This essay compares the arguments for women’s education, as outlined by Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf, two pioneering activists in their day, whom all literate women owe a great debt.
Western women alive at this time in history sometimes forget the hard fought equality battles won by their foremothers, particularly in the area of education.
On the one hand, this memory lapse has its value. Constant reference to a time wherein women found access to basic intellectual stimulation and education difficult to acquire, and in some cases nonexistent, breathes life into a sexist past best left to die. On the other hand, in our age, barriers to and lack of education still pose a relevant concern for women in developing parts of the world. For these women, the struggle to obtain and exploit educational opportunities remains as fresh and topical as it was for Rich and Woolf.
Let us begin with Woolf. A Room of One’s Own, based upon two of Woolf’s papers delivered to the Arts Society at Newnham and Girton Women’s Colleges at Cambridge in October of 1928, was first published in 1929.
In it, Woolf describes an event, shocking to any Western woman now, wherein upon attempting to gain access to a library, “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 8).
Woolf’s essay details the story of Judith Shakespeare, the bard’s “extraordinarily gifted” imaginary sister, “as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world” as her brother, yet Judith “was not sent to school” (Woolf 50).
Judith “had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers” (Woolf 50).
Woolf’s argument for a woman’s education points to the need for a woman to develop an identity beyond that of helper, support worker, wife, stew minder, and mender of stockings. Education, in Woolf’s view, helps women learn about themselves. In Woolf’s mind, it is the responsibility of women to acquire their own education however they can.
A Room of One’s Own, read in 2010, seems archaic and obsolete, given that it refers to a time when women had trouble gaining access to libraries, clearly not the case now. Woolf’s tales of enforced gender barriers and ambitions thwarted solely on the basis of gender seem outrageous.
What family now would treat their daughters so differently from their sons? However, Woolf’s essay takes on a deeper meaning when we consider that in Africa, now, the pressure on girls to drop out of school “peaks with the advent of puberty and the problems that accompany maturity, like sexual harassment by male teachers and parental pressure to marry.
Female teachers who could act as role models are also in short supply in sub-Saharan Africa: they make up a quarter or less of the primary school teachers in 12 countries in the region, according to the Unesco” (LaFraniere 22). Seemingly, Woolf’s assertion that “it is unthinkable that any woman in Shakespeare’s day should have had Shakespeare’s genius.
For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among…women whose work began…almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom” still holds weight over 80 years later (Woolf 52). The death of education is the death of the mind, and for girls in developing nations education is still far from guaranteed.
Rich reminds women in college that they “cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves as being here to claim one” (Rich 231). Like Woolf, Rich points to the example of Judith Shakespeare. In Rich’s time, women were still essentially brought up to support their families.
Like Woolf’s “women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed,” Rich understands that the “upbringing as women” often tells women that education “should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people” (Rich 233). Additionally, Rich believes that women historically have been taught to view education not only as unnecessary to the role of wife and mother, but also as an unseemly feminine pursuit.
“We have been offered ethical models of the self-denying wife and mother; intellectual models of the brilliant but slapdash dilettante who never commits herself to anything the whole way, or the intelligent woman who denies her intelligence in order to seem more “feminine,” or who sits in passive silence even when she disagrees inwardly with everything that is being said around her” (Rich 233).
Both Woolf and Rich agree that education is a means for women to grow, and both agree that it is absolutely the responsibility of women to seek their own education. Woolf reminded her 1928 female audience that “there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago, she was given a vote.
May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good” (Woolf 119).
Rich echoed this same sentiment to her 1977 female audience when she impressed upon them that “responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work” (Rich 233). Rich, like Woolf, believes that women’s education is in their own hands.
Although 50 years apart, Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf bore a distinct resemblance to each other, and their views on women’s advancement aligned on multiple points. They were both tough, intelligent, groundbreaking women who were not prepared to coddle other women. They both believed in women’s intelligence, and they both stridently argued for the value of women’s education, for their own good, and “for the good of the world at large” (Woolf 116).
In 2010, the majority of Western women take our education for granted. This represents a disservice to the women who came before, like Woolf and Rich, women who fought and sacrificed to bring education into the mainstream for women. More importantly, it disrespects the efforts of women in developing nations, who face an uphill battle simply completing a primary school education (LaFraniere 22).
LaFraniere, Sharon. “For Girls in Africa, Education is Uphill Fight.” New York Times 23 December 2005. Web. 20 November 2010.
Rich, Adrienne. “Claiming an Education.” On Secrets, Lies, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 1995. Print.
Rich, Adrienne. “Taking Women Students Seriously.” On Secrets, Lies, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 1995. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own, and Three Guineas. Ed. Morag Shiach. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.