Required Reading: A ______ of One's Own

You’ve probably noticed by now that Virginia Woolf is everywhere. In the books-and-giftcards aisle of your local supermarket, tripping down spines in the “self-help” section of the bookstore, sometimes hawking products that have nothing to do with literature, at all. I’m talking about Things Of One’s Own.

Woolf’s tough, reasoned 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own” has infiltrated common usage more than any other feminist manifesto, but those who reference it most often seem least equipped with a working knowledge of the text. At least, that’s the only explanation for one witch history tome named “A Holocaust of One’s Own.” Not to mention the farmer’s memoir “Barnheart, a Farm of One’s Own,” the collecting guide called “A Museum of One’s Own” for wealthy patrons of the arts, and the equestrian-themed, bodice-ripping novel—you guessed it—A Groom of One’s Own.

If Woolf’s essay is so little read that nonsensical allusions to it are now commonplace, something has gone terribly wrong. Everyone, particularly young women, need to know what’s behind the title. This is one of the rare works that reliably turns readers into radical feminists, without any primer in social feminism or second-wave theory: just pour all your own nebulous dissatisfactions, observations, and vague knowledge of Western cultural history into the crucible of Woolf’s precise logic, and you get a perfectly formed account of the material conditions of female genius. And not just the genius of an allegorical Shakespeare’s sister, but maybe your own.

Girls need to be worrying more about their own genius, because no one else is doing it for them. Three-quarters of American high school seniors can’t read at a “proficient” level. Of them, boys are referred for testing for gifted programs twice as often as girls, and males make up more than 2/3 of all children in special education programs. Maybe if all the female students waiting to be noticed knew that “A Room of One’s Own” doesn’t just describe a “For Him” collection of bathroom furniture, they would better recognize the injustice in their classrooms.

Which is why in this blog series I want to look into “required reading,” how it’s taught, and what we (should/could) get out of it. Which classics take up the most space in the collective memory? Is there something worth remembering from the dudecentric classics of high school book lists? (I’m looking about you: To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Huck Finn, and Lord of the Flies) What about from Mrs. Dalloway, Beloved and Pride and Prejudice? What makes literature unforgettable and important to fledgling feminists? And what new works should become required reading?

Next time, I’ll be writing about The Caine Mutiny, for which one might prepare, as high school students probably do, by streaming the movie. For the following posts, I’m taking suggestions—any widely influential book, and any book that you wish were widely influential, is fair game. Preference will be given to those works that have truly been “required reading” by some institution or another: cultural imperatives are so much more interesting when they’re really imperative.

The only book I’m ruling out is the Big Book: the Bible gets enough airtime already, and its influence is waning: According to a Gallup survey in 2000, 60% of Americans don’t know five of the 10 commandments, less than half can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), and a whopping 12% of the U.S. population thinks Noah was married to Joan of Arc.

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33 Comments Have Been Posted

Required Reading

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou was required reading at my high school, and one of the only required readings that I found I could relate to.

Yes! Books!

First of all I love your line "girls need to be worrying about their own genius"--that is SO true--sadly girls (as I was ) at this age are worried about their looks and getting boyfriends...Thank you for your work!!
Here are my recommendations:
MARCELLA (1973) by Marilyn June Coffey, Written honestly and graphically for the first time about the fears and feelings of a girl growing into young womanhood. It was the first novel written in English to use female autoeroticism as a main theme. Gloria Steinem called it "an important part of the truth telling by and for women." It is pretty much gone from history now but its way more real than Judy Blume...
and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's THE YELLOW WALLPAPER - I just recently read this for this first time, and WOW it really hit home. I wish I read that in high school instead of whatever British literature we were reading...more fiction geared toward women's contemporary experience should be required...

I read both The Yellow

I read both The Yellow Wallpaper and A Room of Ones Own as a second year university student and the only thing that disappointed me about either was the fact I hadn't read them earlier. Woolf's A Room of Ones Own in particular is revolutionary. Almost all the literature in the canon is by white, male writers and it makes for such a homogeneous literary landscape. I also highly recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God and Fantomina for great writing that gives voice to the actual experience of being a woman.

I was just complaining the

I was just complaining the other day about required reading in middle and high schools. A Separate Peace, Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, The Chocolate War, Hamlet. The best we could hope for was Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird. I quit doing the required reading by Jr. year because I was so tired of it being about the boys. History, Math and Sciences, Lit class. All of it was boy territory. Maybe I would've finished HS had there been more balance on my reading list. Thank god I took a fem theory class a few years later and found out I wasn't a freak. Thanks for taking up this subject.

I'm a bit confused by your

I'm a bit confused by your mention of <i>To Kill A Mockingbird</i> in that list of "dudecentric" required reading picks. Atticus may be the character with the greatest pop-cultural cachet, but the main character (and narrator) is his daughter Scout--and the book was written by a woman.

re: I'm a bit confused by

Good point - I was thinking of the Atticus/Tom drama...sounds like material for a post on how we read and what we retain! ("A Mockingbird of One's Own").

required reading at my high school

House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros), Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston), Jane Eyre... as well as, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, etc. We also read Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, not Hamlet. (A public high school in Northern California.)

we had to read "A Separate

we had to read "A Separate Peace" at my high school...also really "dudecentric," from what I recall.

I went to an all-girl

I went to an all-girl Catholic high school and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison was on my reading list. Not sure how that happened but it was revelatory to me.


<i>Beloved</i> is even better. We read it in American Lit 2 in college. It won the Pulitzer for very good reason. I would love to see Sethe and that story discussed.

Macbeth is good reading, at

Macbeth is good reading, at least in the realm of 'what not to do' as a woman in power. The Forsyte Saga is way long, but it's most powerful character is an extremely strong and role model-worthy woman.

A of One's Own

My sons graduated from high school in the 07 and 09, from a small public high school in the East Bay. While they did read predominantly male authors (not always white), they also read Song of Solomon and Beloved, Toni Morrison; The Awakening, Kate Chopin; The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros; Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko; The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston; The Handmaiden's Tale, Margaret Atwood; essays by Sarah Vowell, Joan Didion and Barbara Ehrenreich; poetry by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Joy Harjo, and Rita Dove. They also read Lolita and think Nabokov is a perv. I was impressed by the effort their teachers made to create a diverse reading list while also trying to hit all the AP "required reading" high points. It's not easy--if you take a look at AP reading lists. It's mostly the usual suspects.

The Awakening

<i>The Awakening</i> is definitely a work of required reading in most high schools and/or colleges. I read it in high school and at both colleges I attended.

Bizarrely, my AP English

Bizarrely, my AP English teacher in high school stopped teaching The Awakening before our senior year because all the guys in class pitched a fit about having to read about a woman and her girly introspection. Seriously. I have no idea why our (female) teacher gave into this, but it must have been pretty bad. So our senior class read 1984 instead.

Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm,

Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, Hatchet (in elementary school) & Beowulf all come to mind as books I enjoyed and got a lot out of but were dudecentric. Also, anything by Poe. I'm a huge fan, but where is my Poe for women? I didn't discover The Handmaid's Tale (as a female answer to some of the political thrillers) until later in life, on my own. There was never a peep about it in my Southern school system. We had one teacher who showed us poems by Emily Dickinson, Their Eyes Were Watching God, etc. but that was it. Obviously that was my favorite class.

Liz Lochhead's play Mary

Liz Lochhead's play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off - as you might guess it retells the story of Mary/Elizabeth but Lochhead has a feminist thread through all her writing (I would encourage anyone who can to read her poem Mirror's Song, it's my personal feminist favourite) and this play is really interesting.

Janice Galloway's novels also have an interest in the female experience and she is also doing genuinely interesting and engaging things with the physical text. Both of these writers were set texts in my first year of uni and are two of my favourite ever, let alone female, writers.

Go Scotswomen!

Glad to see the Scots getting some love. :-) I was lucky enough that Janice gave a reading of 'The Trick is to Keep Breathing' to my English class at Uni.

I was fortunate ...

... that our honors English curriculum was so challenging, by the time we reached 12th grade the class had been whittled down to 13 students, 12 of whom were female (we began in 9th grade with 2 sections of 25 students each). The majority of our teachers were male, and they had a designated curriculum that was dudecentric, but they did their best. My senior Brit Lit teacher made a point to steer me specifically towards Margaret Atwood, for which I will be eternally grateful. He was required to teach Hamlet, but he made a point to tell us that it wasn't his preferred Shakespeare specifically because of the way that it treated women.

I was far more influenced by the writers I was exposed to in college, which was much more she-centric due to my Gender Studies minor. Some of the more memorable books were Summer (Edith Wharton), Dawn (Octavia Butler), and stories by Flannery O'Connor and Zora Neale Hurston.

And, of course, Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I am proof that it will turn a young lady into a radical feminist - it changed my life.

Awesome blog topic

This is a great idea for a blot series, and I'm really looking forward to it. I really don't remember many female authors being required reading in high school. We did do A Doll's House senior year, but even that was written by a dude. The Turn of the Screw, dude. Seems we couldn't handle women's perspectives or stories unless they were written by dudes. Why have I never noticed that until now?

It gives me hope to see that

It gives me hope to see that a couple of the posters or their children have at least received a bit of a balance of female-centric to male-centric books in school. At my high school in california we read nothing-and I do mean NOTHING, that had anything to do with females in any substantial sense. We had to read Hemingway for christ sake! Talk about the ultimate in dude-centric rambling! And all the other ones of course, Separate Peace, Great Gatsby, Lord of the flies..etc. I found them so boring I often didn't even finish them.

My 11 year olds 6th grade class had to read an Isabelle Allende book-one of my favorite authors and VERY female (thought the story was about a boy) so hopefully times are-a-changin'.

I can't wait to hear your book reviews!

Empowering Novels

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

Contemporary novelists: Arundhati Roy, Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, Gloria Steinem, Ariel Levy.

Read history about women - it's empowering.

Arguably, The Great Gatsby

Arguably, The Great Gatsby could be used a feminist text, but it probably isn't in most high school classrooms. Lots has been written from a scholarly perspective about the Jordan Baker character, and I've often argued that Daisy represents a burgeoning feminist consciousness in a gilded cage kinda way. And for kicks, you could introduce kids to the concept of hegemonic masculinity through a compare and contrast of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan.

This is my new , must check

This is my new , must check blog.
Growing up in public schools like many have validated, our required Lit. was absolutely male-centric.
I do remember A House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was exceptional. a coming of age story that made me realize that was the first time I ever made a personal connection to a character "In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting".
Frankenstein because it was written by a women and my teacher made a strong show to point that out.
Jane Eyre.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. In no way female-centric but this book stood out because it was written by an African Author. It contains the insights of cultural differences and a varying point of interpretation you don't get from many dead white male authors.
While I had no particular resentment, I did feel stood up. I understood the importance of these canonical books; they are great in their own merits but the lack of female perspective, understanding is essential and lacking.

"If you want a story about heroism, moral courage, spiritual transformation, endurance, or any of the struggles that give human life its deepest meaning, men and masculinity are usually the terms in which you must see it," Allan G. Johnson
"and since the vast majority of books are about these narratives then that might explain the overabundance of stories about men's lives. They are disproportionally valued and rewarded in our society."
Anita Sarkeesian. <3

When I was in high school, we

When I was in high school, we only had one required book written by a female author - Ethan Frome. Yeahhhhhhhhhhhh. Graduated 2006.

From the author of A Groom Of One's Own

As the author of A Groom Of One's Own, I'd like to clarify two points. First, the groom in the title refers to the husband, as in bride and groom (it is not "equestrian-themed").

Second--and more importantly--the novel features a rule-breaking, successful female writer in 1820's London. One of my inspirations in writing a series of strong, independent, writing heroines was Virginia Woolf's book. A Groom Of One's Own is a love story, but it's also a story of a woman triumphing against all odds and discovering her own strengths and talents in a world that didn't expect much from women.

For more about the power of women's fiction, check out this video, Dangerous Books For Girls:

my suggestions: barbara

my suggestions: barbara kingsolver, The Red Tent (although bible related), Julia Alvarez’s yo!, the bluest eye (i know there are a lot of toni morrison on there already), Raisin in the Sun, Ibsen’s The Dollhouse, Emma. On my to read list is Susan Sontag. Hope this helps! Many of the other suggestions i agree with as well.

But, clearly people do not understand Woolf. I don’t think i do. I think maybe i need to read it as aphorisms. the book jacket says ”Her message is a simple one: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to have freedom to create.” -- There is so much more than that!

Great post, thanks! I always

Great post, thanks!
I always advise students to read Plath's The Bell Jar and Pride and Prejudice. I also give them extracts from Woolf to read - but the standard of English is hard for non-natives.

"proficient" readers

I thought your estimate of 3/4 of high school seniors not reading at a proficient level was high, and I was right -- the article you cite actually says that almost 40% read at or above the proficient level. Still not great, but not quite as alarming as your statement!

Their Eyes Were Watching

Their Eyes Were Watching God
-Zora Neal Hurston

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis I read for AP Gov. I think my teacher picked it out because it conflicts with Western stereotypes of Iran and Iranian women. I happened to have read it before it was required. Anne Dillard's An American Childhood and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were books I read for AP English Language and were not well-received by my classmates. Wild Swans by Jung Chang was required reading for AP World History and another book many of my friends didn't seem to like. I read Lorraine Hansbury's A Raisin in the Sun because it was on my AP Lit class' booklist and found Beneatha's character very compelling. Wuthering Heights was one of the books that my AP Lit class read together but I don't remember it being a very complex treatment of gender. The language was definitely worth studying though.

Great recommendations! I

Great recommendations! I definitely need to make a trip to the library soon.

Has anyone mentioned Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel Lolly Willowes, yet? That's one I'd like to see more often incorporated into anthologies, at least. I read the book for fun during my last year of high school, and it's been a favorite ever since. The writing has such a sly sense of humor, and the last twenty pages read almost like a feminist manifesto in dialogue form. Admittedly, it's not on any required reading list that I know of, but since its publication in 1926, it has certainly survived long enough to be considered a classic. I could understand why schools in highly religious communities might be hesitant to use it, though.

A more popular strong female voice I could recommend is Marianne Moore. She wrote (at least) one of my favorite poems, "If you will tell me why the fen / appears impassable, I then / will tell you why I think that I / can get across it if I try."

To Kill a Mockingbird

While I agree with most of your comments and replies, I disagree about TKAM. Harper Lee gave a voice to a rebellious southern child and the woman she became. In reading this book I found the courage to disagree with the social mores of the conservative (racist) family in which I was raised in Atlanta in the 1960s. I believe that the book started me on a path to feminism and social justice as a 12-year-old that I carry out today as an educator teaching works like Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Room of One's Own, Persepolis, Things Fall Apart, Pride and Prejudice, The Awakening to both to young men and women through the perspective of gender, race, and class. TKAM helps start the conversation in conservative Southern classrooms and makes these other books more accessible in my AP courses.

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