In late October, 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered a lecture on "Women and Fiction" at Newnham and Girton, the two women's college at Cambridge, England. Woolf had written the lecture in May; in 1929, she expanded it into what is now "A Room of One's Own," and the essay was published in book form on Oct. 24, 1929.
Woolf cannily utilized the setting of the lecture. The fictional university she visits, Oxbridge, is an amalgam of England's prestigious Oxford and Cambridge universities, and the comparison of the luxurious male and mediocre female facilities must have surely hit home at Newnham and Girton (however, this probably did not make it into the lecture, since she gave her talk the same day she had lunch at the men's college did not have much time to digest the inequality). She also incorporated real people into her essay; aside from the many writers past and present she discusses, the narrator is a barely-concealed version of Woolf herself, and even imaginary writer Mary Carmichael, whose novel Life's Adventure the narrator dissects, shares the pseudonym of birth-control leader Marie Stopes (who wrote a similar novel, Love's Creation).
"A Room of One's Own" is considered the first major work in feminist criticism. Woolf deploys a number of methodologies--historical and sociological analysis, fictional hypothesis, abd philosophy, notably--to answer her initial question of why there have been so few female writers. She ties their minority status largely to socioeconomic factors, specifically their poverty and lack of privacy. Her mantra throughout the essay is that a woman must have 500 pounds a year and a room of her own if she is to write creatively.
Woolf also exposes the gender-consciousness that she believes cripples both male and female writers. Most men, she maintains, derogate women to maintain their own superiority; most women are angry and insecure about their inferior status in society. Male writing, then, is too aggressive, whereas women's writing is reactive. Both genders thus obscure their subjects and instead focus on themselves and their own personal grievances. The writer of incandescent genius, Woolf maintains, rises beyond his or her petty gripes and attains a heightened, objective relationship with reality; the subject is the world, not the writer's self.
Woolf considers this genius possible only if the writer has, borrowing Samuel Taylor Coleridge's word, an "androgynous" mind; that is, a mind equal parts male and female (Woolf encourages the differences between the genders). Feminist (and much minority) criticism still disputes this idea: should women's writing rationally reflect both male and female influences, as Woolf claims, or should it passionately reclaim the woman's voice muted by patriarchal society, as Woolf argues is hampering? French critic H?l?ne Cixous epitomizes this opposing camp, contending that only with their own language can women adequately express themselves.
Still, Woolf is hardly at odds with later feminists. She believes each gender can only know so much about the other one (and about itself), and that women should, indeed, write about women--so long as it is done without anger or insecurity. She gives convincing evidence for why genius has so infrequently flowered among women. And, most important, she provides a strong remedy: 500 pounds a year and a room of one's own.