she evidently subscribed to feminist leanings, her true aim is always more humanist, rather than feminist.  This, however, is where her greatest contribution to feminism resides, if ironically so.  As the real essence of feminism must be the perception of people on an individual basis, regardless of gender, Virginia Woolf consistently serves the cause of feminism by serving the cause for individual rights and expression.

In pragmatic terms, feminists can easily point to the circumstances and choices of Woolf’s life as supporting the movement.  This in turn is reinforced by the era in which she lived.  In both England and the United States, Women’s Suffrage was an increasingly important and controversial issue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Woolf’s blatantly independent lifestyle, in which she moved freely among men in literary and academic circles, could be seen as an early feminist model.  Nor did Woolf merely enjoy the advantages of education and position, ignoring the movement elsewhere; in no uncertain terms, she supported the Women’s Suffrage Movement in 1910 and remaining highly active within it  (Goldman, 2001, p. 40).  Her fame assisted in promoting the cause so, in strictly practical terms, Woolf contributed to feminism by direct support in her own lifetime.

It is with her work, however, that certain conflicts have been perceived.  A Room of One’s Own has taken on a reputation as a distinctly feminist volume, and the issue of a woman’s independence is very much central to the book.  What seems to disturb feminists, however, is that Woolf rarely restricts her conflicts in her work to matters of gender, for she had a wider social consciousness.  If the title alone of  A Room of One’s Own indicates a feminist sensibility, it may be interpreted also in a way going nearer to the book’s core.  This very much has to do with materialism, and the means by which the self may be isolated to be itself (Goldman, 2001, p. 5). It is feminist, then, when the issue of the lesser opportunities for women is considered, but it also seems that Woolf was not fixated upon that particular message.  Again and again in her work, it is the individual, rather than the woman, that must be better understood and respected.  It may be argued, in fact, that Woolf’s somewhat notorious social life and alleged homosexual relationships were antithetical to feminist aims.  In that struggle, and as she certainly knew, sensationalism attached to a famous woman could not further feminism.  Nonetheless, even as she worked for suffrage, she insisted on conducting her life as an individual, removed from social expectations of what a woman should be, and as existing in both mainstream society and feminism.

It is worth noting that A Room of One’s Own was a great critical success, selling 10,000 copies within its first four months (Black, 2004,  p. 114).  If the book’s feminism was indirect, it was there nonetheless, and large audiences were taking it in.  Then, there is no ignoring one aspect of Woolf distinctly feminist: her focus in her writing is almost always entirely on her women (Black, 2004,  p.  29).  These two components alone reduce any argument that Woolf did not significantly contribute to feminism.  At the same time, it must be reiterated that, even as she struggled to achieve her own idea of an independent existence, gender for her was never the sole issue.  More importantly, if Woolf’s true contribution to feminism is to be appreciated, it must be in this way and on her own terms.  In a very real sense, Virginia Woolf served feminism by a more pressing commitment to serve individuality.  If the true aim of feminism is humanism, as it must be, then no greater champion of feminism may be identified.

References

Black, N.  (2004).  Virginia Woolf as Feminist.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Goldman, J.  (2001).  The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

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