Aug. 20, 2014
Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library
(Clockwise from left) Tonya Beckman Ross, Emily Trask, Darius Pierce, Julie Jesneck and Michael Milligan play a high-stakes game in “The Gaming Table” at Folger Theatre.

Succeeding at the Game

To be a successful woman in Washington is just like pulling off a daring card trick: It’s harder than it looks. 

The whole thing should appear rather elegant and effortless, and the trick should belie all the everyday realities — and annoyances — that come with playing the game of this town on this Hill. 

Female staffers, reporters, editors, actors and politicians have to navigate the same maze as their male colleagues but with different rules. To pretend they don’t is as silly as it is disingenuous.  

What’s more — as the exhibit “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” shows — women have always faced this challenge. And we’ve done it with some serious style. 

Don’t let the title of the Folger Shakespeare Library exhibition fool you. This isn’t a show of dowdy women wielding a pious pen. It features a mad prophet, the thrice-married litigious landowner and the Mancini sisters, who fled their husbands and ended up as biographers, casino owners and powerful royal mistresses.

“What we do here is to use Virginia Woolf as an overall organizing principle because a lot of people are familiar with ‘A Room of One’s Own,’” exhibit curator Georgianna Ziegler says. 

Shakespeare’s sister is a character in Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own.”

“Let me imagine, since the facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say,” Woolf writes in the 1929 essay. 

In Woolf’s imagination, Judith “was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as [Shakespeare] was.” 

The way Woolf imagines it, unlike Shakespeare, Judith was kept from exploring her potential, which led her to crumble mentally and spiritually. 

“She would have been laughed out of the theater and not allowed to write plays,” Ziegler agrees. However, “because of the work of many, many scholars [over] the last 30 years or so, we now know about a lot more women writers from this period than Virginia Woolf was aware of or could have been aware of.”

“[A] lot of the women who wrote in the 1500s and 1600s ... didn’t publish their writings,” Ziegler says. “They were written privately and circulated in manuscript.”

In other words, Woolf was both right and wrong about the many Judiths working in the age of Shakespeare. Female writers of the period worked mostly in secret, but every now and then a Judith would break out from the private sphere into the public. 

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