“Once she knows how to read there’s only one thing you can teach her to believe in–and that is herself.” ~Virginia Woolf, “A Society” (1921)
Yesterday was the UN Day of the Girl. And it got me thinking about how the lives of girls and women have changed over the past century: in Canada, we have opportunities that our grandmothers only ever dreamed of.
My own grandmother, despite being an avid reader and great thinker, was confined unhappily to the role of wife and mother. She found great solace in books, and read voraciously, but that alone is not enough, is it?
This generation of girls can allegedly “have it all” — an education, a career and a family life. Yet these girls face worrying levels of violence, bullying and mental illness. Girls excel at school in their early years, but as they reach adolescence (from ages 9 to 13) their confidence declines sharply and their risk of depression increases (source: The Canadian Women’s Foundation).
It was ever thus, according to Virginia Woolf. In her short story “A Society”, written @1920, she documents a short-lived feminist awakening amongst a group of Victorian girls living in London.
In the story, the girls form “a society for asking questions” and take an oath to delay motherhood until they “find out whether we are justified in continuing the human race”:
“Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like.”
Five years later, the girls are young women and mothers. Their project now complete, they have rejected intellectualism in favour of motherhood; believing that if “the object of life is to produce good people and good books”, than the greater goal is to produce good people:
“Ask any journalist, schoolmaster, politician or public house keeper in the land and they will all tell you that men are much cleverer than women.” “As if I doubted it,” she said scornfully. “How could they help it? Haven’t we bred them and fed and kept them in comfort since the beginning of time so that they may be clever even if they’re nothing else? It’s all our doing!” she cried.
Though Woolf is sending us up here (she vehemently argued that women should not give up intellectual pursuits for motherhood), she is making an important point: What good is it to give a girl access to education, if she can’t use it to participate fully in society? What good is it to encourage girls to read if it is only to entertain themselves and others? How do girls value themselves, if they are not valued by society?
“It’s no good — not a bit of good,” I said. “Once she knows how to read there’s only one thing you can teach her to believe in — and that is herself.”
“Well, that would be a change,” sighed Castalia.
Change has come since Woolf wrote this story, and yet my 9-year-old daughter still has to contend with classmates, teachers, parents, politicians, advertisers, and strangers, who make her feel a little less safe, a little less smart, a little less human, for being a girl. And believe me, they do.
But I am hopeful. In the tradition of Woolf’s society of girls, my daughter is asking questions. Lots of questions. Let’s hope she gets the right answers. And learns to ignore the wrong ones.
Written a century ago, “A Society” is a wonderfully relevant, thought-provoking and amusing read — a reminder of how smart, funny and wise was Virginia Woolf. Give it a read online, and let me know what you think.
And now the bit about Wes Anderson: doesn’t this sound like the perfect plot for a film? A secret society of girls dressing as boys, plotting to read every book in the library, and setting out on wonderful adventures? Yes, we need more strong girl leads in movies (as my daughter is constantly reminding me), and I think Wes Anderson is just the director to do it…