|Essay: women's rights, the arts, and voting
Author: jane1313 PM
""Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important" Do you think Woolf has got her priorities right? Why, or why not?" Written a bit over a year ago for a competition. Haven't posted recently, wanted to start againRated: Fiction K - English - Words: 1,821 - Published: 01-02-12 - Status: Complete - id: 2984908
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3. "Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important" Do you think Woolf has got her priorities right? Why, or why not?
In order to be writers, women need many things. It is impossible to write unless one has, at the very least, basic literacy. However, beyond this, to become a skilled or professional writer, further education, extensive reading, and constructive criticism of early work are also extremely useful. Moreover, if she wishes to reach an audience, a budding woman writer needs to find herself a publisher, an editor, or an agent who is prepared to accept her work. Furthermore, women writers need either incredibly strong self-belief and determination, or a great deal of support and encouragement from friends and family. Woolf felt particularly strongly about women writers' need for time space and privacy, and this was the focus of her essay. The fact that "A room of one's own" is the title of Virginia Woolf's essay emphasises how important she felt it to be.
On a personal level, money can make a vast difference to a person's opportunities. It is exceedingly difficult to write or do any other creative work as well as holding down a full-time job in order to pay the bills. Having enough money to support oneself without the need to work, as Virginia Woolf did, guarantees ample free time and spare mental energy with which to write. It also gives a writer or artist more creative licence; if one does not rely on selling a book, then one can voice opinions and ideas without consideration of populism. Money can also buy one the space and silence to create freely: a "room of one's own'.
Furthermore, at the point in history at which Virginia Woolf was writing, an income could grant a woman true independence from the inevitable male financial control of a husband or father. Freedom from economic dependency gives a person far more control over their own life, as they have no fiscal superior to whom they must answer. And finally, it frees people from all of the stress and worry related to money, improving their concentration, and making them generally more relaxed, happier, and healthier. It is important to remember that money becomes a more major issue when one does not have enough of it. It is much easier for a wealthy individual to champion the vote as the more important of the two, than for individuals facing severe financial difficulties
It is therefore quite easy to see why Virginia Woolf would value money more highly than the vote. However, some of the complex issues that present difficulties for women writers were far worse in Woolf's time, and have been improved by the government. There are issues that it is easier to solve on a countrywide basis through the government than as an individual through personal wealth. It would not be practically possible for every woman writer to receive a large income to support her while she worked; other methods of supporting woman writers can help more people. What is more, money does not solve all of the problems of woman writers. Women in particular, whether they are artists or not, often feel that their work suffers acutely if they decide to have children. Women also in general do a larger share of the housework, taking up even more of their time and energy, and making it even harder for them to do any kind of creative work. In addition, women writers can be the objects of prejudice and discrimination from publishers, peers, and even from their own families. While I accept that money can help to alleviate the effects of these problems, I do not think that they can be completely solved by money alone.
Governments can introduce legislation to help improve women's equality and combat all of these problems. We elect those governments; consequently, the vote may be more important than Virginia Woolf suggests.
Since women have been allowed to vote, various governments have, in fact, introduced laws that attempt to improve women's equality, for example the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Employment Protection Act of 1978. These regulations all had a real and direct effect on women's ability to work, by ensuring that they are treated fairly, and that they are able to work as well as having a family. So perhaps the vote facilitates having an income and a "room of one's own".
Governments can also provide and improve education, which lets women get well paid jobs and buy themselves the private space that Woolf talks about. Education also helps women learn to write better, making it easier for them to become published authors. Until the late 19th century women could not study at university. It was only in 1869 that Girton College, Cambridge, opened as the first residential college for women. Since then, the number of women attending university has gradually increased. In 1922 23% of first degrees were taken by women; by 1993 that had increased to 45%. Higher education is useful for women who want to do creative, scientific, or other professional work. According to the 1868 Taunton Report on education, there were at that time only 13 secondary schools for girls in the country. Girl's education was, in general, limited or nonexistent. Nowadays, by contrast, since the introduction of a state funded education system, girls do very well at secondary school. This can be demonstrated by the relative performance of boys and girls in modern GCSE exams; this year 72.6% of girls obtained grades A*-C, compared to only 65.4% of boys.
On the other hand, these changes in education and legislation were not necessarily brought about simply by women's ability to vote. It would be easy to take this evidence and argue that, because women's education and improvements to equality legislation happened after women's emancipation, they were caused by women's emancipation. However, that is not necessarily true.
In the first place, many pieces of equality legislation were passed long before women were able to vote, although they had less of a direct affect on women's ability to write than later legislation that prevented them from being openly discriminated against by employers or publishers. The 1870 Married Women's Property Act allowed women to keep ownership of their property when they married, allowed married women to inherit land and money, and improved divorce settlements for women, nearly 60 years before women could vote on equal terms with men.
In the second place, much of the equality legislation was passed in the 1970s, while women have had the vote on equal terms with men since 1928. If these changes were brought about by the vote, why did it take over 40 years for the government to pass these important pieces of legislation? In my opinion, it is probable that these changes were, in fact, brought about by other pressures for social change, including the impact of feminist ideas and activism. The feminist movement gained a significant amount of influence during the 1970s. Feminist activism expressed itself in a multitude of ways. These included marches such as the Women's Liberation March in 1971 which was attended by over 4,000 women, strikes such as the one year long strike for equal pay and condition at the Grunwicks in London in 1977, and the publishing of feminist magazines like the journal "Feminist Review". These actions and many other similar pieces of protest were probably major contributors to the shift in social attitudes that eventually led to legislative change in the 1970s. If this is true, then the vote was not hugely important in changing women's lives and ability to write, and so Woolf's priorities were right to a limited extent. These laws would only have helped the privileged few who were able to get jobs in the first place, and who were educated enough to understand and demand their rights.
It is interesting to note that many women today do not exercise their right to vote. In 2005 only 61% of women voted. This would seem to imply that many women do agree with Virginia Woolf that voting is not particularly important. However, only 62% of men voted in that election. With so few people voting it would be equally valid to say that democracy itself is not important, because so many people do not bother to vote.
Despite all of this, I know that I personally would be completely outraged at the suggestion that I should not be allowed to vote once I turn eighteen. As a young person, I am already frustrated by my inability to vote, as it means that I am not taken seriously on the few occasions when I am in contact with politicians. Not allowing women to vote is tantamount to saying that women are not really people; that we are less intelligent, capable, or responsible than our male counterparts. If for no other reason than that, I think that women's suffrage was definitely an important step forward for women's equality.
Now that unemployment pay, paid maternity leave, and laws to prevent discrimination in the work place have been introduced, I do not think an income like Virginia Woolf's is necessary for women writers. I have always known that I will need to get a job and earn a living as well as studying or doing creative work. I have known many individuals who manage to write while holding down full-time paid work. Multiple well known authors have admitted to writing their books in unusual, not necessarily private, circumstances. J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter books in a local café while struggling financially. Although it is not generally considered to be great art, the Harry Potter books are certainly an influential and well read series.
Therefore, I believe that while Virginia Woolf's priorities were entirely understandable for a women living and working in her time, they do not really apply to modern day women.
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The Library of the House of Commons, Research Paper 08/12, 1st February 2008, "Election Statistics: UK 1918-2007"
The Guardian . (31/08/2010 21:00) "GCSE results 2010: exam breakdown by subject, school and gender"
The women's resource centre. (30/08/2010 14:00) "The Women's Timeline"
Gillard D (2007) ./history (31/08/2010 21:50) "Education in England: a brief history"
Virginia Woolf, "A room of one's own"