Great Speeches: Virginia Woolf - 20th and 26th October 1928

by Blog Speechwriting People

This post is part of a Series on Great Speeches. In 2007 The Guardian published a series of booklets, with accompanying cd, entitled Great Speeches of the 20th Century, ranging from Martin Luther King to Earl Spencer, Emmeline Pankhurst to Virginia Woolf.

In 1928 Virginia Woolf gave two speeches at Cambridge women’s colleges. Together they became what we might describe today as one of the original ‘commencement speeches’. 

"... the pressure of convention decrees that every speech must end with a peroration [intended to inspire enthusiasm]. And a peroration addressed to women should have something, you will agree, particularly exalting and ennobling about it. I should implore you to remember your responsibilities, to be higher, to be more spiritual; I should remind you how much depends upon you, and what influence you can exert upon the future. But those exhortations can safely, I think, be left to the other sex, who will put them, and indeed have put them, with far greater eloquence than I can compass.

When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else." 

A commencement speech is largely an American invention. A visiting Alumni, possibly of some fame or significant success, will share their ideas or advice with the graduating students. There have been some memorable ones in recent years: the 'find what you love' speech by Steve Jobs, the 'power of our differences' speech by Michelle Obama, and the 'what I learned in death' speech given by Sheryl Sandberg, but my favourite is by Nora Ephron at Wellesley College in 1996. More of that later. 

Woolf’s speech seems overly familiar to us today. We're used to the soundbites of inspiring speeches urging us to be higher, more spiritual and of influence. But her cry was for women to find their creative space and not to be silenced by overwhelming obligation or lack of opportunity. Her lament was for the voices lost throughout history because of the more urgent, more necessary occupations of women. 

Shakespeare's Sister

Woolf makes use of a fictional character to drive her point home. She tells of Shakespeare's imaginary sister, who had the same intelligence and creative drive as he did but none of the opportunity. She asks ‘what if’ Shakespeare had been a woman, or had a sister equally as gifted and able, what doors would have been open to her? She reminds us that the power of financial independence and freedom of experience throughout history belonged almost exclusively to men. 

And so, what would she make of us today? A quick glance through the library or a bookshop, and the shelves are full of women writers, just as we have taken our places in every industry. And yet, financial independence and equal opportunity are still the obstacles for so many - men and women. 

Nearly 70 years later another writer - Nora Ephron - is delivering a very different speech at a women’s college. What would Woolf have made of it? Frivolous and funny? Depressing? Exciting? 

Nora Ephron was a brilliant writer, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and film director. But she started on the lowest rung possible, en route to becoming a journalist - fighting for her place in the 'newsroom' - 

"There were no mail boys at Newsweek, only mail girls. If you were a college graduate (like me) who had worked on your college newspaper (like me) and you were a girl (like me), they hired you as a mail girl. If you were a boy (unlike me) with exactly the same qualifications, they hired you as a reporter and sent you to a bureau somewhere in America. This was unjust but it was 1962, so it was the way things were."

Opportunity Will Come

As Woolf starts to round up her speech, she asks - “How can I further encourage you to go about the business of life?

It is all very well for you to say, we have had other work on our hands. But at the same time ... you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure and money no longer holds good.

This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power ... For my belief is that if we live another century or so - and have £500 a year each of us and rooms of our own ... the opportunity will come.” 

Ephron carries on right where Woolf left off …

"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Because you don't have the alibi my class had—this is one of the great achievements and mixed blessings you inherit: Unlike us, you can't say nobody told you there were other options. Your education is a dress rehearsal for a life that is yours to lead. Twenty-five years from now, you won't have as easy a time making excuses as my class did. You won't be able to blame the deans, or the culture, or anyone else: you will have no one to blame but yourselves. Whoa."

Yeh. Whoa!

So What Are You Going To Do?

Ephron ends her speech with a very clear peroration - 

"So what are you going to do? This is the season when a clutch of successful women—who have it all —give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can't have it all. Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened: you can always change your mind." 


Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women."

Something Woolf might agree with.