Jessica Swale: why the Blue Stockings were ‘the movers and shakers of their age’

Jessica Swale

Now premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe, Jessica Swale’s debut play Blue Stockings depicts the fight of female students at 1890s Cambridge University to be treated equally with their male counterparts. Here, the playwright gives an insight into the historical context of the piece, and the astonishing prejudices the ‘Girton girls’ had to endure.

In the mid-1800s, girls in England were lucky if they got an education at all. Some wealthy young women had governesses, some girls went to secondary school, but the curriculum was often limited to ‘feminine subjects’: needlework, art, maybe French if you were lucky, whilst the girls’ brothers were learning algebra and translating Virgil by the age of eleven.

That began to change when Emily Davies, the pioneering educationalist, led a successful campaign to incorporate serious subjects and examinations into ladies’ education. Then, when she’d conquered the curriculum, she turned her attention to higher education. In 1869 she set up Britain’s first residential college for women at Hitchin, Cambridgeshire. There, in a farmhouse twenty miles from Cambridge (considered to be a safe distance), the first women’s university college was born. There were five students, taught by any lecturers that were willing to risk their reputations and cycle the forty-mile round trip to do so. But it was a beginning.

Blue Stockings production photo

Blue Stockings, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2013
(Photo by Manuel Harlan)

By 1896, the College had moved to Girton, a mere two miles up the hill from Cambridge (a schlep which was quickly christened ‘the Girton grind’.) Yet, though the girls studied identical degrees to the men, when they’d finished their courses they were sent home empty-handed. When the men donned their caps and gowns for graduation, the women were denied their certificates. It was then that Girton’s new Mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, alongside her staff and students, decided to begin the campaign to win the girls the right to graduate. And that is where the play begins.

As for the girls themselves, we tend to associate the Victorian era with stuffiness, modesty and proper manners. The girls at Girton were rebelling against that. Whilst they followed social rules and etiquette, in their passions and ambition they were stretching out of their Victorian corsets, pulling away from their demure mothers and moving rapidly into the twentieth century. They are feisty, they are driven and they are the movers and shakers of their age.

As for the men, it would be easy to assume that those who condemn women’s education with as much vitriol as the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Henry Maudsley, who appears in the play, are heartless misogynists. That’s simply not the case. These men speak the prevailing opinions of the time. They’re not the devils of the piece; they genuinely believed that women’s health and the future of Britain was at stake. As Maudsley says in the play’s opening scene: ‘it may be a pity for women that they are born women, but in running the intellectual race, it’s unlikely they will succeed, and perilous to even try.’ I’d heartily recommend reading Maudsley’s short book Sex in Mind and in Education, on which some of his text, and many of the sentiments of the play, are based, as a place to start.

Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Blue Stockings, Jessica Swale’s moving, comical and eye-opening debut play that tells the story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage.

To buy your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – visit the NHB website here.

Blue Stockings is currently premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 11 October.

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