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Men drink Wine, Women drink Water: Virginia Woolf

November 6, 2011

“Why should men drink wine and women water?”  Virginia Woolf questions in A Room of One’s Own, her genius of a speech which was presented to a British woman’s college in 1928. This is just one of many questions that she asks, and although her tone does not quite dip into indignation, ever, in the entire essay, one feels utter perplexion and confusion on her part. Nowadays, should men still drink wine and women water, women would feel indignant and angry; indeed, I felt angry many a times during my reading of this splendid essay, but at the time, in 1920s London, Woolf probably couldn’t get to indignation because she was so busy figuring out the whys.

A Room of One’s Own should not simply be categorized as a “feminist piece,” a ranting about the injustices brought upon women. Specifically, Woolf discusses women and literature and in turn gives us a sweeping view of women in literature and in life, both writers and characters, and as she does so gives us a glaringly honest portrayal of man’s character itself. This essay, although meant for feminine ears, should not just be read by the oppressed female: it should also be read by any man, for it holds a mirror up to man’s peculiar actions.

A young Virginia Woolf, photo from

Woolf brings up so many good points, that even today makes the reader stop in awe, for some of it still sounds familiar. Alright, we women nowadays can attend universities with men, and sip wine with them, although partridge is a bit outdated, and university on the whole woefully ridden with unintelligent people with no craving for knowledge studying for a job. Indeed, her upper-class idling and wandering comments of a woman-her-going about London sometimes seem out of touch with today, and quaint. Her stance, that women need a “room of one’s own” where one can sit quietly and write, and its pre-cursor, an income of their own, has mostly been taken care of: women live alone, women are their own bosses, women work. So while these points do not ring so injusticely to the modern reader, it is her points on literature, which remains throughout the ages, still ring dreadfully true.

“Why are women, judging from this catalogue, so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” (p. 29)

Woolf makes this comment concerning the fact that all the books she finds about women are written by men, while there are no books written by a woman on the “male species.” Patriarchal society? Masculinity considered the “norm” for a human being? The answer perhaps lies in another statement not too far along:

“He was concerned not with their [women’s] inferiority but with his own superiority.” (p. 37)

A man who mistreats a woman is no doubt questioning his own superiority, and has failing confidence. Look at a wife beater: obviously there are inner demons at work. Look at the Taliban, who kept women under lock and key: their confidences had taken a beating, and, feeling unsuperior (although, oddly enough, they WERE in power) they decided to treat women badly in order to make themselves feel more powerful. Women’s position in society today is again explained through another quote:

“‘The chief glory of a woman is not to be talked about,’ said Pericles. Anonymity still runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possess them. They are not know even as concerned about the health of their fame as men are.” (p. 54)

Because the woman is not concerned with her fame, does this allow her to be more easily moldable and bossed around? Even today, it is better not to be the woman who is not talked about because, most likely, the woman who is being talked about is doing somthing wrong (think celebrity women: if you’re hearing a lot about them, it’s probably not good news.) But don’t women do great things? Not all women are “trivial,” talking about fashion and unimportant things (and, as Woolf argues, who made fashion ‘trivial?’ The answer: men). Turning over to literature, we see a most stunning contrast in the woman of reality with the woman of fiction:

“Imaginitavely, she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from over to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerers 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.” (p. 47)

Why does this woman, certainly in the past and most often even still nowadays, only seem to exist in fiction? This woman who is important; the center of attention; beloved and admired, heroic and pleasing? Woolf underscores this beautiful reflection with fine examples of women in literature: Cleopatra. Antigone. Lady Macbeth. Emma Bovary. How could a male writer show such love and devotion to the female character–and certainly these women are not portrayed as mere sex symbols, valued only for their beauty–and yet the complete opposite be shown by men to women in day to day life? Does the answer lie again in man’s preoccupation with superiority? Because, physically and monetarily, he had enough power to knock a woman down in order to boost his ego, and in apology to women-who, quite frankly, men could not live without for a multitude of reasons–he shapes her form in literature into that of a goddess? Man, focusing on superiority, might also dismiss woman for her lack of “fancy achievement, accolades, recognition, and medals,” which men love so much, since

“There is no mark on the wall to measure the precise height of a woman. There are no yard measures, neatly divided into the fraction of an inch, that one can lay against the qualities of a good mother or the devotion of a daughter or the fidelity of a sister or the capacity of a housekeeper….they remain at this moment unclassified.” (p. 93)

Although women today are not just housekeepers and mothers, hidden from view, in many parts of the world they still are. Although keeping house has its honors, and motherhood its dignity, they will never be recognized in history for it is something that women are expected to do. Men acknowledge that all men will not lead wars or become president, but since some of them do, it is they who will be important.

Virginia Woolf’s closing line is both charged and poignant, although it does not hold as much momentum if one does not know the “she” of whom she is specifically referring to. Or is she specifically referring to just one she? Perhaps it is more correct to say that Woolf is not, for that “Shakespeare’s sister” whom she talks about who will write as an equal to the master playwright could be anyone, as long as she is born to intellectual freedom. Woolf’s words are a parting plea to every woman to speak for her sex, to embrace her sex, to find dignity and purpose even in her obscure poverty, and I think every woman can agree, that even if one’s own toil does not result in self gratification, that one day it might open the door to a woman who can bring forth the exalted woman of fiction.

“But i maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” (p. 125)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2011 12:32 PM

    Nice post. I admire Feminists, even when I don’t agree with the militant ones among them. Always liked women on top. ( No pun. ) Have you read some modern writers, like Taslima Nasreen?

    By the way, was just wondering, why is there no email subscription option in the sidebar of your blog? You could do with that, you know? I mean, I have to visit every few days to check new posts…but then if I subscribe, it will automatically reach my inbox.

    • November 7, 2011 1:54 PM

      I haven’t read too many feminists, but I’ve read a few books concerning women (one was a book about Alpha girls, quite interesting) but on my to-read list are basically all the classics. Feminism has more come from what I feel, what I see, and particulary what I read (Price of Honor, a book about Muslim women, is like the best book to use to show that feminism is still very much needed today!)

      And thanks for pointing that out, I added a button. 🙂

  2. November 7, 2011 10:42 PM

    Excellent post. I haven’t read Wolfe in a long while, and your post reminded me why I liked her so much back in my twenties. You’ve made me want to take her book off my shelf and reread! Thanks!

  3. November 13, 2011 5:10 PM

    I like so much Virginia Wolfe! Great writer!!!! =) =)
    Bye bye and thanks for your reply on my blog!!

  4. November 26, 2011 2:28 PM

    Great post. You don’t – nor does she – sound at all like a stereotypical feminist; instead, you come across clearly as an admirer and supporter of women. Anyone who thinks that feminism and support for women’s cause are one and the same, I believe, lack any true understanding of either.
    Wouldn’t you agree that in this age it may be time for men and women alike to try to seek some sort of balance. As women rise and gain the freedom and recognition that men have always enjoyed, I see something else occurring on the other end. That something is a tendency for men to become more effeminate than they naturally are or historically have been. As women are beginning to take themselves more seriously, men are more prone to constantly make fun of themselves, and put themselves down. Go into a public place, and you will see men all around you who are quite, shy, and waiting for their wives to tell them what to by, what to do with the kids, what to wear, where to go, and generally what to do with themselves. Kind of pitiful. But, go to those men’s homes and you’ll probably see the condition in its even worse form. Men sitting on the couch watching the beer show and getting fat on potato chips rather than investing in their kids and their marriages and showing their wives that they are men/people who are worthy of respect. And all this while their wives are paying the bills, keeping an eye on interest rates, handling the kids, cleaning the house, worrying about the next meeting at work, etc.
    Why can’t we have a healthy balance of respect for of the sexes?

    • November 27, 2011 7:36 PM

      What you said reminded me of a comment on comedy films in Hollywood: recently, they are all about “bromances” and lazy, ugly guys poking fun at their slacker attitudes like overgrown fratboys. The macho, Arnold Schwarzeneggar-type hero is out, and overweight, sloppy slacker guys are in. There can definitely be a balance between the sexes people, its not hard! Men AND women can be strong and successful!


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