Women’s place in fiction. How Virginia Woolf prefigured theories of the second wave of feminist writers

Academic Paper, 2018

9 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own
2.1 The presence of women in fiction
2.2 The importance of having material starters
2.3 The androgynous mind

3. Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

4. Helene Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The English writer and feminist Virginia Woolf has had a tremendous impact on feminists to come. While other feminists of her time still concentrated on political rights, she was already announcing topics which prefigured some of the central preoccupations of later feminists, questioning the definition of femininity and the role that patriarchy had chosen for women.

This paper analyzes to what extent Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own had an impact on second wave feminist writers. In the first part, three of the most important theories of Woolf’s essay are outlined. In the second part, both Simone De Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex as well as Helene Cixous’ essay The Laugh of the Medusa are analyzed by looking at whether Woolf’s three theories are or are not to be found in them. The last part looks at the extent to which these three feminists shared or did not share the same opinions and at how strong Woolf’s influence on them was.

2. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own is considered to be one of the first feminist essays. It was written and published by Virginia Woolf in 1929 and was based on lectures she gave about the topic of women and fiction. Although she was part of the first wave of feminist writers, she anticipated topics which got addressed only later. In the chapters 2, 3 and 6 of her essay, she repeatedly tackled three major problems women were faced with and proposed different solutions.

2.1 The presence of women in fiction

The first problem regarded the position of women in the realm of fiction. Woolf declared this a double-faced problem, as women were absent both in the process of writing, leading to an abundancy of male writers and almost no female ones, and in the stories themselves. In the few instances women were referred to in writing, they were mostly shown in a distorted and simple way, addressing only their reproductive skills or their nature-given inferiority (Woolf, 2001). Both sides of the problem led to the fact that the representation of women in literature was rather one-sided, making it hard and almost impossible for women to change their status in real life (Woolf, 2001). By not giving them a powerful voice in the stories, women struggled to let their voices be heard outside of these stories as well.

With that, Woolf (2001) urged women to start writing more and about any topic, even about matters which might seem trivial at first. By doing so, she believed that the world would finally see the multiplicity that lies within women. This idea got further developed through Woolf’s concept of the androgynous mind, addressed in section 2.3. Moreover, she pointed out that women need money to be able to write without restrictions, which leads to the next section.

2.2 The importance of having material starters

After doing several jobs that Woolf did not like, she inherited money from her deceased aunt which gave her the ability to engage in what she really wanted to do. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf (2001) argued that through this financial help, she was finally able to stop hating men because she did not depend on them anymore. As her bitterness subsided, Woolf came to see the world in a more rational, not emotional way and was finally able ‘to think of things in themselves’ (p. 31), without any anger, fear or bitterness influencing her own opinion. Woolf concluded that with this material starter women have the power not to be treated as the weaker sex and are therefore able to indulge in writing without any restrictions. Woolf synonymized this material wealth through the need of ‘a room of one’s own’ (p. 93). She even stated that this financial independence was more important for women than the right to vote which had passed in 1918 in England.

2.3 The androgynous mind

The third problem Woolf (2001) addressed concerned her belief that writers had been writing with only one part of their identity, although every man and every woman has both a male as well as a female side in them. With this idea, Woolf referred to Coleridge’s statement ‘that a great mind is androgynous’ (Woolf, 2001, p. 85). The problem is that some of these parts of one’s individuality are not conform to the rules of society and will therefore get repressed (Woolf, 2001). This ‘repression becomes an effort’ (p. 84), which can lead to some sort of pathology, in women as well as in men. Most men had been writing from a male-only perspective, repressing their female part and therefore women could not find any satisfaction in male writing as they ‘lack[ed] suggestive power’ (p. 88). This was connected to men’s wish to stay superior to women by only depicting one side of the world.

The solution Woolf (2001) proposed was to erase one’s ‘sex-consciousness’ (p. 89) and to be both sexes in one when writing. By ceasing to believe in two separate sides, the fight for superiority of one of these sides ceases to exist as well and it will be possible to create new ideas (Woolf, 2001). This androgyny is also visible in Woolf’s writing style, as it cannot be attributed to one particular genre, but is rather a mixture of autobiography, fiction and criticism. By putting so much importance on showing one’s multiplicity, she anticipated the two French feminists who are addressed in the following sections.

3. Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

Simone De Beauvoir was a French feminist belonging to the second wave of feminist writers. In her book The Second Sex, published 1949 in French, she discussed the oppression of women, addressing a few topics which Virginia Woolf already pointed out and which were developed even further by Helene Cixous.

First of all, De Beauvoir agreed with Woolf on the fact that men had always tried to keep women at a subordinated place in society. De Beauvoir (2011) claimed that they had done so through the construction of various myths, which all implied the definite distinction between men and women, ‘the “division” of humanity into two categories of individuals’ (p. 277). This distinction covered everything in life and was there to ensure that women remain the absolute other, the ‘object’ but never the ‘subject’ of life (p. 283). This was further reinforced by declaring this distinction as natural, which meant that any deviation from it would be abnormal and irrational.

Nonetheless, De Beauvoir understood that this distinction, also called gender, is a social construct and nothing else. Sex might be defining, but for her sex and gender are two different things. She believed that one is not born with a certain gender but is taught it. People become women or men through education, the environment and the standards created by both of them. One might be born with either female or male genitalia, but what makes a female person a women or a male person a man is up to the society one lives in.

Moreover, De Beauvoir (2011) believed that these myths do not only affect the relationship between women and men, but also affect the ways in which woman can be represented and the way they feel about themselves. In all five myths, women have either good or bad qualities, allowing no in between and no diversity and putting them always on second place. Following these myths, women can only show one character, which does not match reality as ‘women [can actually] manifest themselves in many different ways’ (p. 275), which again would reflect Woolf’s belief of an androgynous mind. De Beauvoir stated that this myth-making process makes women feel ‘alienated from’ (p. 278) their own bodies as they have to repress one part. This strong connection to the body is also shown in Cixous’ essay discussed in the next section.

Furthermore, De Beauvoir addressed the issue of female representation in fiction, picking up from where Woolf had left off. In chapter 10 of The Second Sex, De Beauvoir (1993) described how five authors represented women in their writing. The first four of them only reinforced the negative myths, portraying women as the weaker sex who is inferior and who serves men as a tool to see their own superiority. This reflects Woolf’s (2001) statement that men were using women ‘as looking-glasses’ (p. 29) with the sole purpose to emphasize their greatness. Only the last author, Stendhal, mentioned by De Beauvoir (1993), tried to depict authentic female characters and the real causes of their struggle (pp. 251-261). Through that, Stendhal was able to destroy this ‘mythical value’ (p. 263) of women. To solve all these problems, De Beauvoir suggested following Stendhal’s approach, which would be to reject whatever myth one is confronted with to let one’s ‘behavior, feelings and passion be grounded in truth’ (p. 282).

4. Helene Cixous’ The Laugh of the Medusa

Helene Cixous also belongs to the second wave of French feminists, but in contrast to De Beauvoir, she is still alive and writing. In her essay The Laugh of the Medusa, first published in French in 1975, she addressed several topics which can be linked to both Woolf’s as well as to De Beauvoir’s ideas.

The first big topic Cixous re-addresses regards the importance of being present in fiction. Cixous follows Woolf’s and De Beauvoir’s steps as she too believes that it essential for women to become authors as well as to be present in the stories themselves. Cixous (1976) denounces the fact that the ‘phallocentric tradition’ (p. 879) made women believe that writing is a too difficult and glorious task for them and that it is not in the nature of women to write. This had effects on her as well, as she did not start writing ‘before the age of twenty-seven’ (p. 876). Cixous says that women ‘have been drawn away’ (p. 875) from writing and that the number of female writers is still ‘ridiculously small’ (p. 878).

In addition to that, Cixous (1976) criticizes the fact that some female writers have been writing in a male style, repeating ‘classic representations of women (as sensitive – intuitive – dreamy, etc.)’ (p. 878). Through this male writing style, it is never the women’s ‘turn to speak’ (p. 879) and she stays entrapped in ‘the language of men and their grammar’ (p. 887), serving just as ‘a signifier’ (p. 887) without any personal meaning. With this, Cixous refers back to Woolf’s and De Beauvoir’s idea of women just functioning as looking-glasses for their male counterparts.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


Women’s place in fiction. How Virginia Woolf prefigured theories of the second wave of feminist writers
University of Malta  (English Studies)
ENG 2063 Theories of Literature 3: Gender and Power
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Women in fiction, androgynous mind, material starters, Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
Quote paper
Stefanie Dalvai (Author), 2018, Women’s place in fiction. How Virginia Woolf prefigured theories of the second wave of feminist writers, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/456427


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