Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Battle of the Sexes

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.

   Ultimately the message of feminism - or women’s liberation, or whatever may be the current terminology – is that 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.

   In her closing remarks she notes that “no opinion has been expressed…upon the comparative merits of the sexes even as writers. That was done purposely, because…I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighed like sugar and butter…all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are “sides”, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot. As people mature they cease to believe in sides or in headmasters or in highly ornamental pots. At any rate, where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off. Are not reviews of current literature a perpetual illustration of the difficulty of judgement? ‘This great book’, ‘this worthless book’, the same book is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery…”

   Ultimately, it seems to me, the battle for female liberation is a stupid, pointless battle, and this through no fault of the women who are rightly waging it. The fault lies with men, who are either fighting back, which is foolish, or have 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 ultimately the liberation that is required is neither women’s nor men’s, but that of Humankind.

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