a presentation on:
Cock-a-doodle-dum: Sexology and A Room of One’s Own.
By: Patricia Moran
[W]hat is amusing now [...] had to be taken in desperate earnest once. Opinions that one now pastes in a book labelled cock-a-doodle-dum and keeps for reading to select audiences on summer nights once drew tears, I can assure you.
--A Room of One's Own
Patricia Moran begins by stating that ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is “arguably the most influential essay of feminist literary criticism” primarily due to the essay’s “readability, its literariness” and “its seductive charm.” As an example of this essay’s effect on readers, she includes a quote from author Ellen Bayuk Rosenman who describes the essay as “a sort of primer of feminist concepts”. Though the essay has an abundance of both “appeal and importance,” Moran finds it “surprising how little attention has been devoted to the way in which it makes performative use of sexological literature to develop the terms of its argument”. She likens the essay to “many sexological writings” in the sense that the essay both “draws distinctions between the writing of poetry and the writing of fiction and speculates about the factors involved in women’s early success in writing novels” and “examines how female biology relates to and shapes literary form”.
These observations on Woolf’s essay contribute to Moran’s belief that Woolf had a “preoccupation with the damaging effects of the censorious male reception of women’s writing” which suggests that Woolf “almost certainly would have found important men’s reliance on a sex-based concept of ‘genius’ to dismiss the accomplishments of more talented and productive women writers”. Because of this, Moran believes that to consider A Room of One’s Own as a successful ‘counterblast’ to claims that female genius is an oxymoron and that women’s intellectual powers are limited by biology is definitely a “mistake”. By “persistently [imaging] women’s writing as watery and diffuse” and by “[worrying] that women’s books suffer from a mysterious ‘flaw in the centre’”, Woolf essentially echoes the sexologist claim that “women’s writing betrays the negative influence of menstruation”. Through examination, then, Moran believes that one can see that ‘the room’ is “a vastly more complex document than its canonical status in feminist studies has allowed it to be” and that this “victorious primer of feminist thought gives way to a more nuanced and more conflicted example” of how the culture of gender “impinges upon a creative woman’s defense of her gifts”.
The Sexological Origins:
According to Moran, A Room of One’s Own originates from an ongoing debate concerning “sexological principles”. Arnold Bennett’s Our Women, a book released in 1920 that focused on proving women’s creative and intellectual power inferiority to men, prompted Woolf to make a paper as a ‘counterblast’ to Bennett’s ‘adverse’ views. In October of 1920, however, a literary journalist named Desmond MacCarthy published a favorable review of this book in the pages of The New Statesman that “diverted Woolf from her original plans of a paper” and instead encouraged her to pen “a witty and acerbic rejoinder”.
Woolf’s first response “pointed to the gradual evolution of female excellence”. MacCarthy’s rebuttal “focused the argument much more sharply upon the issue of female genius” by relying on the “common sexological ploy” of claiming that “women were biologically incapable of producing works of genius” and because “no woman had ever attained the creative stature of Shakespeare or Beethoven or Newton”, then, “no woman ever…could”. Woolf’s “material arguments” found in her first letter that claimed that “unfavorable conditions” had “thwarted creative women” are dismissed by MacCarthy who believed that not only have men been able to overcome those same unfavorable conditions but women without many unfavorable conditions have hardly been able to match the highest achievements of men.
Woolf’s second letter contains the “skeletal form” of the arguments concerning women and creativity found in A Room of One’s Own. By citing the middle-class patriarchal family and its “privileging of sons and shortchanging of daughters”, Woolf continues to “[point] to the material conditions that impinge upon female creativity” and formulates “a kind of artistic evolution of Darwinism” in the sense that she argues, in both the news article and in her essay, that genius cannot “flourish in conditions of servility and ignorance”.
Though MacCarthy formally announced that he would discontinue his arguments with Woolf, he dishonored this agreement and they continued to “spar about women’s creative potential throughout the twenties”. During these years when she was writing A Room of One’s Own, Woolf was constantly haunted by sexological claims, particularly those of MacCarthy and Bennett. These biased claims, however, were “strangely invigorating” to Woolf. In her diary, Woolf provides a number of thoughts concerning the effects that these claims made. In an article entitled “Supreme Gift Denied to Women”, James Lavar went against his thesis that women were incapable of reaching the front rank of creative arts by acknowledging that no one could deny Virginia Woolf’s greatness. This statement, as found in Woolf’s diary, caused her to say that she hoped Bennett would see what was said about her and because of this, one can begin to understand how “men like MacCarthy and Bennett” essentially “qualified” women writers.
The Sexological Genius:
Moran argues that A Room developed out of “Woolf’s preoccupation with sexological beliefs, exemplified most acutely by Desmond MacCarthy and Arnold Bennett” and that “diary entries about the style of her text” reveal Woolf’s preoccupation with the “sexological question” of female genius. The anxiety about “writing in an overly fluent style” in addition to her ongoing internal struggle of identifying the nature of genius resulted in “anger about Desmond MacCarthy’s dismissiveness toward her work” that becomes a “deeply related” issue in the essay. Because of this effect, then, Moran believes that the ‘cultural, gendered definitions of genius impinged upon and shaped [Woolf’s] thinking about female creativity”.
Androgynous: being both male and female
When Woolf calls for “artistic androgyny” in A Room, this too can be set in a sexologist context in response to Otto Weininger’s claims of how male genius is perfectly developed. By using an older definition of genius, specifically by defining genius as something that is ‘naturally creative and undivided’, Moran finds that Woolf continues to rely on the same sexological base.
“As the epigraph at the beginning of this essay suggests, Woolf had to take sexological arguments in "desperate earnest" to construct a defense of the intrinsic value of female difference and female creativity. That she succeeded brilliantly is proven, I think, by the book's enduring popularity as an accessible introduction to feminist literary criticism and women's writing. Her materialist analysis of the conditions necessary for creativity anticipates much of what later feminist criticism elaborates. Ironically, the very germ of the book--the need to defend the possibility of a female "genius"--has almost disappeared from contemporary discussions and analyses of the text. We need to question more critically Woolf's crippling reliance on the category of "genius" and to mark how it distorts her evaluations of women writers who do not fulfill or conform to conventional measures of "important" writing (see Ezell, Mudge, Rosenman). We would do well to familiarize ourselves with the sexological debates and use them to uncover the essay's anxieties and ambivalences. In doing so, we can begin to see why the materialist argument suffers the inconsistencies it does and why Woolf confusingly returns to notions of transcendent genius near the essay's close.”
Moran, Patricia. “Cock-A-Doodle-Dum: Sexology And A Room of One’s Own”. Women’s Studies; Aug2001, Vol.30 Issue 4, p477, 22p.