In 1929 the English writer Virginia Woolf inserted a famous phrase into feminist history: “a room of one’s own.” The main theme of her extended essay by this name is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” or, more generally, to live according to her own convictions. She need a room with a lock — a safe and private place. In short, economic independence is the bedrock of all other freedoms.
Woolf was among the fortunate few who inherited money and so inherited her independence. The vast majority of women needed to earn it through sustained labor. Her elite status may explain why Woolf’s commentary missed a key factor defining the status of poor women surrounding them.
Although Woolf correctly denounced social prejudice as a barrier to women’s economic advancement, it was only when prejudice was embedded into law that women were consigned to the kitchen or unskilled labor. Whenever the law was weakened, poor women surged into rooms of their own.
Nevertheless, Woolf’s essay is honored as an early blast at patriarchy and an indictment of the unfettered marketplace. Instead of recognizing how regulation harms poor women, Woolf’s descendants have called for an ever more shackled marketplace.
What were the circumstances for English working women in 1929? A tug-of-war was occurring between the repeal of economic legislation and its imposition. The first led to greater opportunity for women; the second closed doors. Both phenomena sprang largely from the same cataclysmic event: World War I (1914-1918)
During the war years, an estimated two million women stepped out of the kitchen to fill the jobs vacated by enlisted men. Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (1897-1918), declared, “The war revolutionised the industrial position of women — it found them serfs and left them free.”
After the war women’s economic status blurred, with many employers replacing women with returning men. Three factors ensured that women would remain in the workforce, however.
- Some women embraced their wider sphere and would not willingly retreat into economic shadows.
- Britain’s huge death and casualty rate in the war meant that abled bodied men were less available. Approximately 750,000 men died, with 2.5 million claiming disability.
- Many women faced a future as widows or spinsters responsible for their own sustenance.
British law reacted to women’s changing status in contradictory ways. The Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 eliminated legal barriers to women in the civil service, courts and universities, thus recognizing their wider role. When this legal barrier was lifted, women surged forward. Carrie Morrison became the first female solicitor three years later. Overwhelmingly, however, the act benefited well-to-do women.
Although the civil service might have served as a stepping stone for all poor women, it became regulated at the urgent request of women themselves. Despite fewer employable men, Britain experienced the general unemployment brought by the Great Depression. Widows and spinsters wanted married women who sought the same jobs discriminated against. For example, in 1921 an estimated 102,000 female civil servants pushed forward a resolution to ban married women; it remained in force until 1946.
Over and over the preceding scenario replayed during the twentieth century. Laws were repealed and all women advanced; laws were passed and some women were set back.
Protection Equals Privilege
Even laws intended to protect women, like the civil service restriction, ended up privileging one class of women at the expense of another. This too has escaped the notice of Woolf’s descendants who have lobbied passionately for the restriction on free employment, from affirmative action to pay equity, from mandated quotas to paid maternity leave.
I’ve had reason to notice. I once needed a room of my own. And I know on a personal level how laws can harm those they intend to protect. I ran away from home at 16 years old because the streets were safer than my family. Unfortunately it was Canada in December and sleeping in a church with an open-door policy was a stop-gap measure at best. I needed a room with heat and a door that locked.
I was lucky because I was 16-years-old. Child labor laws designed to protect children from exploitation did not apply to me, and so I was able to get a minimum-wage job in a furniture store, filing years worth of boxed papers. If I had been “protected” either as a child or a female from being able to negotiate for less money than other applicants demanded, I would not have been able to to rent a room in a boardinghouse. Instead, I would have been “protected” into begging, stealing, dealing drugs, or sex work. Like most runaways, I would not have “turned myself” into the authorities known as social services.
What saved me was the ability to contract on my own terms so that I could buy a room with a lock and go on to build a life.