Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A change of direction, a theatre trip and a bit of thinking.

I haven't blogged in forever...and I've decided I'm going to mix it up a little. As much as I enjoy sharing what I get up to, I feel like there are things I'd rather talk about, and hopefully things - some of you at least - would rather read. Here goes nothing...

So today I went off to London with a friend from school to see 'Blue Stockings' by Jessica Swale at Shakespeare's Globe. And oh my god was it good. I'm a theatre nut as you know but I'm not just talking about the acting. It was the play itself. 

The posters include the following quotation by Dr Henry Maudsley, a 19th century British psychiatrist:

"Mental taxation in a woman can lead to atrophy, mania, or worse - leave her incapacitated as a mother. This is not an opinion. It is a fact of nature."

It sounds insane right? But in the world of 'Blue Stockings' it sums up everything. The play focuses on a group of young women among the first to attend Girton college, Cambridge and their fight for the right to graduate. You follow their whirlwind adventure...you laugh at their horror at the idea of riding a bicycle, you smile at their thirst and passion for learning and their sheer determination in the face of so much hostility and oppression, you cry when their hearts are broken or they are asked to choose between love and knowledge to decide what makes them happy and you share their disappointment when their fight is defeated and they leave Cambridge empty handed. And then you get angry.

You get angry as the curtain falls, because it's not a curtain, it's a set of banners. And these banners read: 

"The Girton girls did win the right to graduate. It took another 50 years and was not until 1948."

Now I went to an all girls school, I studied the suffrage movement and the evolution of women's rights in A-Level History, yet somehow this fact has managed to slip by me. 1948. That's a mere 65 years ago. When my grandmother was 25 and had served her country in the Second World War she still wouldn't have been able to do what I'm doing currently. She wouldn't have been able to go to university to get a degree, because she was a woman. And I had never even thought about it. It never occurred to me growing up that I wouldn't go to university. I didn't know what I wanted to study and I definitely didn't know what I wanted to do afterwards but why on earth would that stop me? I enjoyed school, I enjoyed learning and I felt just as entitled to higher education as any of my male friends.

Nowadays, looking back, the quote by Dr Maudsley sounds laughable. In fact, much of the audience did laugh when this was said during the play. But should we be laughing? Sure, the Victorians had a fair few crazy ideas which we find ridiculous today, but it wasn't just the Victorians who thought that 'mental taxation', learning or an education was somehow damaging or unfeminine. 65 years ago, one of the leading education institutions in the world still found the education of women to be of far less importance than that of males. And personally, I think we should only laugh now if we think that this view is now entirely alien. And if the education of women is considered as important as that of men, then why do so many teenage girls feel the need to "dumb down". In 'Blue Stockings', the male undergraduates of 1896 are threatened by the idea that the girls might be as capable as they are. and last year, in 2012 an older female colleague told me that "a relationship can only work if the man is more intelligent than the woman". If this is true (and I don't doubt there are exceptions but I've seen many examples where it seems to be the case) then does this mean men are still threatened by female intellect? And if they are, as they were in 1948, or in 1896, then maybe we shouldn't laught at Dr Maudsley and his 'facts of nature', but take the problem a little more seriously and bloody well do something about it?
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