“The force of her own gift alone drove her to it”
When I was in high school, I read A Room of One’s Own for a summer reading assignment. I hadn’t even heard of Virginia Woolf until then, so I had little to no expectations for what was to come. To say the least, this book is what ultimately sparked my interest in both feminism and literature. Tools such as modernism and stream of consciousness are stitched into Woolf’s pages. It’s extremely difficult not to be moved by her message. However, the most vibrant tool Woolf employs to amplify her call for androgyny is her manifestation of Judith Shakespeare.
Judith and her Talent
To create an example of the extensive gap between the rights of men and women during her time, Woolf asks her readers a question: What if William Shakespeare had a sister? What if a woman exuded the same talent and genius William Shakespeare had been so respected for? What if, for a moment, roles changed?
In articulating the life of Judith, Woolf presents a culmination of suppression, frustration, and tragedy. Society does not encourage girls to pursue school, so Judith does not acquire tools to develop her talent. Between housework and errands to attend to, the prodigy can barely find time to write. The ideas that enter her mind cannot always be nurtured, so they are cast aside and eventually forgotten. Whenever Judith goes to the theater to quench her thirst for playwriting, she is rejected. Judith’s father pushes her to get married and beats her when she expresses her reluctance to do so. She leaves her family for London, where she commits suicide one day, alone and cast away.
Once she tells Judith’s hypothetical story, Woolf does not curse at the misogynistic world or damn all men to hell. Instead, she outlines her theory that had Judith been accepted for who she was, she probably would have been able to write (and, you know, live). A Room of One’s Own is an exceptional book that contains many feminist notes and serves as a call to action for women in general. However, what I love most about this novel is Woolf’s advocacy for androgyny: the combination of both male and female attributes.
“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female…the normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together…a great mind is androgynous” – Virginia Woolf
In the above quote, Woolf expresses the reality that no one is solely male or female. Everyone possesses the attributes of both genders, but the proportions of each vary depending on the individual. This call to eliminate categorization parallels many of today’s conversations about gender.
Judith faced categorization her entire life. She was unable to fulfill her purpose due to societal standards – and perished for it. In the male-dominated world of writing, Judith needed androgyny. If society was not so limiting, then the prodigy would have been able to display her so-called “masculine” talent. Woolf’s purpose is not to advocate for either male or female. A Room of One’s Own centers on how people inhabit their bodies. There is no either/or – it is both/and.
The power in Judith Shakespeare does not lie in typical feminist theory. Judith prompts the conversation of individuality. It is vital that we understand that people are connected, not divided. We are not born into labels or boxes. Woolf articulates that people must have the freedom to be themselves.
The basis of prejudice lies heavily on category. Judgment and discrimination result from labels. Virginia Woolf calls on us to look past these limitations. The sooner society moves past the importance of grouping, the sooner acceptance will become natural for all. We should not aim our efforts towards upholding divisions. Instead, we should work to create a world in which Judith Shakespeare would be able to enjoy the same treatment as her brother.