(Cambridge) Blue Stockings

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★★★★★ Five Stars

If you had to choose between love and education, which would it be? This is the difficult question which the women at Girton College, Cambridge faced in 1896; the inevitable result of studying being spinsterhood. Jessica Swale’s new play Blue Stockings concentrates upon this very question and dramatizes the consequences of choosing education.

Blue Stockings tells us the story of four female Cambridge students fighting for equality in the late 19th century; for though Girton granted entrance to a few highly academic females, they would not, unlike their male colleagues, leave with a degree. The reason for this being that the majority of society disapproved of female education. The play vocalizes the fierce opposition through characters such as Dr Maudsley, who proclaims early on that those women who pursue an education ‘do so at the cost of their strength and health which entails life-long suffering, and even incapacitates them for the adequate performance of the natural functions of their sex’.

The play deals with the wider campaign for female emancipation whilst also capturing the struggles of the individual students. Tess, the most outspoken of the four girls, is beautifully characterized by Ellie Piercy. She boldly opposes Dr Maudsley’s view that hysteria is a result of women’s lack of moral judgement, much to the astonishment of the male students and from the outset she refuses to accept the view that a woman must choose between love and education. However, Tess’ fiery nature quickly dwindles when her relationship with a fellow student ends, as his family feel Girton is ‘too radical’. In one of the most emotionally charged scenes of the play, Tess cries ‘what is the point?’. This question is frequently repeated by the male students in an attempt to weaken the female cause; with a degree from Girton, no one will marry you, no one will employ you, you will be an outcast.

The Globe is a perfect setting for this inspiring play. The audience act as the public forum for the controversial issues on the stage; the play’s inclusive nature is particularly conveyed when they let out a loud cheer as the female shopkeeper shouts ‘get out’, after witnessing a scene of blatant male chauvinism.

The play was not only entertaining but also a true education, chronicling the historical struggle of women in Britain. For female students in Britain today, it is difficult to imagine that, until relatively recently, we had no right to graduate with a degree. However, with Swale’s dedication to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was attacked by the Taliban for encouraging education for girls, she reminds us that though things may have improved for us, in other countries across the world these issues are just as prevalent as they were for the Girton women in the 19th century. 

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