The dramatic setting of A Room of One's Own is that Woolf has been invited to lecture on the topic of Women and Fiction. She advances the thesis that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Her essay is constructed as a partly-fictionalized narrative of the thinking that led her to adopt this thesis. She dramatizes that mental process in the character of an imaginary narrator ("call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please—it is not a matter of any importance") who is in her same position, wrestling with the same topic.
The narrator begins her investigation at Oxbridge College, where she reflects on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives. She then spends a day in the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, all of which has written by men and all of which has been written in anger. Turning to history, she finds so little data about the everyday lives of women that she decides to reconstruct their existence imaginatively. The figure of Judith Shakespeare is generated as an example of the tragic fate a highly intelligent woman would have met with under those circumstances. In light of this background, she considers the achievements of the major women novelists of the nineteenth century and reflects on the importance of tradition to an aspiring writer. A survey of the current state of literature follows, conducted through a reading the first novel of one of the narrator's contemporaries. Woolf closes the essay with an exhortation to her audience of women to take up the tradition that has been so hardly bequeathed to them, and to increase the endowment for their own daughters.