In the late 1920s when women were kicking up their heels and "roaring" as loudly as their male counterparts, novelist Virginia Woolf wrote "A Room of One's Own," a thoughtful yet witty piece exploring why there are fewer successful women writers than men.
Woolf maintained that in order for a woman to work up to her creative capacity she needs two things: money (her own) and a room of her own to work in. The catch, wrote Woolf, is that one can't have the room without the money and since so few women are self-supportive, there are fewer women than men who have the time, money and space to write great books.
Woolf's own troubles were over, however, when her Aunt Mary Beton "died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay," leaving her astonished -- but grateful -- niece 500 pounds a year "forever." Woolf admits wryly that once the 10-shilling notes became a fixed object in her purse she found it easy to "give up her bitterness and anger toward men," concentrate on her writing and in retrospect extend the wish that all women would-be writers had 500 pounds a year and a room of their own.
Unfortunately, most women do not have a rich aunt in Bombay. And now, more than 50 years later -- despite their strides in other areas -- the situation still exists for women trying to work at home on their own while caring for their families. And despite more involvement by men at home, the conflicts continue.
"When a woman tries to work at home on her own projects she is surrounded with guilt, if the house is dirty or not, it begins to eat at her," says Karen Adams, chairperson of the Fine Arts Department at Roanoke College, Salem, Va., once herself a work-at-home mother trying to complete her doctorate while caring for two small children.
Her personal campaign is not an angry feminist shriek against being "trapped in the kitchen," she says, but dedicated "to waking up women, men, architects to the reasons why women put up with a lack of space and a dearth of creativity.
"If a woman doesn't value her talent," she says, "or if she feels guilty doing what she wants to do, she won't insist on a place to do it in.
"Unfortunately," says Adams, 41, "women seem to have a social myth within themselves that says 'a clean house equals a good woman.' "
The need for a separate working space -- whether it be for loom, easel or typewriter -- is crucial, says Adams, if a woman expects her work to excel or sell. Without such space she can expect to be bombarded with the time-consuming distractions of children, pets, neighbors, friends and, of course, housework.
Also, she acknowledges, if a woman is afraid of succeeding in her career she can hide easily behind her children's skirts and trousers. (Don't they, after all, always need mending and washing?)
Such psychological dilemmas are common, and, as Virginia Woolf said, "There are no answers to such complex problems here." Other causes for lack of space, says Adams, who lectures to women's groups and architects, are "easier to contemplate."
"Men have been designing women's spaces forever," she observes. "Traditionally, men have had the den, the study, or a workshop while women have had the corner of the kitchen.
"When a woman has no space of her own, her personality is affected," claims Adams. "Once a woman finds a space separate from her family she is allowed the opportunity to develop her own inner life." But until that happens, "outward interests such as children, rather than her inner life, are all that she has space to develop."
She emphasizes that men are "just as deserving" of private work space, but it is "usually available to them," and her focus is on space for creative endeavors. "The problems seem more acute when they are deprived."
If a woman is at home with her children--whatever the source of her decision -- she may have strong ambivalence, or guilt, says Adams, about leaving the children in another's hands while she works behind the locked den door.
The "ideal" space is outside, yet accessible to the house, such as in a back yard or neighborhood garage/studio or office. If such arrangements are too expensive or non-existent -- as they are for many women -- Adams suggests "surveying the house, going from room to room. Look, feel, but be careful. If the room you select still inhibits you, you'll end up trying to cope with discomfort rather than creating."
Adams also suggests consolidating two rooms into one and decorating "not only for appearance, but for utilitarian reasons. You have to have the right materials handy for your work."
Adams realizes that even after a diligent survey, women may still wind up in the corner of the bedroom or in the kitchen. "But the important thing is to make your space comfortable. Choose the lighting, colors and textures that you work well in, otherwise the space is of little value to you."
Meanwhile, here is how some area women are finding room in their lives -- and homes -- to pursue their own work.
Says Mary Cahill, 37, a free-lance writer of Ellicott City, Md.: "Sure, my children are in my space now, but I prefer it that way."
A recent turn of events in her writing career, however, could give her some options. She has been awarded $5,000 from the Maryland Arts Council for an original screenplay she's been piecing together while caring for her two children, ages 7 and 11.
Cahill, a genial, easy-going woman, enjoys joking about "taking over my husband's [Dr. Edward Cahill's] den, little by little like a growth," when she needed files and a desk to work on her screenplay. Her next project is a novel.
Will she hire help and/or will she find her own space to work?
"I've never had $5,000 of my own, I'm not sure what all of this means," she says. "I'm not sure it's because I'm a good writer, or that it was luck . . . but I do know I need time to assess what I'm going to do with my writing.
"It's important to me not to hire a full-time housekeeper . . . one of the really important aspects of working at home is that when something good happens to you in your career, your family sees your response. Even if the kids were a negative influence, at least they see my frustrations and my victories . . . it's a way for them to grow, too."
On the other side of Ellicott City, in the old section, lives Cahill's good friend and "inspiration," Jean Collins, a full-time free-lance writer with two children, ages 4 and 2. In the past few years she has published numerous national magazine articles and three nonfiction books.
"I feel obligated to produce some kind of income," says Collins, 34, in explaining her decision to hire a housekeeper. She comes in four days a week from 10 to 5 while Collins works in her "office." The garret-like room is set off adroitly between the kitchen and master-bedroom in their 200-year-old house near Ellicott City's historical Main Street.
Collins surmises that her husband, Dr. Peter Collins, and her housekeeper take her office and hours "very seriously" because of her own professional approach. Her work hours are strictly disciplined and she always "dresses for work. Nothing fancy, I just refuse to write in my bathrobe."
Each morning "I open my office," a large, dark room with slanted ceiling, filled bookcases, three desks -- hers, her husband's and the family's, "but I dominate the room" -- files, typewriter, phone, answering machine and hordes of papers and notes tacked to the white plaster walls.
"It looks like a starving writer's office," she comments, except for the exercise bicycle, which she uses often, "instead of going to the kitchen and eating."
Her neatly kept desk, an enormous old door that rests on four low file cabinets, faces a small window where Collins can look out at "birds, trees and the changing of seasons."
Denise Dickens, 34, a Washington graphics designer of business logos and annual reports, likes "objects that look like one thing and serve as another."
On her work table sits a Coke bottle (really a portable radio) and on the wall are two dusty pink ceramic flamingo heads (actually hat racks). The ultimate "gimmick," however, is her own back yard studio that looks like a garage from the outside, but inside is a modern, bright, carpeted artist's studio with natural brick walls, heat and air-conditioning units, two drafting tables, deep red cupboards that hide supplies, and two small, but efficient skylights.
The attractive, functional studio was designed over a year ago and "put together quickly" by Dickens with the support of her businessman husband, Michael Dickens, and a carpenter friend whose business cards she redesigned for the favor.
In July, days before the birth of her second child, Dickens wrapped up her clients' orders and closed her studio door. But in September, with the "indispensable" aid of a live-in, part-time student, who shares the care of Dickens' 3-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter, she reopened her studio, which is just 20 feet from her kitchen back door.
Each work day, no matter the deadline, her son joins her in the late afternoon "when he has the grand privilege of using my colored pencils and rolls of paper for our special work time together.
"It's easier for me than for other women working away from home," says Dickens. "I'm on the same premise, where I can be there if I'm needed. I guess knowing that makes me feel less guilty.
"I have to make an effort to get in the studio, but once there, all thoughts of time and other commitments vanish. I have to be singleminded. The space gives me a focus. I come out here, and I know I'm going to work."