This recurring feature, curated by Pilgrim Soul, directs Harpy readers to important feminist thoughts and concepts as spoken by some of her favourite feminists on and off the web. The appraisal of the value of these snippets is, of course, entirely Pilgrim Soul’s, and does not necessarily reflect the views of other Harpies. Feel free to discuss in the comments here.
First, a word: apologies to readers and the other Harpies because I haven’t been posting lately due to professional turmoil. I probably won’t be posting much until a couple of weeks from now, as I am going away for a week starting Saturday, and although the plan is to write some things the Harpies can post in my absence, lifely preoccupations are keeping me from being able to do much but sputter angrily on any given topic.
Today’s Feminist Food For Thought comes from a distinctly un-angry feminist by the name of Virginia Woolf. When I was reading Walker a week or so ago I noticed she mentioned Woolf in her list of influences as the woman who “saved so many of us.” Young feminists today, however, don’t much talk about Woolf. I wish I could say why, but it’s probably because she comes from another time, because her sentences are not short, and because she was never one for polemicism anyway. But! Here she is, in the famous essay A Room of One’s Own, explaining why she isn’t out to declare “female” or “male” writing the winner of the Great Gender Contest:
No opinion has been expressed, you may say, upon the comparative merits of the sexes even as writers. That was done purposely, because, even if the time had come for such a valuation—and it is far more important at the moment to know how much money women had and how many rooms than to theorize about their capacities—even if the time had come I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighed like sugar and butter, not even in Cambridge, where they are so adept at putting people into classes and fixing caps on their heads and letters after their names. I do not believe that even the Table of Pre cedency which you will find in Whitaker’s ALMANAC repre sents a final order of values, or that there is any sound reason to suppose that a Commander of the Bath will ultimately walk in to dinner behind a Master in Lunacy. All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority. belong to the private–school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot. As people mature they cease to believe in sides or in Headmasters or in highly ornamental pots. At any rate, where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off. Are not reviews of current literature a perpetual illustration of the difficulty of judgement? ‘This great book’, ‘this worthless book’, the same book is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring–rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea–bite in comparison.
You know, awhile back, when I first got on the subject of Great Male Narcissists, I said something similar, in more, ahem, colloquial terms: “But pronounce on his overall literary merit as though I had been anointed the Grand Poobah of Great Writing? That’s not how I roll.”
This, I find, is the hardest thing to get across when doing feminist criticism: I am not making a claim about the superiority of women, necessarily. I am making a claim about the inadequacy of the male experience to capture everything, sure. But that has absolutely nothing to do with whether my own limited experience can “better” speak for the masses.
Does anyone else have this problem?