Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale
(image taken from Google)
Why I Decided To Read It: Surprise, surprise. Another historically placed, women-centered play written by a female playwright. This is seventh out of nine play script reviews. I am so predictable. I think I found this one in “Related Products” when I bought another play by Jessica Swale, Nell Gwynn. I decided to read it now because I enjoyed Nell Gwynn and wanted to read more by Jessica Swale. This is her first play.
Summary: In 1896 Britain, education is a privilege, not a right. No one knows that better than the young women of Girton College in Cambridge. Although they learn the same things as the men- taught by professors willing to risk their reputations educating young ladies- they get nothing in return. No degrees. Few job prospects. Even fewer marriage prospects. Nothing but being labeled a “blue stocking”- a nickname given to what are seen as overly educated girls. However, Tess Moffat, Celia Willbond, Carolyn Addison, Maeve Sullivan, and their teachers are going to fight for the ladies’ right to get an education and a degree. Will they succeed?
Thoughts and Analysis: I really liked this play. I’m not sure how I would compare it to the other Jessica Swale play I read, Nell Gwynn. Their topics are so different. I will say it is not as stylized as Nell Gwynn, but that’s not fair to Blue Stockings because Nell Gwynn takes place in Restoration theater and has to be more stylized.
This play kind of runs parallel to Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky. If anything, Blue Stockings is a sort of precursor to the other play. While Silent Sky is about women fighting for their professional work to be recognized, Blue Stockings is about young women’s fight to get an education and a degree. Also, they take place in two different countries. While the the US and Britain weren’t that different during the turn of the 20th Century, there is arguably more class issues in Blue Stockings brought into the forefront because it is set in Britain.
One thing that I really appreciated in Blue Stockings is the camaraderie between Tess, Celia, Carolyn, and Maeve. They wanted each other to succeed even if they didn’t always agree with one another. The girls each had their own fleshed out characters- albeit some more than others- so they were all different. Tess isn’t afraid to push boundaries. Celia is a hard worker, almost to the point of putting her health at risk. Carolyn is very bohemian. Maeve has a chip on her shoulder. They actually fit all the different Hogwarts houses. Tess is a Gryffindor, Celia is a Hufflepuff, Carolyn is Ravenclaw, and Maeve is a Slytherin. That’s how I interpreted it at least.
This play also says something interesting about concessions that women especially make in order to further certain causes in a way that is palatable to the status quo. Mainly this shows up in the character of Mrs. Welsh, the Mistress of Girton College. She wants women to have degrees so bad that she’s willing to forgo things that she wants or believes in to make it happen. She supports women’s right to vote, but doesn’t want the college to be associated with suffragettes. They are just too political. And (spoiler alert) it doesn’t even work. At times, I wanted to judge Mrs. Welsh for this, but I ultimately knew that was hypocritical. I think most women have tried to downplay certain aspects of themselves to get ahead. Only just at this moment in time are we starting to see the tipping point of more and more women being unapologetic in standing up for themselves and other women.
The scary thing about this play is that the patriarchy and misogyny is still such a huge problem. There’s a scene when a lecturer shuts all the women out of a discussion of women and hysteria and after first ignoring her, uses Tess’s attempts at providing an argument against her and that scene just hit home. Do you know how many times some dude- who doesn’t even know what their talking about- talked over me about a topic that I know? It’s a lot. I think most women have experienced something like that in work or at school. And that’s not even the worst thing that happens in the play.
Favorite Character: It’s so hard to say. All the women are great. And Mr. Banks the professor. I’m going to give a slight lean to Carolyn because she’s so extra.
Should You Read This?: I say give it a shot. There aren’t many plays specifically looking at the history of women’s education and it’s a relevant topic in this day and age.
Final Thoughts: Sexism in academia is still such a problem. Let’s all be more like the Girton Girls and support on another.