Rereading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Photo by Tatiana Lapina on Unsplash.

Today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday — as you might have noticed if you saw today’s Google Doodle — and Quartz has helpfully updated her “Room of One’s Own” advice for the modern era:

In A Room of One’s Own, the English writer, born 136 years ago this day, argued for what is simultaneously obvious and beyond reach today: For a woman to truly think and create, she has to be unshackled from the duties normally foisted on her because of her gender. That is, she needs paper. Woolf put the price of writing at an annual £500 (about $41,000 today) and “a lock on the door.” She famously summed up her case: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Which, okay! When you read it like that, it sounds like Woolf’s privilege is showing. Plenty of people write fiction without the benefits of an annual $41,000. (Though — and I speak from experience — having a room of your own helps a lot.)

But if you go back and read Woolf’s original essay, you’ll learn that it’s less about women writing fiction than it is about increasing women’s ability to earn (and keep) income in many kinds of settings:

It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before that it would have been her husband’s property—a thought which, perhaps, may have had its share in keeping Mrs Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange.

It’s also an argument for basic income. Woolf received her annual £500 as an unexpected inheritance from an aunt, and it changed her life:

Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten.


Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness.

It’s worth a reread, especially to remember what Woolf wrote about unpaid labor, the women who become writers because they need the money, and the ways in which basic income could help promote marginalized voices (in this case, queer fiction). If there’s a tl;dr, it’s that money frees everyone, regardless of whether they want to use the income to buy time — and a room — in which they can improve their writing.

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