In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes that in order to write fiction, a woman must have money and a room of her own.” Money and space were often denied to women in Woolf’s time, providing them with little opportunity to find their voices in the literary community. While women are finding remarkably more achievement in education than they were during Woolf’s day, socioeconomic barriers — like the ones being enacted by the Ford government — are preventing us from achieving her ideals.
The underrepresentation of women in academia can be partially accounted for by barriers to participation and an inability to receive a university degree. Woolf begins her novel by describing experiences of being shooed off university lawns during private moments of contemplation, being kicked out of men-only libraries, and having classroom doors closed on her. Essentially, Woolf argues that women have been consistently denied opportunities to pursue higher education, especially if they are poor, dependent on men, or simply not given a moment alone to write and reflect.
Based on lectures she gave the year prior, Woolf’s book was published in 1929, the same year that women started to be legally considered “persons” in Canada. It’s easy to forget that women’s rights — especially for non-white women — are a relatively new phenomenon, particularly when there has been so much rapid change since the days of Rosie the Riveter and the suffragettes. For example, Statistics Canada reported in 2009 that a high percentage of women held university degrees than men in all provinces across Canada. Women also made up over half of people earning doctorate degrees as of 2016. After being excluded from academia for much of human history, women have remarkably caught up, and even surpassed men in educational attainment.
Yet, despite being written nearly a century ago, Woolf’s work still resonates with the current generation in Canada. A Room of One’s Own focuses on who is given the opportunity to participate in education, and while the doors are generally open for women today, it’s important to recognize that people are still being underrepresented in academia — for whom the doors are still closed.
For whom the doors close
Low-income students have difficulty entertaining the idea of postsecondary degrees when high tuition costs, combined with plummeting provincial funding makes university education increasingly inaccessible. While the Ford administration’s 10 per cent reduction of tuition fees seemed initially beneficial, the aftermath of the cuts have shown otherwise.
Prior to Ford’s funding changes, the Liberal government had increased pure grants and allowed low-income students to attend postsecondary education for free, with less fear and anxiety around incurring massive student debt.
However, the Ford government has changed funding for low-income students from grants to partial loans. In addition, the six-month grace period has been adjusted so that interest will collect on student loans immediately after graduation. These factors considered, low-income students are finding it increasingly difficult to attend university under these conditions.
Clearly, barriers to education, be they gender- or wealth-based, still pervade in Canada today. Woolf’s argument is only strengthened when considering that poverty disproportionately affects women.
While financial obstacles to education affect both men and women, low-income women, especially those who experience other forms of marginalization, may especially suffer as a result of Ford’s educational reform. While women are succeeding in higher education overall, only a select group has the opportunity to do so, and this group is not representative of all women.
Maybe money does buy happiness?
Woolf details in her essay that money influences success. While money does not guarantee you intelligence, it does guarantee you opportunities — opportunities for networking, comfortable livelihood, and building a social status that could one day lead to an impressive career.
Money can, at times, help you get a position regardless of your qualifications. Just look at the United States’ Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. DeVos has very little record of involvement in the public education system and has never even been an elected official. Her family is, however, a major donor to the Republican Party, and she has publicly admitted to buying her influence in the past.
Another incident that confirms Woolf’s thesis in the ability to buy success is the recent college admissions scandal in the US. Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are two of the many influential and wealthy people buying their children’s admittance into university. 50 people have been charged in total, including SAT administrators, school coaches, a college administrator, an exam proctor, and parents.
Millions of dollars have been illegally spent to guarantee children’s admissions to top-ranking universities, regardless of whether the child in question worked for a spot or even wanted one at all.
Olivia Jade, whose mother used bribery to guarantee her entry into the University of Southern California, has been quoted on her YouTube channel saying, “I do want the experience of game days, partying… I don’t really care about school.”
While cases like this are hopefully rare, they do exist and are more prevalent than previously believed. It is deeply disturbing that wealth can override merit, especially when some students work hard in high school but don’t attend postsecondary school because they can’t afford it, or suffer extreme debt for choosing to attend.
It is important to note, nonetheless, that access to the trades and other methods of higher education still provides people with a comfortable and potentially happy lifestyle. After all, in 2017, 67 per cent of Canadians finished university with debt, which averaged around $22,000. In 2014, only about half of university graduates were working jobs that required a university degree.
However, reports have shown that with the Baby Boomers aging, there’s a growing demand for jobs that require university education, especially in professional fields, including medicine, nursing, or geriatrics. Postsecondary education is increasingly important for our aging population. Today’s technological age also means that degrees in engineering and computer sciences are highly valuable.
Nevertheless, being able to find a stable job isn’t necessarily the point of Woolf’s argument. Rather, Woolf focuses on how financial stability hinders one’s opportunity to receive an education.
In turn, this limits one’s ability to reach their full potential as an intellectual, and artist seeking to further understand and explore the world. Being allowed to explore is not dependent on the individual’s curiosity and capabilities, but on how much money is in their bank account. While free postsecondary education for all is unlikely to happen in Ontario anytime soon, the current educational reform under the Ford administration must change.
The lack of education for women in Woolf’s time meant that academia was largely constructed by and for men. A one-sided account of history has followed because of this, and women are still trying to piece together their own narratives after being warped by the male perspective for so much of history. Nearly a century later, it’s important to ask whom we are leaving out of history today, and whether they are content with others speaking for them.