“A Learned Woman is thought to be a Comet, that bodes Mischief, when ever it appears. To offer to the World the Liberal Education of Women is to deface the Image of God in Man, it will make Women so high, and men so low, like fire in the House-top, it will set the whole world in a flame.”from AN ESSAY To Revive the Antient Education OF Gentlewomen, IN Religion, Manners, Arts & Tongues. WITH An Answer to the Objections against this Way of Education.
The people you don’t know about. Bathsua Making. Governess to Princess Elizabeth (middle daughter of Charles I). Agnes Forbes Blackadder. The first woman to graduate from St Andrews on the same level as men, gaining her MA in October 1894. Apparently my alma mater was ahead of the curve for once. The bluestockings of Cambridge who had to fight longer and harder than that for the same right.
On Friday night I was lucky enough to see the last performance of Blue Stockings at The Globe. And, to quote the internet, I had ~feelings~ A lot of them.
My friend Jenny wrote this after seeing the play.
It made me weep hot, angry tears.
The play told the story of the women who fought to be allowed to graduate from the very same university where I studied. And from which I graduated. Only they were fighting around 100 years before I turned up there, and the battle was only won 50 years later.
I went to see the play alone, and it’s fair to say that the older generations sat either side of me had less emotive responses. I wondered why the story hit me with such force.
I felt physically stunned by the brutality and the bullying behaviour of the characters who opposed these women. There was a scene where the main female character tried to participate in a lecture (in the same manner that the male students were) and she was systematically shut down by Dr Maudsley in a horrific exchange.
I had a similar reaction.
There were moments when I laughed, because the things the men say about women’s abilities as students in the play are just so ridiculous it seems hilarious that anyone could seriously believe them. And then I remembered the kind of treatment that women like Mary Beard are subject to on twitter, and I realised these kind of views haven’t gone away, they’ve just gone somewhere different.
There were moments where I was almost shaking with supressed anger - the kind you get when there’s nothing you can do in response to an attack, because the person attacking you won’t listen, won’t give an inch, won’t grant you the right to be of equal worth as a human being. When Tess is being shut down by Maudsley, and Caro by Lloyd, I just wanted to jump up on my bench and yell right back.
And there were moments when I just wept. Because, while there are other things in my life that I value and that make my life whole, the bit of me that I’m able to build a life and a future upon is what the women in the play were fighting for. The right to study and to learn, and do do something with that knowledge that has the tiniest bit of impact. The fact that I was able to spend three years of my life writing 80,000 words about the Roman constitution, and sit down at the end with two men who took it, and me, seriously - and while I might not have loved the process of my viva, I love that I got to have it. For all I sometimes feel like I’m sometimes stuck in the stupid false dichotomy of choosing between the chance to continue learning and the choice to build a family, because it is still harder for a woman to balance both than it is for a man, it is a less stark stupid-ass choice than it was for the women represented in Blue Stockings
But in a way, for all the howling pain of those moments of verbal abuse and physical violence from the men to the women in the play, the hardest thing was, I think, watching the women choose how to fight their fight (and also, actually, watching the few men face up to their peers as well) - because this isn’t a stupid-ass false dichtomy, it’s a genuine tension. When the people you’re facing are terrifed that the walls of their city are about to go up in flames, and are turning the fire-hoses on you, do you make yourself as unthreatening as possible while the walls crackle quietly but steadily, or do you embrace your inner dragon and spit the fire that’s in your belly towards the walls?
I understand that the morally grey exists. I know that to make good things happen good people have to make compromises they’d rather not. For all I want to jump on a bench and yell, I am, essentially, the tactical voter - moving step by persuasive step. So I understand why Miss Welsh makes the choices she does. But, oh, I wish she didn’t - and that she didn’t have to. Because I want to set the world aflame.
But still. The only thing keeping me hanging in there, as she faced the result of the Senate’s vote at the end of the play was the knowledge that in the end, she won. Not alone. The strange collective of compromisers, world-burners, and the men who stood beside them won. We won. That it was worth it. We get to be comets that bode mischief.
Thank you, ladies
Remember who commended thy blue stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art made, if thou desirest to be so… Twelfth Night, Act Two, Scene Five (with apologies)