WOMEN’S TWENTIETH CENTURY

The following post is, more or less, the text of the talk  I gave a group of students on Friday, 24 March 2017, the slides I used to support my speech can be found at the following link.

 

It’s all due to the time we live in – The Golden Notebook,

Emmeline Pankhurst’s Contribution to Women’s Empancipation

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Before I introduce the writers I have chosen to analyse for this lecture which is about the Twenty Century as the century that made it possible for women to actually begin to believe and enact a substantial growth towards emancipation.  I would like to take a very brief look into what changed during this century as far as the perception of women and their role in society is concerned.

I believe that it’s enough to point out that in 1999 the Times named EMMELINE PANKHURST as one of the 100 Most Important People, to give an idea of her contribution, in fact the choice is motivated because “she shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back.”

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in 1858 and she was the leader of the British Suffragette Movement, a fierce political activist, she was much criticised for the methods she and her fellow activists employed in the pursuit of the rights of women and, as the name of the movement clearly states, they fought for the right to vote for all women.

The Suffragettes soon became known and ostracized for their, at times, violent methods. After  picketing with very little results, if not perhaps being ridiculed and attacked they moved on to smashing shop windows, attacking police officers and even setting fire to buildings or public property. Many of them were sentenced to prison where they staged long hunger strikes. Some historians believe that their protests were not always effective; however they did succeed in obtaining the right to vote for women.

 

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– In 1918 a law was passed granting all men over 21 and all women over 30 the right to vote.

– In 1928 the right to vote was extended to all women over 21.

Ms Pankhurst died just before this last law was passed.

Women as Second Rate Citizens

This is, more or less, women’s condition in Britain when Virginia Woolf was born in 1882, that of second rate citizens. It is precisely against this state of things that she too fights with and through her writing.

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1882-1941)

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Ms Woolf is a renowned writer not only among women, however, or specifically as a writer for women firmly engaged in the feminist cause. Ms Woolf was, and is, an esteemed intellectual despite her gender which isn’t always the case with female writers or public figures.

The two works I think most relevant to our purpose are: Orlando, a novel published in 1928 and the second:  A Room of One’s Own, a two-part lecture she was asked to deliver at Newham College and at Girton College – the first two women colleges at Cambridge – in the fall of 1928 on women’s literary production, the lectures were later published in the form of an essay in 1929.

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Orlando is a novel published with great success in 1928, quite a peculiar novel at that; its structure is apparently traditional, yet the plot encompasses over 400 years of British history and begins in 1588 with the protagonist – Orlando –  a sixteen year old boy belonging to one of the most ancient aristocratic British families who is about to be introduced to the Queen, Elizabeth I, who is so taken by him that she invites him to court. Orlando has a sensitive poetic soul and he dedicates his time to writing, he is in fact composing his lifetime poem, The Oak Tree.

Orlando Becomes a Woman

I will not, in this case, outline the whole plot, but only significant parts to our discourse such as for instance that under the reign of Charles II Orlando is assigned to an important diplomatic mission to Constantinople thanks to which he is awarded with a dukedom. It is while in Turkey that Orlando becomes a woman, a sudden and unexpected change that doesn’t disturb  him/her at all, for she feels just as before and it’s just her gender that has changed.

The scene that describes the drastic transformation from male to female is both poetic and abrupt and it is carried out by metaphors through the appearance of three ladies: Chastity, Purity and Modesty who embody the attempts to conceal such an unsettling change in front of society, the sudden intrusion of lady Truth however, makes the previous three disappear and the new true Orlando is revealed fostering the idea that we normally possess features of both genders without even realising it at times, there is no clear cut difference, black or white. It is not her gender that is important to her but what she is as a person.

  • “For it was this mixture in her of man and woman, one being uppermost and then the other, that often gave her conduct an unexpected turn. The curious of her own sex would argue how, for example, if Orlando was a woman, did she never take more than ten minutes to dress? And were not her clothes chosen rather at random, and sometimes worn rather shabby? And then they would say, still, she has none of the formality of a man, or a man’s love of power.”

The Deep Fulfilment in Being Both Male and Female

At this point of the narration Orlando buys female clothes and sails back to England, during the sea voyage that brings her home as she is wearing for the first time female attire she truly begins to grasp the deep meaning about her gender transformation.

The ship captain’s courtly behaviour towards her brings finally home what’s happened to her and, if she is appreciative of her new condition – enjoys being courted and indulges in responding coyly, flirting with him while pampering her vanity – she nevertheless dislikes the limitations that social conventions force on women such as being powerless and always in need of protection, she doesn’t want to hold her tongue and she enters in conflict with her/himself.

  • “Surely, since she is a woman, and a beautiful woman, and a woman in the prime of life, she will soon give over this pretence of writing and thinking and begin at least to think of a gamekeeper (and as long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking). And then she will write him a little note (and as long as she writes little notes nobody objects to a woman writing either) and make an assignation for Sunday dusk…”

Moreover having been a man previously she can truly make practical comparisons, now she understands women thoroughly and grasps complete insight of both genders knowing that she is quite privileged indeed, for the fulfilling awareness she experiences of being both female and male.

Notwithstanding that upon returning to England – as she lands on English coasts the 18th century is over and the 19th has just begun. Victorian England is permeated by an oppressive spirit: the industrial thrive is contradicted by a strict moral code of behaviour. – she learns that as a woman she has virtually no legal rights over her title, money or property and she is compelled to file a legal suit to get her money and assets back.

The Importance of Clothes and Gender Difference Is Cultural Rather Than Biological

 

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In the midst of all these changes Orlando also realizes that her outlook of the world changes according to the clothes she is wearing so she starts changing them according to her mood as she comprehends that others’ perceptions of people too are influenced by the clothes they are wearing as if to say that people do, in fact, judge the book by its cover; therefore if she wants to wander freely in London’s streets at night it is by donning men’s clothes that she can go about undisturbed and avoid dangers.

Thanks to her new gender then and with full awareness of the previous one she is much more insightful than most. That is why Orlando is also a novel about androgyny in which the author is clearly stating that gender is a quality instilled culturally rather than a biological trait.

  • “…it is clothes that wear us and not we them’ we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

The novel ends in 1928, Orlando has taken a husband during the Victorian Age merely because she wants to conform with society, but the description of their relationship underlines their total rejection of definite gender roles stating that they are complex individuals that cannot be labelled one way or the other.

Finally the narrative structure gives greater importance to personal issues rather than political, however if the protagonist’s life issues and events are emphasised in the plot the historical background is ever present.

Imagination Is as Important as Fact and Everything is Connected

Orlando is a mock-biography dedicated to Vita Sackville West with whom Woolf had a sentimental affair. But it is also and, perhaps, foremost a history of England and a history of developing English literature as shown in the last chapter in which the protagonist understands that everything is connected, reality, age and time have a subjective quality while imagination is just as important as “fact”. It is in her mature age that she finally absorbs that she is not a fixed individual defined by one fact or event, by one single moment, but that it is through the continuity of experience and life from beginning to end that she lives fully and can be whole and not fragmented.

The same happens with her poem The Oak Tree; she starts writing it during the Elizabethan Age and her models are history and myths from classical poetry, but the quality and the themes of her work change with the shifts of time till she reaches her full ripeness as a writer condensing and combining all she has learned and all that she has become during her long life, not just one but many individuals interconnected and blended together.

A Room of One’s Own – 1929

 

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In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf we can read:

 

  • “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – Ch. 1

Woolf here begins by stating material facts and issues to counteract the assumption that women’s literary production has been for so long inferior in quality to men’s. The essay’s structure is unusual in that she often resorts to fiction to convey her message and this proves quite effective in outlining the hardships that women have always had to face during the creativity process.

Unequal Treatment of Women by Men Has Always Marred Women’s Creativity

Daily issues, even petty ones that indeed affected their capability to focus on their work and even the chance to believe in themselves, in their talent, so as to build up a thorough and lasting self-confidence. Essential qualities to pursue in their efforts. Jane Austen, for instance. was known to hide away her writings when servants came in the sitting room where she regularly worked, all the female writers of those times were forces to publish under pseudonyms because they couldn’t reveal their female identities, or publishers would have refused to publish their works.

In fact, she says, unlike their male counterparts, women have always been burdened with household duties that inevitably imprisoned them in repetitive, boring , tiring and time consuming daily routines that deprived them of the vital time and private space that were – and still are – crucial for any creative ambition they might have had. We may be tempted to take all this for granted given the enormous changes that we can enjoy today, however these words ant the concept they conveyed were radically revolutionary in 1928. A time during which women were still legally and financially depending on their husbands, as if they virtually belonged to them.

Men vs Women’s Education

Women historically have been denied those luxuries that were considered perfectly natural to men, first of all education, she says, and in a fictitious tour of a men’s University she begins to describe the opulence of the buildings, the incredible number of books in their libraries, the beauty of study rooms and campuses and she reports being stopped by a custodian from stepping on the grass because she is a woman and only men are allowed to walk or sit on the grass, just as she is denied access to the library for the same reason. She must not wander off the gravel path. Therefore emphasising that for the mere fact of being a woman she could not do as she pleased, like men could, but she had to keep to the rules set for women by men.

That is precisely why she underlines the need for women to be financially independent and self-sufficient and to have their own private space where to find the proper concentration without useless interruptions that result in inevitably fragmented production.

She continues by relating that men’s universities have been lavishly funded by generous patrons who held young men’s education in great esteem whereas the women’s college she visited on the same occasion showed clear signs of much less importance and to do so she listed the menu of the lunches served on the same day in the men’s college and in the women’s  describing in detail the great differences between the two, in fact if the first has the best dishes and the best wines, the second one is not even half as plentiful or savoury, on the contrary it is quite plain. This merely to show that there is much less interest in women’s education therefore the funding is always lacking. However, she adds, had women been taught to make money and make the best of their talents and creativity they probably would have stopped having children.

The metaphor is meant to underline that women have always had less opportunities than men in enjoying the proper financial status and the adequate free time to let loose their imagination, to enrich their knowledge and thus to produce as well.

Historically Labelled as Inadequate They Inevitably Believed it To Be True

In chapter two she writes:

  • “One must strain off what was personal and accidental in all these impressions and so reach the pure fluid, the essential oil of truth” – Ch. 2

In other words in her effort to get at the truth she realizes that that’s quite impossible because, she continues, we are all imbued with our own experience of life, we are permeated by historical events, moulded by family background and all this concurs in the perception that we have of ourselves, of others and of whatever is around us.

There is no escape from the perception of reality that influences our opinions. That is why, she tells her audience, there is not one given truth and everything depends on everything else and it is the same for women’s literary endeavours which are a sum of their entire lives and of their personality too.

To make this idea clearer she underlines that:

  • “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare” – Ch. 2

Judith Shakespeare and Her Tragic Fate

Again she resorts to fiction to illustrate exactly what she is thinking and she invents a fictitious twin sister of the famous poet, Judith Shakespeare; had she existed, continues Woolf, she would have had a tragic fate, no doubt. Endowed with the same visionary poetic talent as her brother, conventions and female duties would have undoubtedly played against her. At one point of her life she would have been forced to marry a spouse of her father’s choice and had she rebelled against this decision she would have been beaten to curb her spirit and silence her protests and even if she had run away and actually reached London, just as her twin brother had, she would never have been allowed to become an actress, on the contrary she would have been taken advantage of, abused of, she would have gotten pregnant and fallen in total disgrace she would have committed suicide.

Virginia Woolf takes the most common idea according to which the lacking quality of women’s writing proves their inferiority compared to men but she uses a completely different approach to invalidate this assumption. In fact, she analyses the historical context and discovers that the way women are judged and treated sets a completely unequal ground and virtually decrees the impossibility for women to realistically rival men in their literary achievements.

The circumstances in which Judith Shakespeare is forced to live prove that it’s not a matter of talent or intellectual ability; it is indeed her sex that prevents her to reach any artistic fulfilment.

To support her thesis Woolf goes one step further:

  • “Life for both sexes – and I look at them, shouldering their way along the pavement – is ardous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and stregth. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion that we are, it calls for the confidence in oneself.” – Ch. 2

The Quest for Confidence Is Essential in the Creativity Process

This statement underlines the fact that the way men have treated women has always been unequal, in fact she believes that men have systematically subordinated women to reinforce their own confidence as the more capable sex. But that’s quite understanding, she says, and she highlights the great importance of the quest of confidence, it is essential to possess it if one wants to pursue art. Women have so far lacked confidence and that is why the quality of their art is not as good as it can be.

They lack confidence and they are full of anger for their condition of second rate citizens and it shows in their writing, their resentment and rancour comes off. Yet, despite all that they keep going, they persist and just for that she deems them heroic.

It is then in this context and in the change of times that I want to close telling you about another relevant twentieth century writer and woman. Especially to underline how the changing times do make a difference, indeed and how, as Woolf wrote, everything is connected.

DORIS LESSING (1919-2013) and The Golden Notebook – 1962

 

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I will introduce Doris Lessing with her own words, that in some ways can be related to what was last said on Woolf:

“Nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one’s own. Writing about oneself, one is writing about others”.

Again, everything is connected.

A Novel Immediately Loved by Feminists

According to Margaret Drabble, The Golden Notebook “which was published in 1962 – in other words the Fifties – was not only ahead of its time but a blueprint for women in times to come. Moreover as Lessing herself said: “it was written as though the attitudes that have been created by the Women’s Liberation movements already existed.”

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The Golden Notebook which was published in 1962 (33 years later Woolf’s essay) was, and probably still is, one of the most contreversial novels in British literature. When it was published it immediately gained its author the labels of “man-hater” or “ball breaker”, it was considered by many as castrating.

Lessing herself wrote that it had been “instantly belittled as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.” She was the first to reject the feminist label, above all.

Revolutionary in its Structure and Themes

During a time in which many screamed out at the death of the novel Lessing tackles the genre with a daring approach writing a novel whose structure was in fact unconventional. Briefly said, it is a collection of notebooks with different colours in which the protagonist, Anna Wulf, tries to sort out her thoughts about politics,  her feelings about herself and her life , her ideas regarding her  writing block and art in general,  and then a novel within a novel about Africa and the race issue that affected Lessing all her life. It is about the fragmented inner selves on the verge of chaos, of a breakdown so the huge effort of the main character is to keep it all together and to do so all of it is framed in what is the final product: the golden notebook.

  • A novel about womanhood, politics, sex. Margaret Drabble described it as “ a novel of shocking power and blistering honesty.” And she goes on: “Lessing wrote about women’s ambivalence about motherhood and sex and work in a way that was simultaneously shocking and influential. If she rejected the feminist label it was perhaps because she had no need for it. If others gave ito to her it was perhaps because they needed her.”

It is mainly about a writer, Anna Wulf, who is facing a very disturbing phase in her life which appears to be crumbling down due to the many issues that she is overwhelmed by and does not seem to be able to deal with rationally, she feels cut up in fragments. First and foremost it is about the writer’s block, rather a symptom than a cause. Nothing in Anna’s life seems to be in place, there’s the issue of the British Communist Party refusing to acknowledge the impact that Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s politics had had on public opinion around the world, it is about the violent Hungarian repression of 1956 and again the party refusing to take a clear stand about it; it is about her personal life that is in fact being strongly affected by all that’s taking place regarding the cold war and the terror of nuclear war pending; it is about the artist in Anna being devastated by all of the above and how all of it is interfering with her personal life, the way she cares for her young daughter and the way she perceives motherhood, the way it influences and conditions her sentimental relationships and her choice of selfish and self-centred men, and finally, it is about female friendships and about her way to tune in with others and her ability to listen and to interpret others’ feelings, awkwardness, inner malaises.

A Political Book that Reviewers Chose to Interpret Only for Its Female Issues as if They Weren’t Political Too

In one of her interviews Lessing stated that

The Golden Notebook was fundamentally a political book. I used to tire of having to explain to young readers in the 1970s what Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress meant to world communism. That’s what really gave the book its charge. At the time the comrades here were denying that Khrushchev had even made that speech, saying it was an invention of the capitalist press.”

Yet reviewers decided to focus only the female issue and the book did give Women’s Liberation Movement a drive, it contributed to its coming forth on the public debate despite Lessing’s understandable refusal to it being limited only to that.

As far as we are concerned it is specifically this aspect that interests us most, because it is undeniable that The Golden Notebook represents a mile stone in British and American Feminism because for the first time a revolution was made in the way women could and did perceive themselves, even if only in private quarters.

For the first time Ms Lessing discusses in a novel the most intimate part of women’s sexuality, for the first time in a novel the word “orgasm” referring to women’s sexual satisfaction is not only just mentioned but it is clearly stated as natural, long due and for too long left unsaid.

Rachel Cusk says, “Lessing’s novel has become, if anything, more relevant over time.” As a matter of fact, she continues: “the modern reader may find it far franker, more open, more intellectual and more politically and personally revolutionising a text than its first readers did,”

Female’s Sexual Satisfaction and the Sacred Idea of Motherhood Overturned – The End of Taboos?

However that is only the tip of the iceberg about the female issue that Lessing does deal with in her novel, the protagonist is a single-mother that has ambivalent feeling towards motherhood, a concept held sacred in the past, and that Lessing overturns, in The Grass Is Singing, for instance, she writes:

“there is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children”

and in October 1947 she wrote:

“I haven’t yet met a woman who isn’t bitterly rebellious, wanting children, but resenting them because of the way we are cribbed, cabined and confined.”

So she isn’t new to such outspoken ideas that at the time did sound shocking to most.

What strikes me as being particularly relevant for today’s discussion is that if we trace a line to connect all the points that we have just barely touched we cannot but realize that it is undoubtedly all due to the time we live in and that everything is in fact connected.

None of  what makes up our self-awareness, our self-confidence and the truth that lays behind A room of one’s own as women of our time could have happened without women like Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and many many more of whom we know very little perhaps of their daily struggle to affirm their worth in what still is a man’s world.

Further Reading:

Orlando, Virginia Woolf

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Virginia-Woolf

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/06/the-golden-notebook-50-years-on

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10467963/Doris-Lessing-A-mother-much-misunderstood.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10455494/Doris-Lessing-her-last-Telegraph-interview.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1571907/Doris-Lessing-warns-of-inanities-of-internet.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10455882/Doris-Lessing-a-woman-ahead-of-her-time.html

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