There was historically the opinion that women “’are supported by, and they minister to men’ – there was an enormous body of masculine opinion to the effect that nothing could be expected of women intellectually. …There would always have been that assertion – you cannot do this, you are incapable of doing that – to protest against, to overcome." Woolf quotes “Dr. Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher, transposed into terms of music. ‘Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.’”
Woolf notes that writers didn’t mention what state of mind they were in when they wrote their works of genius, at least not until the arrival of “nineteenth century self-consciousness.” We know what Carlyle, Flaubert, and Keats went through when writing their masterworks. “And one gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down .... But for women, I thought,..these difficulties were infinitely more formidable. In the first place, to have a room of her own…was out of the question…. Since her pin money, which depended on the good will of her father, was only enough to keep her clothed, she was debarred from such alleviations as came even to Keats or Tennyson or Carlyle, all poor men, from a walking tour, a little journey to France. … The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility.”
Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister with a gift equal to his. “Any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lot her health and sanity to a certainty.” She speculates that a girl thus gifted could not have “walked to London and stood at a stage door…without doing herself a violence,” seeming to suggest she would have been sexually molested. “Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman’s life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. It was the relic of the sense of chastity that dictated anonymity to women even so late as the nineteenth century.” She mentions George Sand, and George Eliot, “all the victims of inner strife as their writing prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man. …publicity in women is detestable. Anonymity runs in their blood.
It would be better…to describe under what conditions women lived, not throughout the ages, but in England, say in the time of Elizabeth. For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. … Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various, heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact…she was locked up, beaten and flung around the room. A very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”