A Room of Her Own
In 1929, Virginia Wolf wrote an extended essay that argued for a literal and figurative space for women writers in a literary tradition dominated by men. The essay is titled “A Room of One’s Own.” Today, the excavation work of creating space for women is still exhaustingly real. Without intentional and constant upkeep, a female space can dissolve in a matter of moments. Yet when carved out and tended to, women take up space and create worlds and languages for the benefit of all.
In our home, my spouse and I decided to turn our third bedroom into my writing room. The space is sacred to me. I hung maps and pictures on the walls that tell my story. I put books on the shelves that inform my thinking. I built a small shrine on the desk full of symbols that validate the greatest joys and pains of my journey. I do my best writing when I can anticipate a time and place beforehand. I like the room clean and organized, with a lot of surface area to spread out notes and scribbles. Over time, Simon’s little table and chairs made their way against one wall with Play-do and crayons. Toy bins get stacked in the corners. When Dan works from home, he takes the office and I write on the couch. It became our Christmas wrapping station. I manage Dan’s piles as they overflow onto my desk. A room of my own is not a given and is rarely easily available. The work of digging out literal and figurative space for me to create, however, is always worth it.
I wish I could imitate the Chinese women letter writers of at least a thousand years ago. Because they were forbidden to go to school like their brothers, they invented their own script—called nushu or “women’s writing”—though the punishment for creating a secret language was death. They wrote underground letters and poems of friendship to each other, quite consciously protesting the restrictions of their lives. As one wrote, ‘Men leave home to brave a life in the outside world. But we women are no less courageous. We can create a language they cannot understand.’
–Gloria Steinem, My Life on the Road
On my first trip into Kibera, a slum in Kenya, I wound my way through markets, neighborhoods, gates and turns until I saw three girls in navy sweaters, knee-high socks and plaid skirts taking a short break from class—buying oranges and stretching their legs. At the sound of a hand-rung bell, they turned down a narrow passage that led to an expansive, brown dirt courtyard. The bright sunlight cast shadows on a dozen girls playing a fairly intense yet jovial game of dodge ball. Other girls stood around the parameter, laughing, goading and encouraging the players. Class was about to resume at Kibera Girls Soccer Academy (KGSA).
The first glimpse of KGSA’s courtyard took my breath away. I knew immediately that the space was a living metaphor. Intentional, visionary work had gone into building a space in the middle of the slum for girls to learn. The subversively counter-cultural and transformative energy was palatable. Girls were chatting easily, playing together and sharing lip-gloss, excited to return to class. They were comfortable and safe. They were taking up space unapologetically. They were free. Over the years it took me to finalize Play Like a Girl, the KGSA story, I thought of the courtyard often. To me, it symbolized KGSA at its best, and what girls are capable of if given a space of their own.
Then a few weeks ago, a member of the KGSA board called me, distressed. A co-ed school had been built next door to KGSA. Volunteers reported that the boys from the mixed school had taken over the KGSA courtyard during class breaks. While the boys played games, the girls stood quietly on the periphery, watching. My heart broke at the inevitability and injustice of it all. “Boys get the whole world to play with,” I said, “you have to help the girls reclaim their courtyard.”
Men are used to taking up space.
Every time I speak to a group of young women I ask, “Can you feel the vagina power in this room?” In my experience, it’s a rare occasion worthy of note when women gather together. It takes effort to set up, but it’s always worth it. Special things happen. Once we recognize the collective communal energy and embrace its potential, we’ll keep working to get back there for more.
In “Of Power and Time,” Mary Oliver makes a distinction between the ordinary self and the creative self. Women, so regularly called to keep the ordinary world turning without respite, can forget that we are also artists, whose job instead is to move the world forward. This requires a different mindset that is not ordinary, but extraordinary:
Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again….. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity… And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.
Creating requires loyalty to the inner self away from the interruptions of ordinary life. Like my writing desk, I have gotten more courageous about claiming space of my own in other areas of my life. My yoga instructor encourages me to take up every inch of my mat. My words, opinions, needs, and physical body take up more space than they used to. As my birthing time for my second son got closer, as my body took up more space, I found I needed more and more room alone to prepare. I was creating. It was in no way ordinary. I wanted quiet time, time to wonder and read and write. Time to pray and stretch and listen. Time to get to know the baby inside of me. There was something profound happening to my body and my life, and I wanted to be present to it. It was joyful to share with my spouse and son, but I also needed space of my own to honor it and let it transform me into the woman I wanted to become.
I look forward to the day when we offer a woman a room of her own, in the shape of an oval, in a house that is white. I imagine it will be remarkable what she will be able to create if given the room to do so.