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April 2024

University of Cambridge Woolf Essay Prize

Hester (U6C)

Hester (U6C) discusses the struggle for financial independence and equality for women in academia and other professions. Her essay was Highly Commended in the University of Cambridge’s Woolf Essay Prize.

The struggle for financial independence and equality for women in academic or other professions has been a distressingly long and nuanced one, with neither success nor end to this plight in contemporary society. Financial independence can be defined in different ways; one definition is that it is the state of being ‘responsible for your own expenses.’ Historically, this has been difficult for women in the profession of writing. In light of this, an interesting lens under which to examine this subject is a literary one; since the relevance of inequality in artistic professions remains high; in 2023, only 37% of creative jobs are occupied by women. The examination of female writers’ struggles can aid readers to understand the history of female writing, as well as the writers’ works better. Of many who have struggled for financial independence and gender equality, four women writers are highly important: Aphra Behn, who is arguably the reason why subsequent female writers could earn a living; Jane Austen, who defied the expectations for her era and class; Shirley Jackson, whose hidden desires and mental struggles for freedom could never be realised; and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose current public encouragement of struggle for these freedoms is inspirational.

British Restoration period playwright Aphra Behn is considered of the utmost significance in the history of women writers gaining financial independence. Indeed, Woolf in A Room of One’s Own views her in this way, writing, ‘All women together ought to let flowers fall’ upon her tomb, since she ‘earned them the right to speak their minds.’ Her argument therefore would suggest that Austen, Jackson and Adichie’s abilities to struggle for either financial independence, equality, or both, as writers are due to Behn. Certainly, her financial achievements, groundbreaking in the seventeenth century, were highly significant, but in her essay, Woolf considers the significance of these gains against the quality of Behn’s work, writing, ‘the importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote.’ Perhaps for Behn, being the first female British writer to gain financial independence purely from writing, the quality of her work is beside the point. By contrast, for authors who came after her like Austen, the quality of their work more significantly stands the test of time. Behn similarly struggled as a writer for equality. Her ‘female characters exist in a sexual, moral economy defined by their need for men,’ such as independent Hellena in The Rover marrying libertine Willmore. However this could be seen as Behn needing to adhere to the Restoration period’s conventions for her plays to be performed; indeed, her most famous work The Rover (1677) is based on male playwright Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso (1664). Views held about women writers in the seventeenth century support her struggle, ‘a woman who made herself ‘public’ (by having a play produced or published) was the same as a woman who made herself ‘public’ by selling her body,’ thereby putting female writers on a significantly lower status than their male counterparts. Contemporary male writers criticised her using this view; she struggled against this inequality through her work, since ‘ridiculous men litter her drama, prose and poetry.’ Resulting from her groundbreaking financial independence and beginnings of struggling for equality within her work, Behn holds fundamental significance for the history of women writers.

Jane Austen, an enduringly famous female writer, is highly placed in A Room of One’s Own. Her struggle for financial independence is arguably instrumental in the understanding of her works, and the profession of a novelist in Regency England (1811-1820), in which she lived. Before she earned money from her writing, Austen was the recipient of a legacy of £50 from friend Mrs Lillingston, which was, for her and her sister, ‘money on which they could live for at least a year.’ Likely she felt similarly to Woolf on reception of a legacy of £2,500 in 1909 from an aunt, who ‘wanted and needed to earn her own living.’ Both Austen and Woolf found that reliance on others was an insecure way for women to live. Beginning with Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen earned small amounts of money from her novels; her nephew James claimed that she viewed her earnings as ‘a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing.’ This kind of dismissive attitude to a talented woman fighting for and earning her place in a male-dominated field made women writers’ struggles all the more difficult. Indeed, despite her earnings, Lucy Worsley argues that even Jane’s mother ‘regarded [Austen’s brother] James, not Jane, as the real writer of the family.’ Thereby, financial independence doesn’t appear to guarantee equality as a novelist. Whilst these earnings did not gain her full financial independence, they gave her a relative amount. This is nonetheless highly significant, both for the history of women’s writers, Austen being fundamental in this, but also for her personally. With her growing knowledge about publishing, ‘she became bolder, more professional and more mercenary in her decisions. And she was very, very fond of the money she earned.’

While Austen certainly struggled for financial independence, the same might not be said for her attitude towards equality in the writing profession. Anna Beer writes that where Austen does not ‘critique’ the structures (‘legal, economic and social’) in place for middle and upper-class women in Regency England, ‘her solution, at least in 1804, is for good women to educate men,’ through her works. Despite Austen not outwardly appearing to struggle for equality, the very act of her writing and its success asserts some degree of dominance in a patriarchal society, that is arguably crucial to the history of English Literature. Indeed, Worsley’s statement that Austen being let off the housework in Chawton Cottage ‘would lead inexorably onwards, upwards, towards women winning power in a world of men.’ Thereby, Austen’s novels and financial independence have ultimately led to greater gender equality for novelists, to Virginia Woolf being able to make a speech at Cambridge University about the importance of women writers having a room of their own. It certainly could be argued as per Woolf’s quotation, ‘the importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote,’ that the quality of Austen’s writing is a discrete matter; whether or not she is widely read and appreciated today is of no relevance to the subject, since she worked very hard to earn her own living when all that was expected was a small income to be handed to her by male relations, making her struggle of great significance.

How could it be possible that Shirley Jackson, a published author around 150 years after Austen was not able to gain financial independence nor struggle for equality in her field? The solution is a man, specifically, her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. The very inverse of Jane Austen’s unmarried position and its license as one of the contributing factors that allowed her to write, was the restrictive factor on Jackson. Writing horror novels in Vermont in the 1940s-1960s, she achieved much financial success without financial independence, being under the hand of her domineering husband for the duration of her professional life. The money she earned ‘continued to vastly outweigh Hyman’s income. Nevertheless, Hyman controlled the family finances, and gave his wife money only as he saw fit.’ Her career was consistently undermined by her other occupation as housewife, dictated by post-WWII North American society that greatly restricted women’s rights. Betty Friedan writes about this in The Feminine Mystique, the book that was one of the initial sparks for Second-Wave feminism in the latter part of the 20th century. One of the concepts it draws attention to is that the ‘ideal woman of the era was one who could proudly put “Housewife” in the spot for “Occupation” on her census form.’ In A Room of One’s Own, when Woolf establishes her explanation of how she would make her speech, she writes that, ‘fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.’ This concept can be applied to Jackson’s work, which is often extremely demonstrative of her personal life. For her final, unfinished novel Come Along With Me, the concept sheds light on her mental struggle and yearning for equality and financial independence that she wasn’t granted in her marriage. It potentially ‘gives us a rare glimpse into the writer, and the woman, that Shirley Jackson was so close to finally becoming.’[19] The story can be summarised as that of an unnamed middle-aged woman, liberated by the death of her husband, moving to a new city to ‘make a new life for herself, with a new name of her own invention.’ Thereby, through Jackson’s presentation of her protagonist thrilled upon her husband’s death, having ‘everything I want,’ she reveals to readers her desire to leave the disparity and inequality of power in her marriage, in favour of complete financial control and equality in her own life and career.

We Should All Be Feminists is the title of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2012 TED Talk and 2014 essay. The title is indicative of the ongoing struggle for equality. This struggle, however, has grown and changed shape from the times of Behn, Austen, and indeed even Jackson’s, only around 75 years before. Greater equality within the profession of being a writer has meant that Adichie has deservedly achieved in her lifetime what none of these other women have: recognition. This includes her novel Half of a Yellow Sun being named ‘Winner of Winners’ for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Whilst there is not yet total equality within the writing profession (for example only 16% of screenwriters in Britain are women), it has evolved to mean that Adichie now has platforms to speak out on. Like Woolf in A Room of One’s Own feeling angry after reading a sexist text in the British Museum, Adichie says, ‘I am angry. Gender, as it functions today, is a grave injustice.’  The struggle therefore has changed from a highly personal one of fighting for financial independence to support oneself with murmurs of egalitarian ideas, to one where authors have the capabilities of struggling for and raising awareness of equality for all. The significance of this is crucial, and examining contemporary struggle alongside historical ones reveals that earlier female writers should be accredited for allowing such changes as these to happen. Furthermore, in using her status as a highly respected author to discuss inequality, Adichie speaks about her struggles with people’s acceptance of her financially independent status. Echoing Jackson’s financial success without independence, Adichie has spoken about how girls are raised, ‘if you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not.’ Indeed, in her TED Talk she tells the story of paying a man in Lagos who had helped her and a friend find a parking space, and how he thanked the male friend she was with, for the money. Adichie’s struggles show the evolution of financial independence and equality on the place of women writers, as well as how the struggle is ongoing.

Ultimately then, it is crucial to examine and understand the significance of these historical and contemporary women’s struggles in their professions as writers, since the difficulty is not over. Behn, Austen, Jackson and Adichie are highly significant in showing the evolution of inequality and attitudes towards women writers and their financial independence and can inspire future writers to take the gains these writers have made even further.



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Hester (U6C)

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