Written by Georgia Crocker
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
The Pressure to Optimise: Why A Room of One’s Own is Still Relevant was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
The thesis of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, is simple enough. Greatness, particularly literary greatness (though one could extrapolate this to any work that is truly exceptional), requires intellectual freedom. This freedom can be bought with an income of £500 per year and a room of one’s own. Throughout history, women have been kept busy and poor, and this modest freedom has been denied to us.
This book should have remained an artefact of its time. It should have been condemned to the back of dusty shelves, alongside books about the suffragist movement and the denial of women’s property rights. Yet women are still busy and still poor. We have, perhaps, even more demands on our attention now than at any time in history. And so, Woolf’s conclusion “that it is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry”, and her reasons for it, are as relevant today as ever.
Woolf identifies money and space as the two things that women have been denied, but both are a means to the same end: attention. Undivided attention is required for any great work to be made. No idea can be developed, plan hatched, book read, or argument analysed without the ability to concentrate on it. Much has been written about women’s circumstances throughout the 20th century; however, one constant is that their attention has always been consumed with the work of being women, to the detriment of women doing things.
Throughout the 19th century, women had little time to devote to any creative pursuits. A woman’s work was never done, because women’s work was the work of cooking and cleaning, raising children, mending and tending, and generally looking after the home. It is work that was mentally exhausting, both because of its tedium and because there was no time off. Men who worked in offices or factories could delineate between time spent working and time spent at home. The nature of ‘women’s work’, however, was that the woman was always on-call; the ‘private sphere’ of home life, that to her husband represented rest, was maintained only through her labour.
The result was that women in fiction were seen but not heard. Although women have been written about obsessively and at length by men, they were not afforded the same opportunity to describe themselves. Woolf writes:
“She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”
This point is best illustrated by an anecdote of Woolf’s. On arriving at the British Museum to research the topic of ‘women and fiction’, she is stupefied by the number of books in the catalogue about women. It is an ‘avalanche’, an endless outpouring of male opinions (some more qualified than others) on every element of women’s existence. Women’s biology, psychology, religion, attractiveness, love of children, vanity, are all canvassed. Men, it seems, are free to write anything they like about women and have it called ‘literature’. But Woolf only discovers this on her second attempt to research the topic; during her first, at the library of a renowned English University, she was not allowed in the door.
Women in England today aren’t locked out of libraries, nor are they in Australia. However, many of the expectations surrounding women’s work persist, as women are now expected to work a paid job as well as a ‘second shift’ of domestic work. And then there is another, more insidious demand on women’s attention – the pressure to always be ‘optimising’. As long as women’s attention is limited by such demands, Woolf’s work remains relevant.
Broadly speaking, the pressure to optimise is the pressure that women face to be constantly and productively ‘improving’ ourselves. It is an ever-present quasi-moral demand, typified by wellness culture, the popularity of yoga and barre, and the psychological hostage-taking that has made kale so popular. The pressure to self-optimise demands that women spend our time, money, and attention on becoming ‘better’ people, rather than on doing better work. It mirrors the role of women in fiction that Woolf describes; the role of the woman is to be a beautiful character in a narrative, rather than the author of it. There is no time for reflection; every coffee break is a chance to check an email, every long afternoon divided into intervals of exercise, every evening a chance to test out a skincare routine.
The deceptive thing about the pressure to optimise is that it paints compliance as morally virtuous. Women are sold the myth that the way to do great work is not by earning an income by our wits and finding a quiet place to work, but by adapting ourselves to work within the system that denies us these things. The pressure is so effective because failure is individualised; women blame themselves when they are unable to live up to these unrealistic standards, rather than blaming the standards themselves. In this way, the system disguises the structural barriers it creates to hinder women’s successes. Jia Tolentino writes:
“We have not “optimized” our wages, our childcare system, our political representation; we still hardly even think of parity as realistic in those arenas, let alone anything approaching perfection. We have maximized our capacity as market assets. That’s all.”
A room of one’s own with a lock on the door and £500 a year is Woolf’s antidote to these pressures. She argues that we should be satisfied with enough money to live comfortably, and a door with a lock to shut out the ever-present responsibilities – at least for a while. Without such peace and quiet, it is impossible to do any work. No amount of coffee and self-improvement can help women overcome a lack of these most basic requirements for creativity.
In time, Woolf hoped, a room of one’s own and five hundred a year would help women to find a deeper form of independence. She believed that women following her advice would be able to shed the historical baggage of being ‘women writers’ and simply be writers. Women need a similar freedom today, from the pressure of constantly constructing and performing and optimising our own identities. Good work requires only two things: space to work in and time to work with. By rejecting the pressure to accept less than this, women can begin to reclaim control over one of our most precious resources – our attention.