In 1983, Alice Walker criticized Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, on the grounds that Woolf's argument was classist and racist. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker wrote:
"Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for
a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of
her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What
then are we to make of Phyllis [sic.] Wheatley,
a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who
required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and
who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the
intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the
society of her day."
Walker's reaction is part of a larger wave of criticism directed at Woolf that essentially denigrated her feminism because of her privilege. Though there has been a substantial rehabilitation of Woolf's reputation, especially as her pacifist masterpiece Three Guineas has been analyzed with greater attention and care, a whiff of disapproval continues to cleave to the conception of Woolf as a feminist. If we unpack Walker's critique, however, it becomes clear that a failure to consider the work's context and some misreading weakens that critique.
Walker claims that Woolf argues that women require a room and a living wage in order to write fiction. There are several misapprehensions here. First of all, Woolf is not claiming that women require these things in order to write fiction. She claims that women require these things in order to write fiction that can compete with the greatest works written by men. It isn't impossible to write fiction without a room (or, really, privacy) and money, but the lack of these things severely handicaps women. Woolf herself cites Austen and points out the difficulties that she faced in writing her novels: Austen had to write in the family drawing room and had to hide her manuscript when anyone outside the family came to call and she was entirely dependent on male relatives for shelter, clothing, and food. The fact that Austen is one of a select few women who managed to write and publish novels is testament to the fact that it requires something truly exceptional to overcome these limitations, which were the common lot of women of leisure (while women in the working classes were denied education and often could neither read nor write).Woolf also notes that Austen, like the Brontë sisters and George Eliot, were childless (Charlotte Brontë died likely from complicated causes related to a first pregnancy), had male relatives tolerant of their pursuits, and published either anonymously or under a male pseudonym. Woolf's point is that women writers could produce more and better books if they were not constantly interrupted and did not always have to ask permission from a man in order to write; both of these problems are solved by a private room and money enough to live on.
Second of all, the phrase "writing fiction" in Woolf's analysis presupposes "writing (professional, published, critically considered, literary) fiction." She's not talking about writing fiction as a hobby or a distraction from the exigencies of everyday life. For her, fiction is a serious and above all professional pursuit. She's attacking the patriarchal paradigm that allows men, whether married or not, whether fathers or not, to be professional writers, while women, especially if married and especially if they had children, were expected to be available at all times, that is, their writing was not deemed professional.
What, then, are we to make of Walker's example of Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)? Wheatley was, as Walker points out, an enslaved black woman, of frail health but robust intellect. Wheatley was also incredibly exceptional. She was owned by a liberal family who, impressed with her talent, furnished her with an education, an advantage hardly any enslaved person could hope to attain. It is also very much worth noting that this was special treatment: Wheatley's domestic duties were assigned to other slaves owned by the family, slaves that, notably, were not privy to an education, no matter how liberal the family may have been. The publication of her poetry was so controversial that she was forced to prove in court that she had actually written the poems; one can hardly conceive of the humiliation she must have felt. Teaching enslaved persons to read and write was quite controversial and in the 1830s anti-literacy laws were passed in several states, but even in Wheatley's time, few indeed believed in education for the enslaved.
Wheatley did not have a room of her own and she certainly did not have access to a living wage. But, she would not have been able to write a line if her male owner had not decreed that she should receive an education, materials with which to write, exemption from domestic labor, and encouragement that extended as far as a trip to England where her poetry could be more readily accepted for publication. Wheatley was freed only upon the master's death, but her life as a free woman was one of abject poverty and brutal domestic labor that she was too physically unwell to perform. She died at 31.
Walker's rebuttal to Woolf's argument is not really supported by pointing to Wheatley. At the most fundamental level, Wheatley was a poet - she never wrote any fiction - and Woolf draws a distinction between the demands of writing poetry and the demands of writing fiction. But, in essence, that's a quibble. Wheatley's success as a poet says more about how exceptional her circumstances were than it does about what women, especially black, enslaved women, could realistically accomplish at the time. Woolf, too, points out exceptions. It's absolutely crucial to acknowledge that the number of black women writers contemporary with Wheatley can be counted on one hand. In a very limited sense, Wheatley did have a room of her own because she was granted the latitude to the privacy that advanced study and writing require, but, because of her status as an enslaved black woman, she had no right to that room and was at the mercy of the family that owned her. It could be denied her at any moment. Similarly, when she had to work for her living, she was no longer able to get her work published. Without the support of a white family, publishers wouldn't buy her poems. In other words, Phillis Wheatley could never have written or published if the white man who owned her hadn't decided that it would be so. Her circumstances are more extreme than Austen's, say, or Fanny Burney's, because of her race and because she was enslaved, but her career was severely limited by white, male interests.
Woolf wants to do away with those white male interests. Had Walker presented us with a lengthy list of female authors who were brilliant novelists, who had published their work and received a fair critical appraisal, who were considered on a par with contemporary male authors, but who could not lay claim to any form of private space (even so much as a desk) or monetary support, then her critique might have had some merit. But, instead, she gives an example that Woolf herself might have used, an exception that proves the rule.
Lastly, Walker makes the dubious claim that, "had [Wheatley] been white, [she] would have been easily considered the
intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the
society of her day." That's total nonsense. Had Wheatley been white, she would certainly have had far greater chances, both to study and write and to publish. She would certainly not have had to defend her authorship in a court of law; unquestionably, that humiliation would have been spared her. It is easy to imagine that she would have been accorded the respect (limited and patronizing as it was) granted to women writers of her day. But to say that whiteness would have made contemporary men consider her their equal or superior is an absurd claim. There is not a single eighteenth century female writer, poet or novelist, that any contemporary male critic ever considered his equal or superior: not Austen, not Fanny Burney, not Mary Wollstonecraft, not Françoise de Graffigny, not Ann Radcliffe.
In fact, Wheatley more than many writers of her time desperately needed a room of her own and a living wage. Her physical frailty, her vulnerability as a black woman in colonial Boston, the intellectual tenor of her writing and her lively engagement with writers and thinkers such as Alexander Pope (the expense of the books alone would have been formidable), all these factors made it imperative for her to have her own space and her own income. She never had those things. She died in poverty, her husband in debtor's prison, her infant children dead or dying, her last poems unpublished. Her entire literary output can be collected in a volume just under a hundred pages. Far from rebutting Woolf's thesis, if anything, Walker further supports it, for it becomes clear that Woolf's requirements were as pertinent in colonial America as they were in England.