It would take an entire paper just to explicate all of the roles that women play today and how society has changed as a result. The point is that it has changed and that women play a much different role in literature today than they did even just a century ago during Woolf's time. Woolf saw just a glimpse into the social turn that has led to the present day and the feminist views that have inundated our society. Her era was still filled with male dominated ideas. Ideas that shaped her world and in many ways made her into the woman she was. Her feminist ideals would have never emerged had there not been a need for them. At the beginning of her essay, a Room of One's Own, Woolf states clearly that she was asked to write on the subject (1) *
. it's a rather ambiguous statement as she doesn't clearly state who asked, but the point is that it expressed a need. There was the aching questing of women and their role in literature that Woolf found the resources of speech to answer in a way that was thought provoking and influential.
Economic Perspectives Then and Now
The Traditional Family Paradigm:
Socially and economically her society was one dominated by men. As mentioned before, the role of the woman was childbearing. A woman's sole contribution was that of reproduction. The rest revolved around a dependence on men, mainly the woman's husband. The traditional family paradigm emerged, probably out of necessity or practicality; but whatever good intentions lay at its foundation the concept of a male dominated society created an oppression that many women still struggle with today. The man was the breadwinner, caregiver and owner of the family. "In both social and political patriarchalism the family-state analogy has been read as fundamentally conservative and authoritarian, if not absolutist" (Fang 3) *
.Women basically had no rights, as Sara Gamble points out in her book the Routledge Companion to Feminism and Post Feminism:
Childbearing was a major part of the wife's role, be it to provide male heirs to her husband's lands and titles or to provide a source of labour. However, women had no rights over their children; the bringing up, education and disposal in marriage were entirely the preserve of the father. In the eyes of the law, they belonged to their fathers, and where parents fell out or separated (divorce was not possible for most people), the father could prevent the mother having any contact with her children. (4) *
This predicament basically made slaves of women. Unless they wanted to walk out on their families and risk a life of poverty as in Henrik Ibsen's play a Doll's House, women were essentially stuck and forced to live the life that had been carved out for them.
Woolf encountered the same issues concerning women and their place in society. The whole premise of her book was that a woman must be independent of these societal constraints if she were to ever reach her full potential as an artist and woman. In Woolf's a Room of One's Own she pointed out that the woman must be economically independent in addition to being free of the responsibilities of family and children. Only then would it be possible for her to focus on her art or personal expression. She goes on to explain the difficulty women encountered in the endeavor of writing stating that women have "less intellectual freedom than that of Athenian slaves" (Woolf 75) *
. The concept of women being intellectually and practically capable of writing was something that was not widely accepted during Woolf's time. Most literature played along with the idea that women were subservient and more of an economic consumable rather than a free standing entity or consumer in their own right. Today we see Woolf's idea of a woman having her own space and economic freedom as a much more viable option and even a reality for most women.
Woman, as the subject of literature has changed just as much as our society and its views of women have changed. Women are no longer the subservient housewives of the past and serve in many capacities worldwide. This is true of our stories as well. Women can play just about any role in literature, just as they can in real life and while literature may express the limits a little further than reality with that of superheroes and fantastical elements that do not exist in real life, the role of women has stretched just as far as our minds when it comes to their roles. Many things that were fantasy for women of days past have now become reality as our society has shifted and the social and economic status of women has climbed to an almost equal plane with that of men. As a society we are no longer a slave to tradition and the traditional family paradigm where the man is the head and leader of the household. This concept has had huge implications and created a level playing field for women that can be seen in every aspect of society, including modern literature. Virginia Woolf recognized early on, the necessity of economic independence as a key ingredient to her feminist views. Brigitte Bechtold offers some insight into this topic in More Than a Room and Three Guineas: Understanding Virginia Woolf's Social Thought:
To feminist social thinkers and activists, Virginia Woolf's writings offer early and rich insight into the socioeconomic processes of occupational segregation, wage discrimination, imposition of separate spheres, social exclusion and trickle-down patriarchy. Her implied views on distributive justice permeate her novels and diaries, and show remarkable insight into recent work by feminists on female tasks related to provisioning, and also to a long tradition of work specifically dealing with considerations of social welfare. (1) *
Woman as the Creator of Literature:
So far the focus has been on women as the subject of literature. This implies that the writers of said literature are men. Woman as the subject of literature is a concept that has been around as long as literature itself, but the idea of women as writers is new in comparison. The role of women as the writers of literature has progressed equally in comparison to their role as the subject of literature. Social, economic and even religious freedom, in addition to feminist movements have shaped female literature in ways that perhaps even Woolf didn't expect. The main ideas associated with women as authors and writers of literature expand from the historical concepts of long ago up to present day. In addition are social perspectives, the battle of the sexes that has emerged from many feminist movements and the stigma associated with feminist writing. Another is the Economic independence that has shaped or has been shaped (depending on how you look at it) the role of women as writers. Woolf's concept of having a room of ones own and the implication of economic freedom on the part of the woman has, in more recent years, become a reality. All of these concepts have seen enormous change over time and are worth looking into. In order to gain insight into these topics we will begin with the historical perspectives and work our way into the present day concepts that rule our thinking of women as writers.
Historical Perspectives Then and Now
The Woman's Role in Literature:
Historically, men have been writers. This is not true of every culture and circumstance but generally, until more recent times, men dominated literature. Though women may have played roles as characters within the stories they certainly were not authors. In fact, American women didn't see their first published work until the late seventeenth century (Famous Firsts by American Women) *
. This can be blamed on many things. Women, as the caregivers and homemakers for their husbands didn't have time to devote to writing. In addition, at least a basic education would have been required for such ventures and that was something many women did not have available to them. Education was reserved for men. Child rearing was for women. Even during Woolf's era, only a century ago, women struggled to carve out a niche for themselves in the literary world. it's well-known that for much of history societies "have wrongly excluded significant and meritorious works by women" (Staves 4) *
. Religious doctrine throughout much of history did not help the cause of women and the idea that they had a voice. Biblical text was often construed in favor of women keeping their opinions to themselves though there were movements against this concept. One example is that of Quaker women during the late seventeenth century. In fact, "Almost 40% of all the first editions of books and pamphlets published by women between 1660 and 1690 were religious…