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A Room of One's Own | Context


World War I and Its Effect on Gender Roles

World War I (1914–18) was unlike any conflict that came before it, as the effort required a huge number of capable men and women. While women's domestic roles were still valued, there were other opportunities for women—including women of the middle class—to enter what had been traditionally considered male occupations, at least for a time. Women took over jobs that had belonged to men when those men left to serve in the military. Overall, about one million more women were part of the workforce in 1918 than in 1914. Most worked in factories or labored in fields, but a few became dentists or architects. In addition, some women served in the military as nurses and pilots.

When the war ended some women were eager to return to their domestic roles. However, others found they relished the challenges and opportunities of work outside the home, and they resisted a return to so-called "normalcy." At the same time some men who had been in combat took masculine pride in their military roles, but many others were traumatized by their experiences. Some of these men developed anti-war tendencies that were traditionally associated with women, such as a value for nurturing and caring for life. In addition, the traditional household structure—which included a great number of domestic servants—was evolving. There were fewer jobs in domestic service, and women had to look elsewhere for work. The years after the war created an inevitable tension between social progress and nostalgic traditionalism. Woolf's views in A Room of One's Own occur in the roughly 20-year period between World War I and World War II (1939–45), in the midst of this post-war tension. In Chapter 1 the narrator considers how men and women's expectations of the world have changed, thus fundamentally altering gender interactions.

Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain

Women had been entering the workforce since the shift from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy that occurred during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, but World War I increased their numbers drastically. In the second half of the 19th century, groups of women advocated for suffrage or the right to vote. Suffragists and suffragettes fought for women's voting rights, although their tactics differed. Suffragists, who were mostly middle-class women, took a more genteel approach, preferring to use petitions and lobbying members of Parliament. Suffragettes, on the other hand, were more disruptive. These mostly working-class women were willing to break laws and go on hunger strikes. At first women were given the right to vote in some local elections, and in 1867 Parliament voted on an amendment that would give women voting rights in all elections. While the amendment was defeated, the fight was not abandoned.

World War I put the women's suffrage movement on hold, as it took a back seat to more pressing worldwide concerns. And the desire for things to return to their pre-war state was a powerful force that pushed many women back into domestic roles following the war. But the seed had been planted, and in 1918 women over the age of 30 who were also property owners were granted the right to vote. A movement to grant younger women the vote followed, especially since these younger women had done a great deal of the work in the war. Women over 21 were given the vote in 1928, just one year before A Room of One's Own was published. Woolf's essay came on the heels of adding 15 million women to British voting rolls, a time when women may have been looking to the future, wondering what's next?

Modernism in Literature

Beginning in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, writers began to focus on the unique inner lives of their characters. The seeds of modernism grew quickly during World War I as writers searched for new styles of writing to better express the new world that was beginning to emerge. Along with Irish writers Samuel Beckett and James Joyce and British writer T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf wanted to explore this new way of writing and thinking about the world.

Modernism left many traditional conventions of storytelling behind. The narrative was often fragmented and conveyed through a narrow point of view, evoking the inner experiences of the narrator's mind with all of its associations and inconsistencies. Associations between the narrator's inner state and outer environment resulted in metaphors to describe inner thoughts and experiences. Modernist writers often approached the writing process self-consciously, inserting their authorial voices into the narratives.

Although an essay, A Room of One's Own displays many of these modernist characteristics. Woolf asks the audience to follow along as she creates a fictional narrator and a fictional setting. The inner experience of having a moment of realization is connected to the external experience of seeing a pause in London's traffic and a leaf falling, for example. The idea of the merging of two genders in one brain is connected to the external observation of a man and woman getting into a taxi.

Shared Ideas with Orlando

In 1928 about the same time Woolf was working on A Room of One's Own, she also published Orlando, a novel dedicated to her lover and friend Vita Sackville-West. In this novel, a young nobleman and page at court falls in love with a princess. When the romance ends, Orlando writes poetry and becomes restless. He is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador. One night, he falls asleep but wakes having changed into a woman. As a woman, Orlando avoids several suitors and returns to England, where he lives sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman.

Echoes of Orlando can easily be seen in A Room of One's Own. In the essay Woolf argues the solution to the problem of women's poverty is money and a room of one's own to write in. But this solution is only practical because what is really needed is for women to write without being constrained by their gender. Woolf's ideal is a mind in which both male and female elements coexist and work together. Thus, the character Orlando is the physical embodiment of this merging of male and female.

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