In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, urging young women to write themselves into history, to give voice to the metaphorical ghost of “Shakespeare’s sister” (symbolic of the voiceless women of history), to travel the world and to be financially emancipated from men.
Woolf could scarcely have imagined the surge in women’s writing since the digital revolution. How could she have predicted that a generation of teenagers and young women would be telling stories on the world-wide web; publishing blogs and ebooks, updating their Facebook statuses and sending tweets from their mobile phones. There now exists a digital record of real women, real lives; and the supposedly “fairer sex” are stepping beyond their subjective position in literature and writing their own representation.
Woolf’s literature transcends her era of first wave of feminism. When she writes,
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,”
she combats the class issues that Marxist feminists nearly one hundred years on are still battling with, and her empathy with men as by-products of a patriarchal society, rather than innately misogynistic, bears resemblance to the He-For-She campaign of the Twenty-First Century, recognising that men are victims of patriarchy too. Yet, my focus is not on Woolf as a kind of proto-post-feminist, but rather on how relevant her message is to young women today.
Belinda Webb, writing for The Guardian in 2012, highlights the neglect of working-class women in literature. She states,
‘ I have often found it ironic that the feminists who cry foul at patriarchal cultural imperialism and the championing of male writers at the expense of better women, then go on to repeat the process among women along class lines, whether they know it or not.’
Webb, in her tribute to working-class writer Carnie Holdsworth, raises an important point about the English Canon and the neglect of the female proletariat. As any student of English Literature or of Women’s Studies will know all too well, academics in the last few decades have placed a significant focus on writing “Herstory” as opposed to “His-tory”. Yet, this re-canonisation has largely been written by the middle-class.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean at all to diminish the important work that literary feminists have been doing. Nor do I mean to overlook or discredit the working-class women who have succeeded in English literature; Pat Baker’s Union Street deserves a special mention here, for not only writing herself into history, but giving voice to women’s untold stories from working-class streets and neighbourhoods.
If women have been neglected from the English Canon, working-class women have been abandoned and left to starve. Virginia Woolf knew it, Belinda Webb knew it, and young women and girls today should know it, too.
Despite my working-class roots, I have benefited from an education system that did not discriminate in terms of class or wealth; I received the same education that children of doctors and lawyers did. However, I was educated out of my class; I was taught the world views of the middle class and indoctrinated into capitalism. My education separated me from the working-class, and yet I felt distinctly alienated by the middle class. I had an affinity with Jimmy Porter and the Angry Young Men of the fifties. And I wondered, where are the angry young women?
When I was young I read Jacqueline Wilson books (as did all of my friends and the majority of young girls in the noughties) and there were real working-class girls. Look at Tracy Beaker, who if you didn’t read about you watched on CBBC, and her aanger with the world and the “Dumping Ground” (the children’s home she lived at). The mix of children from different classes and backgrounds that were thrown together in the seemingly symbolically communist Dumping Ground, the antithesis of the capitalist nuclear family, showcased a group of young people disenfranchised with society’s ordering system.
Of course, I had no idea until just now that my love for Tracy Beaker was prefiguring my increasingly socialist tendencies. Just as I had no idea that the stories of these young girls were being written by a middle-class woman. Now, Wilson’s class in no way diminishes her accomplishment, and I am not here to shame middle-class women for having a place in English literature; women should write and they should be accepted regardless of their place on the social hierarchy. My point is merely that just as women have been tasked with providing accurate representations of themselves, the working class female must step up to the mark and ensure that her voice is being heard.
Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. I no longer believe this to be true. To write fiction a woman must have access to education, and that should not be dependent upon class or wealth.
Failing that, send your tweets and update your status as many times as you wish. You have a right to write.