“What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?” (21).
This quote from A Room of One’s Own has plagued me since I read it. I feel torn between scorn for privileged, upper-class women who do nothing but pamper themselves and care for familial possessions; and bitterness at the patriarchal system that sets them up for such limitations. It strikes a chord with me on a personal level, because from a bystander’s observation, my own mother might be seen as one of these privileged, upper-class women… not one who pampers herself, but one who focuses her time on family affairs instead of her own pursuits; and from this perspective, it would be easy to scoff at her idle lifestyle. But as her daughter, I know my mother to be a brilliant woman: the valedictorian of a very competitive international high school in Taiwan, the talented flutist and pianist accepted into the most prestigious music conservatory in Scandinavia, financially independent by age seventeen, and an unconventionally wise and wonderful mother. From this perspective, I am forced to question: what made my mother accept a small life despite her endless potential?
From a romanticized view, it was falling in love, having children, wanting to invest fully in family. But nevertheless, her plans to leave the United States after college were thwarted by marrying my father… why was it never an expectation that he leave his home country instead? Her plans to pursue a professional career in music were thwarted by her time-consuming children… why is it that she felt uncomfortable sacrificing time with us, while my dad travelled and stayed late into the night at his office when we were little? We no longer need the same time commitment from our mom, and my parents are financially stable and able to be flexible at this point; but after twenty years of being a stay-at-home woman, she is conditioned to stay there and has absolutely no confidence that she is capable of anything else. She is miserable and bitter, but refuses to take advantage of the space that has finally opened up in her life because for so long she has been without “room of her own.” Her purpose has been defined by the mantra: “This is what I do” – “this” being domestic chores, shopping, volunteer work, taking care of her kids and her husband.
I was watching “Gilmore Girls” with my roommates yesterday when Emily, the grandmother, has a breakdown in the shopping mall. Thanks to her husband’s successful career, she has money to blow, and does so frivolously. But she is shopping with her daughter, a single mother who runs an inn independently, and her granddaughter, an ambitious student at Harvard; they call her out on her frivolity and irrationality. Emily proceeds to have a temper tantrum that reveals her deep-seated bitterness toward her husband’s accelerating social business life, and explains that she reacts by accelerating the only thing she knows: shopping. While it’s a funny scene, it gets at the heart of the way in which women’s roles in marriage can be limited to activities which come to define them as trivial wives. This resonated with my own observations of my mom’s unhappiness, but also resonates with everything Woolf is attacking in A Room of One’s Own: a patriarchal system that sets women up for small lives which center around other people, never their own ambitions.
I attached the clip of the shopping mall scene here: