Graduation. Do you remember yours? Mine, just a few short months ago, was a cheery, happy, exhaustingly wonderful day, when I got to have all my friends in a room together, drink endless bubbly, and chuck silly hats in the air. And then go to A&E because the silly hats are basically made of concrete and can easily have someone’s eye out. I’m kidding, thankfully that didn’t happen at my graduation but I bet it has somewhere. Anyway, it was a celebration of achievement, the future and, dare I say it, life. A chance to pat each other on the backs, partly for our stunning grades, but mostly because everyone managed to walk across the stage without tripping up.
It was certainly a day for nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses. Amongst the wine, photos, and parents on best behaviour, it was easy to look back on those halcyon days of halls and house parties, fun and friends, and forget all about fresher’s (swine) flu, broken printers, and all night staring in front of a blank laptop screen, cursing yourself for ‘not doing it earlier’.
Still, however bumpy our journey towards that mad costume and imposing stage might have been, we got there without ever having to fight for our right to be there. Fighting to oppose the commodification of our education system, manifesting itself in a huge rise in fees yes, but did we once have to defend our university attendance against people who believed our education was bad for society? No.
Jessica Swale’s new play Blue Stockings (2012) which just closed at RADA (but I seriously hope will transfer) reminds us how very very lucky we all were to have graduated that day, and especially we of the ‘fairer sex’. Set in 1896 at Girton College, Cambridge the play traced the true tale of Elizabeth Welsh, the college’s principal, who began a campaign to have degrees awarded to the women of the college. Established in 1869, Girton was ‘Britain’s first gateway to higher education for women’. What I did not realise was that whilst Girton, and later Newnham, were admitting women into higher education, it was not until 1948 that Cambridge awarded them degrees. Do the maths. That’s SEVENTY NINE YEARS in between these women being allowed to go to university, and being handed a piece of paper to say that they’d been. The women prior to 1948 were sitting the same exams as the men and many were passing with honours, but it was deemed unseemly for a woman to have a degree as it would surely interfere with her ability to be a mother and a wife. I mean, who’s going to want to marry an educated women? And, as one particularly objectionable character put it, what man is going to let a female doctor examine him?
The play opened with Welsh and a psychiatrist, Dr Maudsley, presenting speeches to the audience on their views of women in education. Their overlapping dialogue with each finishing the other’s sentences, and both speaking the line ‘degrees for women – what an idea!’ with completely different emphasis, perfectly set the scene for a tender, funny and inspiring play. First, we saw the struggle undergone just to get Cambridge to agree to have a vote on entering women as potential graduates. Once they had finally agreed, it transpired that only graduates were allowed to vote, which meant, of course, that none of the women studying at Girton had a say in the matter that most concerned them.
We followed the lives of four women at the college, all desperate to learn, to expand their horizons and prove themselves equals to their brothers. They were dubbed ‘blue stockings’ and were frequently jeered at as they walked to lectures, which they were often then banned from by less enlightened lecturers. Swale, who also directed the play, writes in the programme notes that female students were often spat at in class, made to eat their lunches with the cadavers in the labs lest they distract the men in the dining room, and had to hide chamber pots around the town in order to cope with the lack of facilities for women. I mean, the toilets at my university weren’t great, but I was never forced to squat in a hedge between lectures.
Evident throughout was the tireless bravery of all those fighting for the right to graduate. They had to prove that women could be both good students and good mothers and wives. It was thought unnatural to give a woman any more education than she would need to run a household. To that effect one of the lecturers opposed to the women’s cause gave a particularly enlightening talk on how too much education might affect a woman’s womb, causing it to wander around the body until it would reach her brain and she’d become psychotic. In the words of Maudsley, ‘the education of women can lead to atrophy, mania, or worse – leave them incapacitated as mothers’. Go figure.
Of all the characters in the play, Elizabeth Welsh was certainly the most compelling. A fierce battle axe of a woman who prided her student’s education above all, she was vilified for leading the cause for women graduates. Effigies of her wearing blue stockings were burnt in the street on the day of the vote, and she didn’t live to see her girls graduate. One troubling incident came when a student’s brother arrives to tell her that their mother has died and she must come home at once to look after the younger siblings. Maeve, the only working class girl of the group, refuses, saying that her home is now at Girton and she must stay and finish her education. The next morning Welsh comes to see Maeve to tell her that she has been dismissed from the college and must go home. If she does not, she is abandoning her god-given duty to her family. That, and Welsh’s categorical opposition to any involvement with the nascent suffrage movement, shows us just what a complex struggle it was, and how women were having to fight battles on many fronts.
As with all the best stories, I have not been able to get this one out of my head. The gratitude I feel – that we must all feel – to women like Elizabeth Welsh, who fought for our right to an education, is immense. Minus money problems, I took it absolutely for granted that I would be able to attend a good university, get a good degree, and that despite all that knowledge my womb would stay put. It is vital that we remember the courage of those who have gone before, in order to be able to draw from their well of strength and wisdom when we are on the front line of our own battles.
And if anyone finds a shop selling blue tights, give me their number. I’m ordering a lorry-load.
Anna Malzy is on a Masters in Gender, Media and Culture, which is finally allowing her to pursue her passion for looking at how gender is perceived and created within society, particularly on the stage. She is a Shakespeare nut, is happiest by the sea and wants a pet tortoise.