In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf, when asked to give her thoughts on women and fiction, boldly declares that if women are to write, they require five hundred pounds a year and their own room. Instead of outright explaining her logic, Woolf states that because gendered topics are so controversial, she believes that it’s nearly impossible to speak about them directly lest she, the speaker, become the object of scrutiny and not the argument. Therefore, she adopts a fictional persona who comes to the same conclusion that she has and imagines the steps that might have brought her to that conclusion. This storytelling approach forces her audience to draw their own conclusions from the events presented, with the hope that the scenario illuminates truths behind the condition of women writers. Over the course of the story she tells, her narrator describes how comfort and privacy create the material and emotional security required to write well, and how historically lacking this security has put women at a disadvantage.

In Woolf’s imagined scenario, her narrator first describes two dinners at two very different universities. The first, Oxbridge (a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge), is an old and revered university for men. The narrator observes that centuries of donors created this impeccable environment for young scholars, evidenced by its fine food, grounds, and library. Furthermore, these grounds are carefully guarded, ensuring no interruptions for its growing scholars.  At Fernham, an imagined women’s college, the food is meager and unsatisfying, and the environment is sparse. Unlike Oxbridge, Fernham has very little funding, in no small part to the fact that women were not independently in control of the finances until relatively recent history. The lack of resources and material comfort has created a markedly unequal environment. These two dinners serve as a metaphor carried throughout the essay of how genius is something cultivated in comfort and protection.

The narrator expands this metaphor through her trip to the British library, where she observes the infuriating insecurity in the work of male scholars who write on the supposed inferiority of women. Only when she is able to consider what she’s read over a meal she pays for herself, can she analyze this anger with a cool head. From a place of security, she can clearly see that these male scholars are upset because they feel threatened by the idea of their gender not being privileged. This outing underscores the importance of emotional security to writing and scholarship, which material security plays no small part in.

The narrator tests out her hypotheses by observing the historical canon of literature. She imagines what life would have been like for a hypothetical sister of William Shakespeare, and concludes that because independence from men was impossible, she’d have nowhere to nurture her talents and would end up depressed and suicidal. The narrator then looks at women writers throughout history and notes that even where money was not an issue, women lacked uninterrupted space to write. The hyper-scrutiny women writers such as Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish come under lends their writing a defensive quality, which the narrator feels detracts from their art.

The narrator turns her gaze to the contemporary state of literature by inventing an “everywoman” author named Mary Carmichael. The narrator reads one of Carmichael’s novels and notes that she is able to break new ground by writing about women in relation to each other, not simply toward men. The narrator, while cognizant of this novel’s flaws, observes that given how little precedent Mary Carmichael has to work with, the novel isn’t bad. The narrator believes that all art draws from the work that came before it, just as Oxbridge and Fernham’s current state comes from the money and space that have been historically afforded them. With this paradigm in mind, she suggests that if women writers are given money and space, the Mary Carmichaels of the literary world, given a hundred years, could surely reach genius.

Finally, her narrator considers what role gender plays in the genius of writing. While she believes that because of the differing lives of men and women, what they write will naturally be different, she states that when it comes to putting words on the page, being self-conscious of their gender hinders the final product. She believes this self-consciousness to come from discomfort that manifests in anger. For women, this discomfort comes from the lack of space and investment. For men, this discomfort comes from a need to jealously guard the resources and comfort given to them. Therefore, the narrator concludes that what women need to nurture a canon of their own is the means to live a comfortable life and space to focus on their writing so that they can write without bitterness, fear, or anger.