The Guardian, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, are asking readers to vote for their favourite inspirational women and will compile a Top 100 list at the beginning of March. So who gets your vote?
The only stipulation is that they must be living, and the idea is that you choose a woman who not only inspires other women, but is successful in their own right and has ‘achieved something’ for the fairer sex. Hmmm…
Over the next few weeks I am going to offer up a selection of choice fillies for your consideration. However, feeling cheerfully contemptuous, I have no intention of limiting myself to women who are alive (is it their fault they are dead?), or even women who existed in real reality. Sod it, some might not even be women. In your face, patriarchal binary systems!
First up, is a woman who really is to blame for her own exclusion from the Guardian’s poll, being that she committed suicide in 1941: the incomparable Virginia Woolf.
OK, OK, so she’s come in for a bit of stick over the last 90-odd years (most recently, I think, being William Boyd’s representation of her as a spiteful, neurotic racist in 2002’s Any Human Heart), but on a purely personal level she has inspired and influenced my thoughts and actions since I first picked up Orlando on a free period during 6th form, ten years ago.
In all honesty I was drawn to the romance of the title and what little I knew about Woolf’s reputation – a copy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had sat on a bookshelf at home for years and always impressed me with a sense of mysterious, powerful glamour – but with every page I turned I became more and more struck by the sense that my simple, secondary school thoughts about literature were falling away and being replaced by a giddy feeling of absolute, unfathomable possibility. The atom had been split, the Earth was no longer flat and I gobbled every word like a greedy child tasting chocolate for the first time.
I read Mrs Dalloway next, and will always be grateful to Mrs Woolf, whatever her failings, for furnishing my life with some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read:
‘So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.’
I can’t imagine my life without that sentence. For me it is a holiday, a pause, a quiet corner where everything that is beautiful is safe. Maybe that sums up many of the criticisms of Woolf’s work: her withdrawn, too literary, too privileged world view. A matter of opinion, still hotly debated in Literature tutorials across the globe.
For me, however, Woolf was firmly cemented as one of the most inspirational figures in my life when I read A Room of One’s Own at university. If you haven’t read it, do. I you have, read it again. I have never been so inspired to pick up a pen (or laptop) as I was when reading this essay. The reasoning my be faulty, the arguments too neat, but I think its impact on me and many women (perhaps even men) like me shouldn’t be underestimated.
‘Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook I hope you will possess yourself of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream’