Lost in Trans-Lation II: Attack of the Bad Puns

What follows is another journal entry, as the really bad title might well have clued you in to. This one is a brief analysis of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Needless to say, I loved the book, and equally needless to say I found a means of relating some trans issues to it. The entire thing is nowhere near as deep and comprehensive as I would have liked. There are a multitude of ways to read those 120 pages that comprise Ms. Woolf’s most famous feminist work. For instance I did not get to expound much on my idea that the Internet allows countless people from a variety of backgrounds, including otherwise very marginalised ones, to have a vast and endlessly interesting room of their own. The proliferation of blogs has created innumerable platforms that are both very personal and very public- perhaps transcending the firm dichotomy between them- for people like sex workers, trans folk, radical activists across the various spectra, people with disabilities, the impoverished, and more. It is, certainly, a point I should have dwelled on.

It is a great shame that a feminist blog named after Woolf’s book is a hive of transphobia, but excepting the corrupted allusion that it represents the growth of the Internet and the infinite number of ‘rooms’ it has created has advanced the cause of social justice like no other.

I should also not have to belabour the point of a certain significance that accrues to a simple fact: I’m getting perfect scores on these essays that routinely mention trans people in a positive light, and that routinely critiques (and indeed, more often than not, trashes) our opponents, feminist and otherwise. Where among other professors this might occasion deeply undesirable battles, I find myself supported at every turn by both my professor and others in the department. Comments where my professor expresses mirth at my witty eviscerations of transphobes are more common than not. It is also worth mentioning that the room of my own this blog represents, and the larger salons of our own that websites like Questioning Transphobia embody, are what helped me hone my skills to not only speak in my own voice as a woman who is trans, but to do so well.

With that, I raise my coffee mug to Virginia Woolf and pray that I am doing her proud. She exhorted us, with passion and verve, to write and add our wisdom to the libraries of the world. Goddess knows I’m now trying to do my part.

What immediately strikes one in reading A Room of One’s Own is Virginia Woolf’s rare talent for political polemics in the form of a fictional story. She seduces one by saying that she will lie, only to envelop you with a honeyed song of truth whose chords vary from sweet violin to driving bass, from sunny meadow to crashing thunder, the mood of her prose carries the reader from one inescapable truth to another and you are left with a twofold sense: one is that it is rather easy to see how Vita Sackville-West was “reduced to a thing that wants Virginia”, and two that there is a sense of depression one feels when she realises how pressing many of Woolf’s concerns remain. To be sure, the world some 82 years on from this stirring, prosaic jeremiad is a very different one. Women now are doctors, researchers, writers in all fields, doing things in literature and science that Ms. Woolf could not have dreamed of in the 1920s; we are activists, libertine lovers, professors, astronauts, politicians, ambassadors, pilots, and the list goes on. Her dream of a new world that would stretch before women a century hence has- in some ways- become a tentative reality. There is another side, of course. The aforementioned women often do not compete on terms equal to their male counterparts- they are judged perpetually as lesser, different, or preternaturally incapable of pursuing their passions. Often the woman engineer must confront co-workers who by default see her as having more to prove than her male counterparts. There was yet more that struck me as I read.

Again and again Woolf points to the work of preachers, doctors, politicians, and writers who had held that women had a place, and it was a quiet one away from the great work of civilisation, away from industry (in the full sense of the term), away from enrichment, and away from liberty. From her fictionalised amalgam of turn-of-the-century sexologists, Professor von  X, to the more real Lord Birkenhead and Oscar Browning, we find men invested with power deriding women’s ability. Perhaps no example was more uproarious than when she quoted and called out an unnamed preacher who gave the benefit of his wisdom to a newspaper, answering two queries with his vast expanse of knowledge and understanding. Woolf memorably summarised her views on his answers thusly: “How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” This preacher, who had opined a woman could never have been Shakespeare’s peer, and also believed cats had no place in God’s eternal kingdom, was typical of his day. Yet he is not without peers of his own in the present, either. They may, perhaps, be somewhat less blunt in their beliefs but no less pernicious. Whether we are confronted by the cat preacher in the person of Larry Summers, or Pat Robertson, or Carl Paladino, or Kenneth Zucker,  or indeed even in the person of newly eminent women like Ann Coulter or Sarah Palin, we find that his spirit (much like that of a cat’s, one is to presume) has been unable to pass on into the next life and leave the living in peace.

Feline escapades aside, however, as the mention of Dr. Kenneth Zucker may hint, some men of science (though with more spirited opposition than ever, one happily admits) continue to play the role of the embittered Professor von X whom Woolf speculated about with righteous indignation. She is, doubtless, cruel in her musing about this fictitious Professor whose hatred for women grew out of a jealous rage at his wife’s infidelity, which lead him to “jab his pen on the paper as if here were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.” Could it be his wife? Woolf mused, perhaps with a sinfully cruel smirk; yet one is enticed to smirk right along with her. For me, I do so because I see her reflection in Andrea James, a transgender rights activist who has on more than one occasion convincingly dredged up the private lives of “men of science” who use their power to harm trans people through their supposed research. In men like J. Michael Bailey who has allegedly slept with trans women sex workers he then slandered and undermined in his research, she finds what she calls without a second thought “closet cases” who do symbolic violence to the transgender community. Dr. von X with his angst ridden pen lives on. Happily, so does Virginia Woolf.

But all of this connecting past with present- ghosts to their descendants- elides the whole point of the book, the very idea ensconced in its title. The fact that, Woolf believes, a woman needs a room of one’s own (complete with a lock, of course) to create and thus be truly free. On this fundamental economic argument, a notion that would become a lynchpin of both socialist and liberal feminisms, rests the entire filigreed structure of her argument. I feel that she is, in large part, correct. She takes the reader on a thought experiment that has now become famous- the imagining of Shakespeare’s sister, one who for the purposes of the exercise, she asks us to assume was born with equal inclination to talent as her famous brother. On this journey she demonstrates the myriad of ways women would be confounded in their efforts to create, and to even simply be free. Passed in ownership from father to husband, a woman rarely found anything that could be truly hers. To this poignant if Eurocentric analysis one might well add that the condition of women of colour remained, well into the 19th and 20th Centuries, analogous to Judith Shakespeare’s in the 16th. Through the institution of slavery, everything about them would be owned. Post-slavery that changed little, save for some nominal legal terms, and even then their labour would be exploited in any number of ways. A room of one’s own would be found only by the privileged few among women of colour in the US. But she brings the metaphor closer to the book’s present- the inequalities in educational institutions are a key image she uses, demonstrating the stark difference between Oxford and Newnham (referred to by pseudonyms in the book) and the vast disparities between men and women in attaining higher education. She lays out a lengthy and detailed case of what such disparities involved: old men of money and privilege would bequeath this wealth to institutions of established reputation that served only young men coming into their privilege. By comparison, seeking funding for a women’s college was an uphill climb indeed for any who sought to do so.

Has this changed? To a certain extent, many inroads have been made. Women’s scholarship programs have proliferated, as have endowments and nonprofit organisations, and the stock of traditionally female colleges has risen dramatically over the last century rather than being seen as simply second tier. Women have at last taken their rightful place in the students pews at academies and colleges in both Britain and the United States. But not yet in the professoriate or administration of these schools, crucially. What’s more, further outside the pastoral boundaries of the magisterial academy, the argument Woolf laid out regains its strength. When one looks at government or big business, large disparities remain. Institutional momentum, old men of power begetting and mentoring young men to take their place, doddering boards and executives seeking heirs akin to themselves- in gender as much as temperament, and many other examples of the old order reproducing itself abound. But yet again there is hope that did not exist in Woolf’s day. Even in those most stubborn bastions of masculinism, hard fought battles are paying off. Some women who have certain privileges will find support, find organisations and firms willing to mentor them, train them, and get them connected. As brutal as contemporary battles against the myriad forms of sexism can be, we find support groups that have a wider reach than ever. From organisations, blogs, and nonprofits devoted to helping transgender women, to the ever powerful activism and advocacy of women of colour, to the new life being breathed into immigrant women’s rights, more and more oases of respite and sites of empowerment can be found: camps for the weary in their unending march to tear down patriarchy’s already crumbling ramparts and battlements. Would Virginia Woolf be cheered?  I should certainly hope so; goodness knows it hasn’t been easy to get this far!

One is also struck and amused by how she points out that a great number of women writers engage primarily in the scribing of poor and cheap novels. Woolf might be left somewhat mirthless at the sight of a drugstore paperback rack in the present day. It does, alas, remain all too true that even accounting for the societal devaluation of women’s labours, much that is written is turgid, and alas a lot of those novels have female authors. Yet I am instantly cheered by a look at my own desk and bookshelves, bursting at the seams with excellent, penetrating and insightful work- fiction and nonfiction- written by women of all experiences. Much of it was written after Woolf’s time, a testament to the ineluctable rise of the powerful woman writer whose intellect and wit would not be sundered. There are, of course, things that one finds disagreeable and perhaps a product of her time (as the hackneyed cliché might go). In remonstrating women she tells us that we have “never introduced a barbarous race to the blessings of civilisation.” Pardon me if I consider this a great achievement[1]. I also find myself in disagreement about her critiques of the poetry of women like Lady Winchilsea, lamenting that she was “forced to anger and bitterness.” What later women writers would come to emphasise was just how powerful anger and rage could be in writing, such that it produced its own renegade art, its own passionate, crimson struck beauty. In Lady Winchilsea’s words were what I would call the purest of poetry, for they bespoke a truth that women dared not grant utterance to. It was the rage, the bitterness in those bloodied words that would lay the groundwork, in part, for women like Virginia Woolf to emerge and for her successors, as well as all the contemporary victories of the women’s movement that she lists in the final chapter. As Audre Lorde once famously said, poetry is not a luxury. It has been woman’s stirring voice in many languages down many centuries. In what women have said in writing- even if it was “anger and bitterness”- there is value and often a dangerous truth. She lauds Jane Austen for her high art, deservedly, but gives too little credit to those women who would- as later generations might have it- ‘tell it like it is.’ She seems to be saying that there is a pure artistry women are restrained from, partially because of the circumstances of societal patriarchy, and partially because women were too weak to fight it in their poetry and prose.  She laments, then, the “deformed and twisted” product of women whose genius, she argues, cannot fully express itself. It is true that oppression in its own way may dictate the content of our writing- but that is no reason to see it as some nadir of feminine achievement, or some stunted and incomplete artistry. For me, it is precisely those angry “cramped and thwarted” words that forge the very world Woolf wanted to live in.

Beauty takes many forms, and in the room of my own I do my level best to answer her timeless call for women to write. It may not be at the level of artistry Woolf demands, but it does manage to do a bit of good. For me, that was always the pen’s noblest purpose.


[1] Of course, the more complex truth is that white women of good breeding were involved in numerous “civilising” projects across the Western world and lending what one might call a feminine touch to colonisation. Even Susan B. Anthony made herself a handmaiden to patriarchal imperialism- that of America’s in the Philippines. One is left wondering if Woolf was proud? Let us hope not.

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