The title of the essay comes from Woolf's conception that, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Woolf notes that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial freedom will bring women the freedom to write; "In the first place, to have a room of her own... was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble". The title also refers to any author's need for poetic licence and the personal liberty to create art.
The essay examines whether women were capable of producing, and in fact free to produce work of the quality of William Shakespeare, addressing the limitations that past and present women writers face.
Woolf's father, Sir Leslie Stephen, in line with the thinking of the era, believed that only the boys of the family should be sent to school. Woolf encouraged the image of herself that, because her father did not believe in investing in the education of his daughters, she was left without the experience of formal schooling. However, recent discoveries in the archive of King's College London show that Virginia and her sister Vanessa attended King's College London's Women's Department for classes in Greek and German over a number of years. In delivering the lectures outlined in the essay, Woolf is speaking to women who have the opportunity to learn in a formal, communal setting. Woolf lets her audience know the importance of their education at the same time warning them of the precariousness of their position in society.
In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, "Shakespeare's sister," to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare's gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: "She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school." Woolf's prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother's hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith's chances of fulfilling her promise with "but." While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy.
In the essay, Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers thus far. Woolf examines the careers of several female authors, including Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and George Eliot. In addition to female authors, Woolf also discusses and draws inspiration from noted scholar and feminist Jane Ellen Harrison. Harrison is presented in the essay only by her initials separated by long dashes, and Woolf first introduces Harrison as "the famous scholar… J ---- H---- herself".
Woolf also discusses Rebecca West, questioning Desmond MacCarthy's (referred to as "Z") uncompromising dismissal of West as an "'arrant feminist'". Among the men attacked for their views on women, F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead (referred to as "Lord Birkenhead") is mentioned, though Woolf further rebukes his ideas in stating she will not "trouble to copy out Lord Birkenhead's opinion upon the writing of women". Birkenhead was an opponent of suffrage. The essay quotes Oscar Browning through the words of his (possibly inaccurate) biographer H. E. Wortham: "'… the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that…the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.'" In addition to these mentions, Woolf subtly refers to several of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, and her hybrid name from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge—Oxbridge—has become a well-known term, although she was not the first to use it.
The narrator of the work is at one point identified as "Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael", alluding to the sixteenth century ballad Mary Hamilton. In referencing the tale of a woman about to be hanged for existing outside of marriage and rejecting motherhood, the narrator identifies women writers such as herself as outsiders who exist in a potentially dangerous space. It is important to note that Woolf's heroine, Judith Shakespeare, dies by her own hand, after she becomes pregnant with the child of an actor. Like the woman in the Four Marys, she is pregnant and trapped in a life imposed on her. Woolf sees Judith Shakespeare, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael, as powerless, impoverished women everywhere as threatened by the spectre of death.
In another section, describing the work of a fictional woman writer, Mary Carmichael, Woolf deliberately invokes lesbianism: "Then may I tell you that the very next words I read were these – 'Chloe liked Olivia...' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." Woolf references the obscenity trial and public uproar resulting from the publishing of Radclyffe Hall's lesbian-themed novel, The Well of Loneliness published in 1928. Before she can discuss Chloe liking Olivia, the narrator, has to be assured that Sir Chartres Biron, the magistrate of Hall's obscenity trial is not in the audience: "Are there no men present? Do you promise the figure of Sir Chartres Biron is not concealed? We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you..."
Woolf scholar and feminist critic Jane Marcus believes Woolf was giving Radclyffe Hall and other writers a demonstration of how to discuss lesbianism discreetly enough to avoid obscenity trials; "Woolf was offering her besieged fellow writer a lesson in how to give a lesbian talk and write a lesbian work and get away with it." Marcus describes the atmosphere of Woolf's arrival and presence at the women's college with her lover Vita Sackville-West as "sapphic." Woolf is comfortable discussing lesbianism in her talks with the women students because she feels a women's college is a safe and essential place for such discussions.
In this paragraph, Woolf sums up the stark contrast her research has uncovered between how women are idealised in fiction written by men, and how patriarchal society has treated them in real life:
Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.
Woolf's famous demand on behalf of the hypothetical female author, narratively framed by the Four Marys, is articulated in the line:
"Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days."
Inflation-adjusting £500 in 1929 to the present (2013), gives about £25,000 (about US$43,000) (using inflation of the cost of goods) or about £75,000 (about US$130,000) (using inflation of people's earnings). Converting £500 in 1929 to 1913 yields £230 to £310, which is below the group that George Orwell describes in The Road to Wigan Pier (published in 1937, but describing pre-War life in this passage) as the lower end of the upper-middle class:
"To belong to this class when you were at the £400 a year level was a queer business, for it meant that your gentility was almost purely theoretical. You lived, so to speak, at two levels simultaneously. Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to tip them, although in practice you had one, at most, two resident servants. Theoretically you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner, although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a decent restaurant. Theoretically you knew how to shoot and ride, although in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot over."
The £500 was just enough to live on without employment but without any extravagance. This (minimal) independent wealth introduces a socio-political element into Woolf's argument which speaks not only to gender dynamics but to divisions in social class. This element of Woolf's argument has been addressed in a number of scholarly and literary attacks.
Alice Walker, to the subject of much criticism, demeaned Woolf's essay for its exclusion of women of color, and women writers who do not have any means for obtaining the independence of a room of their own. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, Walker writes: "Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phillis Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day."
Walker recognises that Wheatley is in a position far different from the narrator of Woolf's essay, in that she does not own herself, much less "a room of her own". Wheatley and other women writers exist outside of this room, outside of this space Woolf sets asides for women writers. Though she calls attention to the limits of Woolf's essay, Walker, in uniting womanist prose (women's writing) with the physical and metaphorical space of "our mothers' gardens", pays homage to Woolf's similar endeavour of seeking space, "room", for women writers.
It was adapted as a play by Patrick Garland who also directed Eileen Atkins in its stage performance. The television adaptation directed by Patrick Garland was broadcast on PBS Masterpiece Theatre in 1991.