A 21st Century Problem – Maintaining ‘A Room of One’s Own’

In 1928 Virginia Woolf presented a series of essays. She made the connection between achieving maximum creative potential as an individual, and having a mind (psychological space or ‘room’) free from the worries of domesticity or poverty. As well as this she emphasised the importance of a physical space, a study for example, to think, write and create.


‘Women, Art, Revolution.’

She was talking specifically about the historical lack of this ‘room’ for women. She was also speaking at a time when a woman’s finances were constrained by patriarchal society. The essays revolutionised the way we think about ourselves in relation to the political and social structures that surround us.

I am following in Woolf’s footsteps. I am at university with some money in my pocket, I rent my own room, and have food and books to keep me suitably nourished. In other words, I have been granted a room of my own and, like her; I do not take for granted the opportunities I have been given.

There is one difference between the two of us that I am interested to address, however. My means of attending university have not come from a healthy inheritance as hers did. I am from one of the lower brackets on the economic ladder here in the UK. To be able to go to university I had to take out a loan from a bank, as well as having to rely on grants from my university.

We live in a time when every minute of our academic lives, we are reminded of the crippling debt we are being forced into. Debt that has been forced upon students like myself by previous generations and their governments. Debt that will stay with the majority of us for life.  Financial stability is absolutely out of the question once I leave university. What would Woolf make of this? 

Just as women are starting to find ‘rooms of their own’ all over the world, the neoliberal mechanism of tuition fees pushes us back into the mindset of money before all. Worry about money now, worry about money forever. I don’t want to be thinking about money; I want to be writing novels like Virginia Woolf was able to. Instead, every month for the next 30 years of my life I will be forced to think of the debt I am in.

How do we keep a clear and inquisitive mind like Virginia Woolf when we are forced to live in this society? We live in a deeply ingrained neoliberal world as it is. Products are pushed down our throats as we walk down every street and we are encouraged from infancy to chase capital like sharks. Now, higher education is in the clutches of neoliberalism. I am afraid my creativity will not be safe from the financial constraints Woolf was free from.

There is hope, however. Blogs like this one and others such as iGNANT are publishing young and upcoming creative work. Also individuals; musicians like Chance the rapper are setting an example by refusing to sign with record labels and instead, downloads of his albums are free. Organisations like Arts Depot in North London run affordable art workshops for young people. Free art and design galleries and museums are doing the same. Tate Collectives for example, have activities running in St. Ives, Liverpool and London, as well as a wealth of online resources. Projects like this are helping promote and cultivate creativity for a generation.

Woolf’s essays contain a formula that allows women like myself to achieve creative freedom. Today, tuition fees are shutting the doors on these rooms for a whole generation of students. I, for one, am worried about the future of creativity in our increasingly neoliberal world.

  • Richard Best

    It’s concerning to me that creativity is seen (here) as something that can only be achieved in a space of pure and unadulterated quiet. Many artists respond to the disquiet and turmoil that runs riot in society, or more personal issues that are inescapably constant. The idea that ever increasing tuition fees could put a hold on creativity is somewhat misguided and completely dismissive of history; some of the greatest artists ever to have lived were penniless. Their fame and estate fortune (belonging to buyers/collectors/investors) came after death and at a time when people were finally ready for their visionary talents. It costs nothing to pick up a pen and write a verse, or create a sketch, or conceptualise an artistic exploration, and for many artists it is an escape from the otherwise impending doom of financial insecurity. So don’t lose sight of your ‘room’ because you’re worried about debt, this ‘room’ does not charge rent and it will not judge your bank balance.

    • Thomas Moulton

      I think the point of this article was that the neo-liberal obsession with debt and money being drummed into your skull infringes upon your creative capabilities, as the thought of the debt and other associated problems are ever present. I don’t think the author meant a physical space to escape and be quiet; I believe stating that is unfounded and presumptuous in relation to the actual article. Also a room that does not charge rent and doesn’t judge your bank balance is great, but starvation does.

      • Richard Best


        You seem to be arguing against a misunderstanding of my point.

        When I stated that ‘…it is an escape from the otherwise impending doom of financial insecurity’ I was highlighting that many artists use their creative outpourings as a way of overcoming the drumming on ones skull. It is not necessary to be blighted by an oppressive society that is obsessed with capital gain. Contrarily to infringing on creative capabilities, it can inspire a response, a social comment (i.e. this article).

        Also, I did not mention a physical room as you are implying. I said ‘So don’t lose sight of your ‘room’ because you’re worried about debt…’ the ‘room’ here being the ‘psychological space or ‘room’’ mentioned in the article. There is always a space in your mind to use for creativity if you want it to be there, and it costs nothing.

        And just because you’ve said i’m presumptuous; the article does reference a physical space too, in the opening paragraph, although my comment did not.

        • Yasmyn Clementine

          Hi Richard, thank you for comments on the article. Sorry that I have only just seen your reply.

          I agree that great artwork comes from the proletariat, the oppressed, the minority. I recently read about the history of impoverished people using the night, sacrificing sleep to create artwork. I did not suggest that art must be created in a silent isolated space at all! The physical room could be a studio space full of people working, but my point is if you are worrying about picking up children, and how you will pay for your studio fees for example, your creatively may be harmed.

          I have considered history. With your penniless artist example. I very purposely used the end of domesticity as well as poverty as criteria for a room of your own. Women have historically been forced into the private sphere, where sleep can’t even be sacrificed because they are waking up to look after crying babies, still tied to the stove and unable to get out of that cycle. Women like like Mary Woolstoncraft or Woolfe or artists of the 60′s feminist movement like Judy Chicago for example, had money and education as-well as an end of their domestic expectation. Many poor working men historically have had women; wives, daughters, landladies, to relive them somewhat of the stresses of private life. Men often have a den, shed, working mans club, gentleman’s club when not working. They also have food cooked for them, are cleaned up after, shopping done for them, babies looked after. The women’s space was the kitchen, where even time alone is spent doing menial tasks. Men were allowed to reflect on society and on their own mental turmoil in a room of their own, women did not have that space! How many working class woman artists can you think of before the 20th century?

          Women now have help in so many ways to create and keep these spaces, computers and washing machines for example, if they choose to be a stay at home parent, can achieve this space. But historically this was very difficult.

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