Women's access to education
The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write; "In the first place, to have a room of her own... was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble". The title also refers to any author's need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art.
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.
Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. Woolf encouraged the image of herself that, because her father did not believe in investing in the education of his daughters, she was left without the experience of formal schooling. However, recent discoveries in the archive of King's College London show that Virginia and her sister Vanessa attended King's College London's Women's Department for classes in Greek and German over a number of years. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal, communal setting. Woolf lets her audience know the importance of their education at the same time warning them of the precariousness of their position in society.
In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, "Shakespeare's sister," to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school." Woolf's prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother's hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith's chances of fulfilling her promise with "but." While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.
Building a history of women's writing
In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison. Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar… J ---- H---- herself".
Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an "'arrant feminist'". Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, though Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women". Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage. The essay quotes Oscar Browning through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham: "'… the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that…the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.'" In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge—Oxbridge—has become a well-known term, although she was not the first to use it.
The Four Marys
The narrator of the work is at one point identified as "Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael", alluding to the sixteenth century ballad Mary Hamilton. In referencing the tale of a woman about to be hanged for existing outside of marriage and rejecting motherhood, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space. It is important to note that Woolf's heroine, Judith Shakespeare, dies by her own hand, after she becomes pregnant with the child of an actor. Like the woman in the Four Marys, she is pregnant and trapped in a life imposed on her. Woolf sees Judith Shakespeare, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, as powerless, impoverished women everywhere as threatened by the spectre of death.
In another section, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness published in 1928. Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you..."
Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials; "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it." Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic." Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.