Woolf, Feminism, and Literary Politics in Brazil

In the 1980s there was an explosion of courses on women’s literature and feminism in Brazilian universities. Thinking back, I fondly recall reading critical texts that were donated to my university by the American Embassy. Such names as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elaine Showalter, Toril Moi, and Gilbert & Gubar, among others, made up the new canon of contemporary and rediscovered voices who spoke to the question of women’s’ literature from a feminist perspective.

To give you an example: 1987 was the year when the Universidade Federal da Paraíba held the First International Seminar on Women and Literature. The event was considered revolutionary at the time because it was so highly attuned to contemporary feminist social movements. Not only was the Seminar a rich locus of academic interchange, it was an opportunity for participants to collaboratively construct bibliographies and syllabi on the feminist politics of literature. Eventually Northeastern University in Brazil implemented a more diverse literature curriculum, which convinced us that our event had been a success. 

During this period I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time. Seemingly in response to the issues addressed at the First International Seminar on Women and Literature, A Room of One’s Own provides an early feminist response to the relations between women and history, women’s lack of formal education, women and domesticity, women and the (male) literary canon, women’s experience, and the place of women’s writing within literary genres. In other words, I read the right text at the right time, and it’s stuck with me ever since. As a key text in feminist literary studies, Woolf’s text charted new ground for women writers through one of her writing’s defining literary traits: the tendency to blur the boundary between theory and fiction (as in the short stories “An unwritten novel”  and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”).

I admired the way Woolf constructed her argument and addressed important issues regarding women’s poverty and lack of rights. Her elegant writing on the challenges women writers faced in the domestic sphere and their reasons for feeling bitter and resentful resonated with me. I was struck by her recognition of the value of ordinary women’s experience and how she juxtaposed the lives of ordinary women with the lives of extraordinary women. I also appreciated how her work used fiction as a way to construct arguments, as when she invents a writer-sister for Shakespeare called Judith. Woolf’s creation of Judith Shakespeare draws on fiction to show how social conditions would have made it impossible for Judith to pursue her writerly passion in that historical context. Woolf’s work spoke to me because I was overwhelmed and touched by her sympathy with other women writers and their stories. I too shared Woolf’s hope that a time would come––actually, she herself was evidence that this time already existed! ––when women could write freely, in different genres (poetry included) and with an incandescent mind. 

Woolf quickly became my favorite author, and I ended up writing my dissertation on her short fiction. Was there a relation between Woolf’s feminist politics and her search for new literary forms that would with the literary tradition in order? Could this new literature produce a literature of her own, in which her voice could be discerned, I wondered?

Because of the path charted in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, I have had an office of my own at the Federal University of Paraíba, where I’ve been teaching since 1990. Yes, even nowadays, laying claim to money and a room of one’s own (metonyms for independence and freedom) has everything to do with writing literature and creating art! Even though Woolf was writing about the role of women’s history within the literary canon, what she so eloquently wrote has helped me question about my own limitations and dreams, and to happily embrace my own possibilities in life.