J is for …

Judith Shakespeare

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‘What would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say.’

All quotes from Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

In the third chapter of Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay,  A Room of One’s Own, we are introduced to the fictional character, Judith Shakespeare.  Woolf uses the fictional sister of William Shakespeare to compare the lives and opportunities of men and women in Shakespeare’s England in the 1500s. Judith is of equal genius to William but whereas he can thrive, she cannot.

William probably attended a grammar school to learn Latin and to study the Roman poets, Ovid, Virgil and Horace. He followed his dream and turned up at a theatre and worked his way into acting. He met new people, made contacts and wrote and wrote and wrote. Judith stayed at home.

Judith would never have gone to school. She would have been trapped at home, expected to do the chores and would have been reprimanded if found reading when she should have been domestically employed within the confines of the house. She would have been expected to marry a man of her father’s choice and remain forever in her husband’s servitude. She would also have been laughed at and ridiculed if she had wanted to follow her dream. So many doors would have been closed to her.

Virginia questions why there are so few women writers of this time in the canon. She says that

‘Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’.

We already know that writers like Charlotte Bronte and Mary Ann Evans had to use male pseudonyms in order to be able to write; we know that women like Jane Austen were so discouraged from writing that they had to hide their work from prying eyes. Such was the obstacles faced by women writers. What hope was there when opinion was that,

‘the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man’.

It’s a wonder we haven’t crashed the internet with all the articles about patriarchy and feminism but we know that Virginia was a keen advocate of feminism and paved the way for equality with her famous comment that,

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.

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5 thoughts on “J is for …

  1. Of the many pieces I read during a Women’s Studies class one semester, so, so long ago, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own was my favorite. I was compelled by her essay and remember enjoying the class discussion at the time. I’ve often wondered how many great pieces of literature were stifled because they existed only in the hearts and minds of creative but oppressed women. Great post – I enjoyed it very much.

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      1. You are kindly welcome. I was raised in a family where women were treated as equals. My mother operated her own business in an era when she should have been a house wife (according to our customs). My father was very supportive of her endeavour and helped where he could. My maternal Grandmother was a midwife and bootlegger. My siblings and i were raised understanding that men and women share equal responsibilities in life and that women should be permitted to pursue any dreams they had. We were also taught that it was okay for a woman to decide to be a home maker should that be her choice.

        Your piece is important to me and should be important to all who read it.

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  2. If only all families were like yours. I think the key is when you say that it is ‘okay for a woman to decide to be a home maker’ as I feel passionately that the skills of such an occupation should be as highly valued as any in the public sphere.

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  3. I am a Women’s Studies graduate. I too appreciate when men (and women)’get it’. I recall one male relative asking ‘there’s a whole degree in it?’ There is a whole world in it.

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