Virginia Woolf’s statement in “Shakespeare’s Sister” that women were of great imaginative but little practical importance, in my opinion, requires a little qualification with respect to the position of women during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Her thesis, that women were very much second class citizens, that they were not given the chance to be educated, that they were not taken seriously by a male-dominated society, that a woman of genius could not have developed her genius in the England of Shakespeare’s day, is irrefutable. And it is also the case that, despite the exalted position accorded to women by the literature of courtly love and such poets as Sidney, exalted positions which were romantically fictive and imaginative, power in society was largely something of, by, and for men.
But if we take the phrase “practically she is completely insignificant” literally, then it is tainted by hyperbole. Was Eleanor of Aquitaine insignificant? Were women like the “Wife of Bath” (and certainly there must have been real, middle class women like her) people that, in their social milieu, apt to have been deemed insignificant? Was Margaret of Navarre insignificant, or Lucrezia Borgia, or Good Queen Bess insignificant?
True, Woolf is talking largely in terms of literature and largely in terms of the middle class. But later on in A Room of One’s Own she makes a remark which displays a certain Bloomsbury snobbery, “…genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people…”. What about John Bunyan then? What about Cobbett or Tom Paine? Fine writers of humble origins. Not possessed of the genius of Shakespeare, but then, who else is?