Mistress of Girton is VIP at play marking college's 150th anniversary

The Leys was delighted to welcome Professor Susan Smith, Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, to see its production of Blue Stockings, Jessica Swales’ play about the struggle for women to be awarded degrees by the University.

Prof Smith with the cast.
Prof Smith with the cast.

18th November 2019 — The play was timely as it is 150 years since women first came to study at degree level at Girton. In 1896, when the play is set, Elizabeth Welsh (Mistress from 1885-1903) persuaded the University Senate to vote on whether to allow the awarding of degrees to women. But the “Blue Stockings” were derided as unnatural and even mad for wishing to choose learning over their biological destiny to be wives and mothers. The campaign led to riots in the city and male graduates rallied to ensure the vote was lost. Women were finally allowed to receive degrees from Cambridge University in 1948.

Professor Smith, the Mistress of Girton since 2009, was the special guest at the final performance at The Leys. Wearing her college scarf with pride, she gave a brief address after the curtain call.

“I have seen quite a few productions of this play, especially this year as we celebrate our 150th anniversary. This was a fabulous production, one of the best if not the best. I wonder if you know what happened next? The vote was lost by a landslide, two to one. But what happened next? When there were 112 women in Girton they built a dining hall that is said to be the longest in Cambridge, sitting 270 people. Two days ago, that hall was full of just first-year students. The play’s message is that hope can triumph over experience and that we can change the course of events. Thank you for showing that so brilliantly.”

Drama teacher Dominic Bell, who directed the play, said access to Girton’s archives, in particular scrapbooks of photographs of the students of 1896, had inspired the Sixth Form actors.

“It is rather special to put this play on in Cambridge and for Prof. Smith to grace our stage. Looking at the photographs, the cast learned how to inhabit their roles and were really inspired by the play’s message.”

Image Description
A scene from the play.

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