Virginia Woolf said famously in 1928 at Girton when addressing a group of those first women to attend Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, the hallowed sanctum of male intellectual and creative life that helped to ensure male hegemony for the eight hundred preceding years, both in Great Britain and indeed the far-flung British Empire, (and that largely continues today) that if we have “five hundred [pounds] a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile.”
I was reminded of this sterling essay from one of my favorite thinkers and authors the other night when I attended a showing of a documentary Who Does She Think She is? This is hard-hitting, factual reportage of several outstanding women artists—potters, ceramists, painters, singers, film makers—to honor their creativity while juggling the raising of children, relating to spouses and partners, washing dishes and car pooling, in other words quilting a patchwork life.
The greatest toll on these artists is in relating to their spouses or partners, specifically male, whose expectations are shaped by society and familial expectations that the woman partner support their endeavors artistic or otherwise, and while they support their female counterparts—it is only to a point. Now of course there are variants on these themes but that is the general pattern. Surprisingly male children of these struggling artists—who generate their livelihood from their work primarily to feed their children—support, admire and honor their mothers.
The venue for this showing was a meeting room at a retreat center in suburban Philadelphia where thirty women writers (who are also teachers) were meeting for a weekend retreat of writing, sharing and networking. It was striking to me that the film- maker interviewing a male physician, an ardent feminist himself went on record reminding us that the great women writers and artists of the last one hundred and fifty years—ranging from Emily Dickinson, Colette, Georgia O’Keefe and Woolf herself—did not have children.
In discussion after the showing many participants shared that the struggles we had just witnessed on film still speak strongly to the patterns and events of their current lives. I thought of my life, the first woman in my family to attend university, my two wonderful sons, my political career in South Africa that included elected public office at a young age, my publishing career that began when I was an adolescent and fortunately continues, my love of teaching—but also of my divorce after twenty six years of marriage. I thought of my mother and the women of her generation and the generations that came before her without these opportunities and those women all over the world who struggle daily with this reality. It is my profound belief that we cannot create a “whole” world while more than half of humanity is barely valued and even more rarely acknowledged in public domains—such as that of artistic expression.
I will blog again on my thoughts of this retreat weekend, but now it is time for me to return after a many month hiatus to grapple with my current writing project that is requiring more “freedom and the courage to write exactly what [I] think” than I have experienced before.