ALLAN EMMETT HENNESSY is impressed by the call to arms that is Blue Stockings.
“You’re not women now…you’re scientists.” I do wonder how Mary Curie would have responded to Mr Banks, a scientist and a victim of his time. Fortunately, our Blue Stockings – ‘Girtonites’ who are determined to tackle the abhorrent sexism of their time – responded with defiance, tenacity and elegance in what was a tour de force performance of Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings at a sold-out ADC. Five stars all the way to Girton.
It’s 1896 and Girton College is the only College to admit women. Blue Stockings commendably dramatises the fierce fight put up by the Girton girls for recognition as undergraduates and, in doing so, highlights the wider gender struggle faced by women. At the very least, our girls dispel the myth that academia left women “unfit for motherhood” at a time where, as Mrs Welsh put it, all woman could own was knowledge.
In their quest for academic emancipation, the Girtonites have to overcome backlash and unrest from all corners of academia. Fellows and students alike are uneasy with the ‘unnatural’ idea of women being allowed to graduate with their male counterparts. But, Girton’s Mistress, Mrs Welsh – played by the brilliant Isabelle Kettle – sets out to convince the all-male voters that they ought to vote in favour of women being given undergraduate status.
Fighting ignorance can be difficult, but our four Girton students – Tess, Maeve, Celia and Carolyn – fight back with their minds: indeed, they show the men how it’s done, as evinced by Mr Banks – a slightly-mad supervisor (as if!), humorously played by Gabriel Cagan – who uses Tess’ essay as exemplar material.
But, for me, Blue Stockings was far more than just an exposition on gender inequality: it was also a commentary on elitism, love and class.
The Girtonites have to deal with the elitism of Cambridge’s male undergraduates. Among them is Lloyd, an arrogant Trinitarian, who waxes lyrical on how the girls should be locked away for pursuing careers in science, not least because he believes that academia is inherently the right of man; “it’s in our blood,” apparently. While this is unequivocal sexism, it is a pertinent example of elitism, too: this feeling of self-entitlement has not solely precluded women from admission to Oxbridge.
Another Trinitarian, Holmes, convincingly played by Sam Grabiner, predicts from the outset that the girls will “break our hearts”. But it is not the self-important snobs who are left heartbroken. Instead, it is Tess, who is forced to choose between love and knowledge. There’s a reason you don’t go for Trinitarians (just ask Princess Diana), but, alas, poor Tess has to find out the hard way.
It is so refreshing to watch a play where all the actors were flawless. That said, the stand-out performance for me was that of Sarah Livingstone, who so beautifully and elegantly played Maeve Sullivan, a working-class Girton girl. Maeve is forced against her will to leave her studies and return home following the death of her mother. Her poignant exit left the audience in tears; the sacrificial nature of her departure is a fitting social commentary on the vicissitudes of working-class life.
Blue Stockings will make you laugh and cry; it strikes the perfect balance between comedy and poignancy. However, more than this, it gives us the impetus to fight injustice today, for it is still rife. And these fights will always be tough, but, as Tess puts it, “we’ll carry on.”