What Virginia Woolf Can Teach Us About Opportunity Cost

Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” is a nearly century-old feminist classic that still resonates today

Image Credit: Eleni Debo / Folio

“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf can be summed up in its most famous sentence: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Specifically, the narrator—a fictitious alter ego of Woolf’s named Mary Beton—claims 500 pounds a year and some personal space is what a woman needs to enjoy enough independence and privacy to write on par with men.

The book, published in 1929 and adapted for television in 1991, resulted from Woolf being asked to lecture at Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction. Woolf could have interpreted the request in a number of different ways, but settled on discussing why women don’t write more fiction, as opposed to how women are represented in fiction, or something similar.

Interestingly, “A Room of One’s Own” is itself an unusual blending of fiction and nonfiction. It is fiction in the sense that Woolf creates the fictitious character named Beton to drive the book’s narration. Beton is a privileged upper-class woman in British society who—despite enjoying many advantages like a significant inheritance—is nonetheless held back as a writer by society’s stultifying norms.

On the other hand, the book can also be viewed as a work of philosophy or nonfiction in the sense that the Beton character is essentially a mouthpiece for expressing Woolf’s views. Or Beton might be best thought of as an “everywoman” character meant to describe the female experience generally. The last name even changes at times to Carmichael or Seton.

The narration follows Beton through her experiences at OxBridge University, an imaginary blending of Cambridge and Oxford. We see how women in early 20th-century Britain, even when relatively well-off, attended separate schools from men and were even prevented from entering the university library without a male chaperone or a special pass. But Beton’s experiences of everyday life are mostly secondary to her stream-of-consciousness narration, as she ponders the place of women in society.

Although a lot has changed in the nearly a century since “A Room of One’s Own” was written, many of the arguments in the book are familiar. Today, unequal wealth is commonly cited as a cause of unequal outcomes. Hence, redistribution of incomes has grown into a popular policy response to fight inequality.

Feminist. Virginia Woolf in 1927, around the time she was writing A Room of One’s Own. Image Credit: Houghton Library, Harvard University

As important as financial independence for Woolf is education, and the fact that women historically haven’t received one. Woolf points out that had William Shakespeare had a sister (Woolf conjures one up for him and calls her Judith), she never could have matched him in his achievements, even if she had the same natural talent. She wouldn’t have been afforded the same education as her brother and probably would have been discouraged from writing had she shown any interest in it. Nor, had Judith moved to London, would she have been allowed to emulate her brother by acting or authoring plays at the Globe Theatre. It’s a powerful example that leaves one wondering how many Judith Shakespeares we’ve missed out on throughout history.

I was also struck by the author’s complaints about the limited depth with which women have been portrayed in literature throughout history. I hadn’t thought of this before, which perhaps highlights the blindness with which men sometimes see women. Women are often either placed on pedestals like goddesses, or they are simply viewed through a lens of their relationships with men: as wives, sisters or perhaps seductresses. That’s as opposed to being individuals with their own feelings, motivations and friendships separate from men. Woolf does note that times were beginning to change, especially due to path blazers like Charlotte and Emily Bronte and Jane Austen. However, such authors were rare exceptions in Woolf’s day, rather than the rule.

Woolf also notes that most famous artists and writers throughout history were wealthy noblemen. Her solution seems to be to create a class of wealthy noblewomen alongside them, in essence creating a second privileged class with the freedom to create poetry and art. Here the book’s message strikes a less resounding chord with the modern reader, as Woolf doesn’t seem to be concerned with spreading opportunity equally across all economic classes or spreading it to racial and other historically marginalized groups.

Thanks to economic growth, society is so much wealthier today than it was in Virginia Woolf’s time, that nearly any individual (at least in developed countries) is afforded the opportunity to pursue a career as a writer. Not everyone will succeed, but it really is a testament to how far society has come that opportunities that were once only available to the privileged few are now open to the vast majority of people in many places.

I walked away from reading this book pondering a few questions. First, I wondered to what extent financial and educational independence are still an impediment to female progress. We certainly are far from the days when women couldn’t own property, enter libraries or attend top universities. Indeed, it is now common to see women CEOs, famous women athletes and women heads of state. What’s more, considerable progress seems to have been made in the specific area Woolf seemed most concerned about: money. Nonetheless, there are still far more male billionaires than female ones. There is also a gender pay gap. While much of that gap can be explained by life choices—like the choice of major in college or the decision to leave the workforce for a few years to raise children—this leads to further questions about why women might choose (or feel pressured to choose) certain life paths in the first place.

The first edition of A Room of One’s Own, with a cover illustration by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Relatedly, I wondered what hope the advance of technology might offer for female liberation. “A Room of One’s Own” is considered part of the “first wave” of feminist literature, written around the time of the suffrage movement. A second wave, which occurred during the mid-20th century, comprised of books like “The Second Sex” by French author Simone de Beauvoir and “The Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. Firestone in particular saw the roots of male domination over women in their biological reproductive role, which historically has made them vulnerable and dependent on men for protection and support. Could it be that with the advance of technologies like artificial wombs women might one day be freed from their traditional biological role? It’s a world that’s hard to imagine, and one that’s even a little frightening, but I suspect the most revolutionary changes with respect to women’s role in society may still lie ahead of us.

Finally, how much human capital has been lost due to the subordination of women throughout history? Women make up half of society and yet when one looks back throughout history almost all the dominant characters—in the arts, sciences, politics and so on—are men. This is a shame from the standpoint of justice, but as an economist I also can’t help but think about all of the Judith Shakespeares throughout history and the misallocation of their talent. By extension, this translates into foregone innovation, lost growth and lower living standards.

It brings to mind Federic Bastiat’s famous parable “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen.” We often don’t see the opportunity cost of our actions, i.e., that which we give up. How much genius, artistic or otherwise, have we lost by relegating women to the sidelines of human history?

I never expected I would like feminist literature, but this book was a pleasure to read and it inspired me to read several other books in the genre, including the volumes by Firestone and Beauvoir mentioned above. Woolf’s powerful intellect shines through on every page. Her writing is lucid, thoughtful and full of interesting anecdotes and symbolism. One could criticize Woolf for being elitist, but otherwise “A Room of One’s Own” holds up remarkably well today. This is a testament to the strength of the writing and argument, but also to how far as a society we still have to go to achieve equality.

Almost a century after it was written, Woolf got at least one guy thinking about some blind spots in his own thinking and about how much we have lost, thanks to a lack of equal opportunity. It just goes to show opportunity cost can be a tricky concept, even for some economists like me.

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