Reconfigured Spheres: Feminist Explorations of Literary Space

By Margaret R. Higonnet; Joan Templeton | Go to book overview

Staking Claims for No Territory: The Sea as Woman's Space

ANCA VLASOPOLOS

In The Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner persuasively identifies the historical moment of territoriality--the seizure of land--with the fall into patriarchy, thus confirming Virginia Woolf's earlier speculations about gender difference and spatial boundaries in A Room of One's Own.1 The territorial imperative, Woolf writes, expresses the male impulse for personal or global conquest:

[Women] are not even now as concerned about the health of their fame as men are, and, speaking generally, will pass a tombstone or a signpost without feeling an irresistible desire to cut their names on it, as Alf, Bert or Chas. must do in obedience to their instinct, which murmurs if it sees a fine woman go by, or even a dog, Ce chien est à moi. And, of course, it may not be a dog . . . it may be a piece of land or a man with curly black hair. It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wanting to make an Englishwoman of her. (52)

By inextricably linking the "health" of a man's fame with the impulse not only to mark and inscribe with his name but to colonize and appropriate, Woolf attributes desire for territory to the male's--specifically the white Western male's--sexual instinct. In this version of male desire, woman's very being becomes property potential. Contrary to Stimpson's assertion that while Woolf grants "woman" subjectivity, she reduces "negress" to "mere objecthood," the point Woolf is making is that the categories "negress" and "woman," as well as land, animals, and even other men, appear as the object of the male's appraising gaze.2 Woolf avoids essentializing even the white Western male territorial instinct, for she places her reflections, as Lerner does, within a historical framework, "not even now" suggesting that sexual difference is a historical construct.

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