Women fight for their right to study

Jessica Swale’s rollicking play about women in 1890s Cambridge fighting for the recognition of their education has relevance today

September 5, 2013

Blue Stockings
By Jessica Swale
Directed by John Dove
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Until 11 October

Hurrah for Blue Stockings, a play that gets the boisterous Globe audience cheering for the cause of women’s education and muttering darkly at those who oppose it; a play that unashamedly lectures its audience on the importance of the arts while examining the trials and tribulations of four brilliant, passionate young women who are desperate to become scientists. And hurrah for a play that places women’s lives centre stage at the Globe, a theatre that looks back to a playhouse that barred women from acting but – a bit like the University of Cambridge in 1896 – let them do the laundry, the cooking and the cleaning.

Jessica Swale’s debut play is an energetic, polemical gallop through the academic year of 1896-97. Swale has directed at the Globe – Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam, the first play by a woman to be staged by the theatre – so she is well aware of the challenges and opportunities that the space offers: the elbows on the stage, the pillars, the audience’s enthusiastic response to direct address. Swale has served up a history play that employs a glorious bucket of clichés, has some wonderfully caddish villains and an ever-so-slightly jolly-hockey-sticks heroine. The rattling narrative will be enjoyed by devotees of Downton Abbey. It is tremendous fun, friendly in its feminism and it deserves to be popular.

Why was it so important to graduate? To be become bachelors rather than spinsters, and masters rather than mistresses?

The play’s backbone is the story of the feisty Tess (Ellie Piercy) during her first year at Girton College; we follow her as she studies, falls in love, has her heart broken, omits to revise and does a host of other things freshers are prone to do when they are away from home for the first time. But while Tess is learning how to ride a bike, dance the cancan and make banners for a suffrage meeting, Elizabeth Welsh, mistress of Girton, is trying to persuade the Cambridge senate to put the question of whether women should be awarded degrees to a vote. The play memorably exhibits the animosity and misogyny generated by Welsh’s request; Cambridge graduates riot in the streets, burn effigies of women and bully anyone who supports the women’s cause. The rotter of the play – Lloyd (Tom Lawrence) – even commits the ungentlemanly act of knocking down an elderly lady – Gabrielle Lloyd’s Miss Welsh. Thank God she didn’t suggest that Jane Austen’s image be put on a banknote.

Welsh adopts the polite, well-behaved, don’t-frighten-the-horses strategy of “degrees by degrees”, and compromises hugely, so desperate is she to remain on good terms with the misogynists who rule Cambridge. She rebukes her students for speaking out, outlaws support for the suffragists, and sends home the slum girl on a scholarship because the girl’s family needs her. Fearing what the newspapers might say, Welsh pronounces “We will not allow scholarships to sabotage home life”, seemingly unaware of the fact that any scholarship worth doing is bound to sabotage someone’s home life.

Indeed, the play’s portrayal of Welsh’s “Trojan horse” approach – “Keep your voice soft but your brain sharp” – raises many questions. Why was it so important to graduate? To become bachelors rather than spinsters, and masters rather than mistresses? And if graduating was so important, why stay in Cambridge? The University of London had been graduating women since 1880. Surely George Eliot was a reasonable advertisement for the education on offer at Bedford College, founded in 1849 by Elizabeth Jesser Reid? Or how about relocating to the US? Elizabeth Blackwell got her degree in medicine from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849.

It is the misogynist, Lloyd, who explains in detail why Cambridge is so special: “This isn’t some country-hole second-rate pauper’s college. We’re not average men here. We are the future. The leaders. The establishment.” Lloyd’s attack on the women climaxes when he informs a female medical student that she’s as good as a whore – but he has a point about “the establishment”. Why did the women want to join this particular boys’ club? Why did they want to become “the establishment” rather than hanging out with New Women and discussing Hedda Gabler? And why did they want to attend lectures by the stupendously blinkered Henry Maudsley (of Maudsley Hospital fame) – played by Edward Peel – who fulminates against the education of women, trumpeting: “The overexertion of a woman’s brain, at the expense of other vital organs, may lead to atrophy, mania, or worse, may leave her incapacitated as a mother.”

The temptation here is to think such nonsense is a thing of the past, but as Maudsley humiliated the female students attending his lecture by expounding in excruciating detail on the subjects of menstruation, wandering wombs and hysteria, I was getting flashbacks to an undergraduate tutorial on Jane Austen where a male lecturer – a Maudsley in blue jeans and a leather jacket – made one of my fellow students squirm with embarrassment as he insisted she speculate about the sex life of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Swale also uses Maudsley to demonstrate another classic misogynist technique still very much in use today: first ignore women completely, and then, if a woman insists on being heard, construct her as hysterical. After that, the more she protests, the more she evidences her hysteria and the less she will be listened to.

The dastardly deeds of the anti-feminist chaps helped to get the audience cheering loudly for equal opportunities and laughing when one male undergraduate suggested that feminism was a product of hysteria. The Globe audience are always keen to show their support or disapprobation, and director John Dove gets the audience onside right from the start by opening with a pre-show warm-up; musicians stroll on and play a medley of tunes evoking the 1890s, establishing a jolly atmosphere and getting the audience into the habit of applauding enthusiastically. The musicians then retire to the gallery, but their music helps to keep things spinning along cheerfully until the end when bluestocking Tess finds out that it is just about possible that she hasn’t entirely stuffed up all chance of romance and motherhood (phew!) because of her love affair with astrophysics; that – perhaps – it may not be necessary to choose between love and learning.

The oddly sentimental ending is followed by a house speciality – a wonderful, energetic jig – and a gloriously crazy final tableau with the entire cast spilled across the stage as if for a formal photograph at the end of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. This rounds the evening off on such an exuberant note that it seems churlish to mutter that although women have been able to graduate from Cambridge since 1948, sexism is still very much alive and kicking in the groves of academe.

The published text of Blue Stockings explicitly honours Malala Yousafzai and “all those who dedicate their lives to our education” – and hurrah for that – but Swale is right in her programme essay to point out that in the UK today, class and cash are more critical than gender. During rehearsals for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art production of this play in 2012, Swale and her cast watched students marching along Gower Street demanding “education for all”. With tuition fees as the gatekeepers now – rather than modern-day Maudsleys – Blue Stockings offers a timely reminder of what will be lost if a significant group of the population is excluded from graduating.

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