Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Guest Post: Who's Afraid of Teaching Virginia Woolf? A response to "I’m not interested in teaching books by women.”

The literary blogosphere was put into a frenzy last week when an interview with David Gilmour, a professor at the University of Toronto, was posted. In the interview, he said: "I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them."

Understandably, his remarks provoked a variety of heated responses, including this fabulous Book Riot gif response. Baffled and bewildered, I kept looking for a way conceptualize this unfathomable attitude towards women writers, as well as Chinese or LGBT writers. At the same time, a friend of mine, Simone Bruch, an undergraduate studying Sociology, Women's Studies, and Art, shared an article with me that she wrote for Professor Eze's Women's Literature course at Northeastern University (Imagine that, an entire class about women writers!) that seemed to express exactly what I was struggling with. Perhaps Gilmour should have looked closer at what Virginia Woolf says about women writers - and the importance of empowering women to share their own stories - before name dropping her. Fortunately, Simone has shared Woolf's stance and I imagine Woolf herself would have some choice words for someone who refuses to teach women's writers. 

I have included Simone's article below with her permission.


In “A Room of One's Own” (1929), Virginia Woolf seeks to explain that having a room of one's own, as well as access to all things men do, will benefit women's lives, and hence, their ability to write fiction. In response to the idea that Shakespeare could have been a woman, Woolf states that,“It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any women to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” (Woolf, 38). Throughout history, which has been continuously dominated by a patriarchal ideology, women have been deprived of all the things that would allow them to be independent. As a result, internalized oppression occurred, and women came to accept the mindset of their own inferiority. Woolf proves through her own writing as she urges women to be heard, that it is time that women stop allowing men to define them – and to begin defining themselves.

Women have been excluded from all avenues of self-knowledge. If a woman is to imagine, learn, read, write and become a master of her own education, it is necessary to provide her with tools that will enable her to become self-sufficient. If she is denied access to everything that would enable her to become independent, then she is forced to remain dependent on man for her own survival. As Woolf accidentally wanders into a library, she finds that, “I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction” (Woolf, 18). In an attempt to educate herself, she has been rejected, as Woolf's gender role does not belong in a library. Had Shakespeare been a woman, she would have not had the luxury of exploring libraries or seeking to educate her mind in any form. In a patriarchal society, women remain passive objects with no ambitions besides a sparkling clean floor and freshly-made bread; whereas men actively utilize their power by constructing gender roles and defining what is and isn't valuable.

It isn't just the lack of independence that damage women within patriarchal thinking – perhaps even more damaging to one's psyche is the internalized oppression that comes from having one's individual identity stripped away, to then be defined tragically as limited, incapable, and lacking intelligence. Men, who define value within a patriarchal society have decided to view women as unequal. Woolf looks amongst the books in the British Museum, stunned by the lack of books written by women, and the abundance of books written by men, about women. She observes, “Have you no notion how many book are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written about by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?” (Woolf, 27). In internalized oppression within a patriarchal culture, women submit and accept how they are defined, which then reinforces the beliefs of men and women about their roles. The choice and ability to speak out against enforced gender roles are limited due to lack of resources and tools, as well as the belief in the possibility that women are capable of much more. Had Shakespeare been a woman, financial support as well as belief is one's self would have been absent. Women can write, read, learn, and use their imagination, says Woolf; however, one must be able to somehow break away from the patriarchal grip by means of dismissing the resentment that comes from breaking societal constraints.

Woolf explains that in order for one to be a writer, an artist, a person who uses creativity to form something is difficult for both men and women. In a land composed of capitalistic beliefs, money is more of a priority than creativity. However, men and women are met with different types of opposition in their desires to express themselves within a patriarchal culture. Woolf explains, “The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference, but hostility” (Woolf, Pg. 41). While men are able to travel and use their experiences to write upon while using their material circumstances, the cultural circumstances also back up their artistic choices. Men may not receive great reward for their creativity; yet, there is still possibility to do so, as well as the ideology that provides the belief that they are capable of doing so. Looking on the bookshelves in libraries and museums, seeing their kind having composed masterpieces is a privilege, a luxury they can stretch out into potential possibility. They can feel inspired and dream that their writings can one day sit on a shelf to be looked at by others. Women, on the other hand, cannot fathom what they are capable of, as the shelves are absent of themselves.

Woolf urges women to write for themselves, not just despite their absence in the literary world, but because of it. Women have been excluded from history, with the exemption of the tales that men have chosen to tell of them. However, despite the lack of information that is shared, Woolf knows that there are women's lives are being lived. As a result, she explains that, “It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however one may go to them for pleasure” (Woolf. Pg. 53). Women must look to their own history from their mothers to the women surrounding them to find themselves. To look at men and their works as inspiration does not apply for women, as they are incapable of providing the experiences women live. Additionally, men's voices are different than women's since they have had the privilege of writing for centuries; whereas, women are just slowly building their own traditions. Seeing such distinct separations on gender roles, Woolf wonders if such enforced emphasis debilitates all parties involved.

Societal gender gaps are often seen as innate; however, truly natural distinctions would not need such heavy ruling to enforce. Where women are denied basic rights to autonomy, men are forced to act in a certain way, regardless of their thoughts and feelings. It does a disservice to everyone to have all identities reduced to one's gender. People would be capable of thinking and acting how they choose, regardless of which body part they were born with. Fantasizing about such freedom, Woolf explains, ”But there may be some state of mind in which one could continue without effort because nothing is required to be held back” (Woolf, Pg. 63). To feel something as one feels it, and say it how they truly want to would allow for greater creativity and furthermore, a better writing piece. If one is greatly restricted by their gender, a writer will write merely one angle, one ideology, one area that only applies to their perspective. Great writing needs duality, more information, and an abundance of freedom.

Woolf knows that a female Shakespeare is possible - she doesn't doubt women's ability to use their imagination and to write powerful masterpieces that are appreciated centuries later. However, she knows that women will not be able to provide such works if they are denied a room to write in, access to libraries and education, self-sufficiency and the ability to become self-actualized through their own definitions of who they are. With less societal force on traditional gender roles, and the ability to be who they are, they are capable of filling bookshelves of their own works. Woolf wants equality for men and women, as it will set them free from the terribly constrained roles that they play. Once the woman is free, her abilities will be endless, and the world will see why they were so terrified of letting her out of her cage – because she is sacred, intelligent, and a true equal, if not superior, to men.


Victorian Web

Post-Colonial Web (esp Gender Matters Overview)

Virginia Woolf in the Classroom
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Lesson plans for "The Yellow Wallpaper" - See more at:
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Lesson plans for "The Yellow Wallpaper"@ Web English Teacher

DeShazer, Mary K. The Longman Anthology of Women's Literature. New York: Longman, 2001.

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