A couple of months ago, I was surprised and delighted when one of the few men in my book club suggested 'A Room of One's Own' as our book for March. I was surprised because I'd assumed that this incredible essay would only be of interest for the book club's female contingent, and delighted because I'd been proved wrong.
Fast-forward two months, we assembled to discuss 'A Room of One's Own' in a classy establishment (Wetherspoons?!) . Unsurprisingly, a few of my fellow readers braced themselves for a 'robust' discussion and I felt the same way. But what really surprised me was that two of the older lady members of the book club, who'd probably seen the second wave of feminism and felt the effects of sexism throughout their lives, argued that the book was 'irrelevant' and badly written. While I guess stream of consciousness narrative may be a matter of taste, I could not and cannot agree that Woolf's essay is irrelevant. To me, it still rings true a good 86 years after its publication.
Woolf painted a vivid picture of a world where capable women were barred from the best schools, could not gain degrees at Oxbridge and were conditioned to believe that they were physically, mentally and intellectually inferior to men. Now in 2015, in theory, we can get degrees from almost any university we please and join a range of professions. Yet so many of the attitudes Woolf documented persist. In January, Emma Watson received a tweet from a female fan asking for advice after her father told her girls couldn't be engineers. Emma's response? 'Become an engineer'!
What's more, Joan C. Williams published an article in Harvard Business Review about research she and other researchers had done, which indicated that it's bias that pushes women out of a scientific career, not pipeline issues or personal choices. And an email leaked during the Sony security debacle showed that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received 7% of American Hustle's profits compared to the 9% that their male co-stars and director received. It makes me so sad that I barely have to think to reel off about a million examples of the ways women are underappreciated and undervalued in almost every domain.
But it's not just the pervasive power of sexism that makes 'A Room of One's Own' so relevant. It's also the fact that it can spark passionate, and sometimes divisive discussions that we have to have about the way that men and women interact, and what it takes to ensure full gender equality. Yet so often, female voices dominate these discussions. To effect any real change, however, men need to be a part of these conversations. Luckily, I saw how the simple act of nominating 'A Room of One's Own' for a book club and engaging with its ideas revealed men who wanted to create a dialogue, and challenge the status quo.
So I'd call on everyone to immerse themselves in Woolf's sparkling prose and sharp, provocative ideas. While you might not necessarily want to nominate 'A Room of One's Own' for your own book club, if you're part of one, use it to start a conversation and think about how we can make gender equality a reality.