I was recently browsing a collection of books belonging to my younger son Ren Chun when I found Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own.
The book grew out of a lecture that Woolf gave at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1928.
What moved me was realising that what was shared by a great novelist, born in 1882, still resonated with me after 92 years.
It was a stirring realisation of what we have in common, despite our contrasting epochs and cultural roots, that while the world has changed so much, what women want remains so universal.
Some passages in the book deal with the theme of poverty and women's invisibility in all areas of creativity, set against the bullying male dominance of the epoch.
I quote from her book: "Women have always been poor, not for 200 years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry."
What was interesting was that Woolf, who was progressive in breaking the fetters of a male society, would say: "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. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves."
It is so pertinent to this year's International Women's Day theme, "Each for Equal".
Woolf wrote about Lady Winchilsea, who was born in 1661, 200 years earlier than herself. The lady was noble by birth and by marriage, childless, wrote poetry and was indignant about the position of women:
"How are we fallen! Fallen by mistaken rules,
And Education's more than Nature's fools:
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dull, expected and designed:
And if someone would soar above the rest,
With warmer fancy, and ambition pressed,
So strong the opposing faction still appears,
The hopes to thrive can ne'er outweigh the fears."
I am drawing a parallel between Woolf's love for writing novels and Lady Winchilsea's resentment of unmet aspirations to the current sentiments felt by modern women in the 21st century.
Though women are more educated and employed in positions never dreamt of by Lady Winchilsea and Woolf, the sentiment of unmet aspirations prevails. The female psyche is still disturbing, bewildering and oftentimes resentful.
It is now not so that men are our only opposing factions. The opening up of the global economy has been a tremendous enabler for women to reach for the sky; and they have in so many ways exceeded male performance.
But is there enough of a levelling field for women to excel? How do women define a good society and a good corporation? How can they lead good, meaningful and purposeful lives?
How do women change their language of complaints to a language of commitment, to better themselves, and to improve the environment for them to excel at work and in boardrooms, courtrooms and Parliament?
Evidently, these are questions all women are concerned with. There are many books written by women to help us reach the stars. The fundamental question is: Whose view do we take into account in measuring what leadership and success means to us?
If we decide to champion particular causes and get to C-suite positions, we need to get into the thick of corporate politics, and have the courage and confidence to overcome the challenges.
We could cultivate an alternative, integrative mindset to not shun power, and find new ways to get our voices heard to achieve our corporate goals. It is real work and it is not just about soft power. It is about mustering hard power to deal with centuries of masculine-led power structures. This may mean changing and improving the laws, policies and organisational norms to create an environment of greater fairness.
In my own experience, a miscarriage which threw me off balance emotionally prompted an alchemy of change. I stopped asking "Why me" and started asking "Why NOT me?" It dawned on me that I had to buckle down to reality, take life as it is and ask how I can do more with what I have.
That first step that lifted me out of my depression was my volunteer work with Samaritans of Singapore between 1990 and 1993. It struck me that I was not alone in my grief and there was so much to be done for women.
What followed were three decades of volunteering and advocacy efforts in social organisations such as Aware Helpline, Society Against Family Violence, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Help Every Lone Parent, and two terms as a Nominated Member of Parliament, as the voice for the social service sector.
Today, I am still active in various social and business organisations, locally and globally, all of which have shaped the woman I am today. Seizing the opportunities before me, I engage, I learn and I act. Better me, better society, is how I define it.
With opportunities arising from advancement in education and employment, more women will find the rooms of their own, to read and write, dream, create. Unlike the rather atomistic approach adopted by Woolf, women in the 21st century are now equipped with resources and channels to serve as influencers and advocates for change in policies and aspects of governance that disadvantage other women.
Nevertheless, that fire in the belly for change must first be present, to help us withstand the uphill task of change-making. The journey is not linear nor harmonious; the leering and ridicule felt in the earlier epochs by our sisters will continue, perhaps in subtler ways.
Take courage, be confident and try to reach that tipping point, for a better and more equal society.
Happy International Women's Day!
- Claire Chiang is co-founder of Banyan Tree Holdings, a mother of three and grandmother of three.