Nonbelieving Literati: A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf  

Thursday, May 01, 2008

While reading A Room of One's Own a few paragraphs caught my attention and I couldn't really focus on anything else for the rest of the book.

If only Mrs. Seton and her mother and her mother before that had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine; we might have looked forward without undue confidence to a pleasant and honourable lifetime spent in the shelter of one of the liberally endowed professions. We might have been exploring or writing; mooning about the venerable places of the earth; sitting contemplative on the steps of the Parthenon, or going at ten to an office and coming home comfortably at half-past four to write a little poetry. Only, if Mrs. Seton and her like had gone into business at the age of fifteen, there would have been -- that was the snag in the argument -- no Mary.
And that point, I think, lays very neatly at the center of what Virginia Woolf argues about why women in her day did not write very much fiction.

Woolf goes on to explain why it was impossible for women to raise money to support the writing of a book. Women spent more time producing and raising children. Women were not allowed to own property or money until a short time before she made her observation. Women were generally discouraged from such pursuits because it was "unwomanly".

Today most of those reasons no longer apply, except for producing and raising children, and that is much more a product of a "traditional" family. I think most men support having women in the workforce and having wives and daughters that aspire to a career.

In a "traditional" family, as I think of it anyway, a man and a woman get married, have children, and the wife stays at home taking care of the children while the man provides for the family financially. And I think that's wonderful as long as both of the spouses want it to be so and both jobs are considered real work.

What struck me, and probably several of you, as so jarring is that men need women to have children just as much as women need men. Without women men would not have sons to raise or leave an inheritance to. Daughters are just as much genetically part of both parents as a son. So why should sons see all of the benefit of an inheritance?

And that's precisely what's changed over the years as humans have evolved socially into more of an equal footing. And it can apply not just to sex, but race, ethnic group, sexual orientation... really any difference we share as humans. Some are still struggling to be seen as equal and others have pretty much made it.

I realize that I don't know what it's like to be a black man, or an Asian woman, or a transgender. I don't know what type of daily life anyone outside of me lives. I can't even extrapolate how women, in general feel. I can only speak for myself.

But even in my day-to-day life I still find shades that daughters are unequal to sons, that women should feel guilty about having a career and children, or that affirmative action has given an unfair advantage to women.

I've considered staying at home if my husband and I ever have children. But I don't think I would be able to do it. Even if we financially decided it was feasible, I don't know if I could give up the security of having my own job. I'm independent minded and I can't conceive of asking someone for money. Having my own income is part of what makes me confident, independent, and free. I could possibly some day redefine myself as those things without my own income, but I can't imagine it at this time, no matter how much I love and trust my husband.

Affirmative Action is a sticky issue for me. I believe that all aspects of a job should be based on merit. But I know in reality that other factors often weigh in. Affirmative Action was created to ensure that companies that refused to put aside bias would be penalized. In actuality it's difficult to enforce and at times it works to the detriment of people that are not a minority.

I would prefer to be judged on merit. But it's difficult to know whether women or blacks or the transgender or even men are judged completely on merit or on other traits that are not essential to the job. In the Aetheosphere I read about female scientists who complain about a gender bias in the research sciences or in educational institutions. I'm sure there are many, many other examples of bias against some group. I don't know if there is a solution that won't tread on someone's rights. Like most of life there is no perfect answer.

But I do believe (and I say believe because I don't know enough to say know, so I'm working on something akin to faith than knowledge) that Affirmative Action has led to more equality even as it has contributed to injustice. Does the good outweigh the bad? I don't know if I can say that looking at individuals because if we're trying to measure equality here those that have been disenfranchised are just as equal as those who have benefited; however, if we look at the good of the whole in numbers, something I don't necessarily like to consider, then probably so.

I think humans have come a long way in being tolerant, but I think we will continue to struggle with bias. It's innate in us and not easily resolved. And I know this because no matter how I struggle with it I still find that I am in ways sexist (against men), racist, and biased against transgenders - those being my three examples in any case, but it should apply to anyone different than me. It's about understanding and I don't always understand.

The important thing is to acknowledge that I don't understand and that I am very likely wrong in my characterizations of people that aren't like me. If I dismiss their complaints out-of-hand then I am promoting a culture of bias, the same sort of bias that I believe is wrong when directed towards me.

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7 comments: to “ Nonbelieving Literati: A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

  • The Exterminator
    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 5:12:00 AM CDT  

    Nice essay, OG.

    I think you're right, unfortunately, about bias being innate in all of us, and not easily resolved. You're pretty astute -- for a woman.

  • Lynet
    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:05:00 AM CDT  

    Ah, but are you biased against yourself? Because that is, after all, one of the major things Virginia Woolf is talking about when she considers the difficulties faced in her time by a woman who wishes to write. Bias is not merely something that is imposed from without.

    I found myself thinking that 'affirmative action' has something in common with writing that is self-consciously, deliberately female. It can help to blaze new paths but it can also stray awkwardly from naturalness, if you know what I mean.

  • Lifeguard
    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 9:39:00 AM CDT  

    I once went to a rountable discussion on affirmative action. An African American gentleman said at one point something like:

    "Let's say I put two babies in front of you-- one black, the other white. Their lives will be completely identical in terms of upbringing. Which would you choose to be? Until Americans can say 'It doesn't matter,' then we need affirmative action. Because you can't tell me, all other things being equal, that it's just as easy in life to be black as it is to be white."

    Or, as Chris Rock put it "There ain't a white guy in America who would change places with me, AND I'M RICH!"

  • the chaplain
    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:49:00 PM CDT  

    Nice essay. That passage really stood out for me, too. Thanks for writing such a nice piece about it.

  • The Ridger, FCD
    Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 7:07:00 PM CDT  

    Well said.

    Too often, loss of privilege is seen as loss of rights. I don't have much else to say - you said it all so eloquently.

  • John Evo
    Friday, May 2, 2008 at 5:03:00 PM CDT  

    OG, that last paragraph was very well said. It's what I strive for. Just keep telling myself that I don't know it all and that I have to be open to learning new things about people.

    I wish you were right in saying that humans have come a long ways. I think SOME humans have come a long ways, and others are still very much mired in 11th century thinking. I do have high hopes with the advent of the internet.

    As to affirmative action - I'd much rather have extremely stiff laws preventing discrimination based on sex, race or religion (or lack of it). I'm very uneasy about any steps to "redress the past". I'm afraid it's a slippery slope and also fails to give us "the best". And I'd rather use carrots more effectively - such as certain tax breaks for companies that hire more than a fair share of women and minorities. This will encourage companies to seek out qualified minorities, without putting them under the gun of having to just "get it done" regardless of qualifications. And like I said at the beginning - go very, very hard on business when it can be proven that they maintain discriminatory practices.

  • Ordinary Girl
    Sunday, May 4, 2008 at 2:01:00 PM CDT  

    I'm having deja vu because I'm sure I posted this, but maybe I forgot to hit "publish".

    Ex: Thanks! You're not such a bonehead, for a guy.

    Lynet: I don't think I'm biased against myself for being a woman. I like being a woman. But maybe I am overly critical at times.

    Lifey: You're right.

    Chappy: Thank you.

    Ridger: I think that summed up the second half of my essay more succinctly than I ever could have said it.

    Evo: I'm not sure what the right answer is, but the status quo wasn't (isn't) acceptable.


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