Apologies up front for all the very long quotes I am about to post. I had more marked but decided to take mercy upon the internet. Besides, you can always read the entire thing for free right here.
Woolf's published essay is a lengthened version of a series of lectures she presented to two women's colleges at Cambridge in 1928. I would give anything to have been in the lecture halls when Woolf recited her views, just to see the women's reactions. Presented with the broad subject of "women and fiction", Woolf narrows it to a discussion of why women have been unable to produce the volume and quality of work that men have been able to over the ages. The answer is fairly simple: women haven't had the advantages that men have. It's hard to write the complete works of Wm. Shakespeare when one is forced into marriage, take care of children, and refused the right to own property. Instead, she argues, any woman with the genius of Shakespeare during his era would have been driven mad and committed suicide; an eerie precursor to Woolf's own fate.
My only criticism of A Room of One's Own, as others have pointed out, is that Woolf doesn't discuss the conditions of women of color. It certainly would have made it a longer essay, but its glaring omission leaves holes in her argument. There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of book stating that what she means by "women and fiction" is really "middle-class white women and fiction."
Regardless, it's a must-read for anyone interested in the history of English literature, and even for writers, for there are plenty of observations on what it takes and what's needed to be a successful writer. Or at least a self-respecting one.
Now here are some lengthy passages I couldn't edit down without their losing meaning and soul:
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size....That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is? ... They start the day confident, braced, believing themselves desired at Miss Smith's tea party; they say to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance, which have had such profound consequences in public life and lead to such curious notes in the margin of the private mind.
What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue--write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too conscientious governess, adjuring them...to be refined...admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in questions thinks suitable...It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs and chidings and promises of prizes. One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can't buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
...where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off. Are not reviews of current literature a perpetual illustration of the difficulty of judgment? "This great book," "this worthless book," the same books is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the degrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery...
...fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.
Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.
For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.