Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Battle of the Sexes

Portrait by Roger Fry
Virginia Woolf

I am conscious that, while I have been collecting those pieces of prose and poetry which have impacted the most deeply on me through my nearly sixty years, there are other pieces which I have read and appreciated, but which have not had the capacity to change my life, yet should be included, because at the very least I have been able to see, in reading them, that they could, and in many cases should, change other people's lives. 

Virginia Woolf''s "A Room Of One’s Own" is such a book. That it did not change my life is easy to explain; the essay was based on a series of lectures that she delivered at Newnham College and at Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University, in October 1928; she was discussing women with women, and her goal was either to transform their lives, if they needed transforming, or to support them in a transformation already in progress, if they needed such support. By publishing the essay in book form, she was able to broaden the audience, enabling all women everywhere to share her extraordinary vision. Men are not excluded, but unreconstructed men are unlikely to read it, or to be affected if they do, and I had already undergone the early stages of reconstruction before I encountered the book. Indeed, I would have been highly unlikely to seek out and read the book if I had not.

Woolf's message is echoed in the writings of many who followed her in the school of feminism - or women's liberation, or whatever may be the current terminology - Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Susan Sontag, Linda Kelsey: men and women may be biologically different, with all the social, emotional and psychological consequences that derive, but socially, economically, politically, intellectually, creatively, men and women should have equal access and equal status in a truly civilised society, however differently they may still express their gender in those places, with their inherent equality differentiated only by individual merit, and not for any other reason. Most of my gay and black friends, whether male or female, would likely make the same claim; and as a Jew I can only empathise. No, not only. I can also wonder how it is possible for any human being not to empathise, and, indeed, accord.

In her closing remarks, Woolf notes that:

Ultimately, I like to hope and dream, the battle for female liberation will be abandoned as a stupid, pointless battle, and this through no fault of the women who are rightly waging it; and not by their abandoning or surrendering either. The outcome lies with us men, far too many of whom are either still fighting back, which is foolish, or have themselves surrendered, which is even more foolish. Women and men both need to stand up for who they are, and work together to build a better world. This is what Virginia Woolf understood, and taught in these lectures. That the liberation that is required is neither women's nor men's, but that of Humankind.

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