Education, gender norms challenged in ‘Stockings’

by Kaina Chen | 11/16/14 5:22pm

For three hours on Friday, Dartmouth became an autumnal scene at Girton College in Cambridge, England. Bright red and fading brown leaves, both real and fake, created the craggy backdrop to the Girton women, who walked on stage wearing just white bloomers. They exclaimed about a black bicycle, a novel invention for 1896.

Tess Moffat, an astronomy student played by Rachel Decker-Sadowski ’14 Th’15, pedaled her way across the stage riding the bicycle, while a professor noted the movement of its wheels. The scene became a physics lesson about Newton’s laws of motion.

From beginning to end, “Blue Stockings,” a play by Jessica Swale, reflects the unconventionality of its opening. Girton was Britain’s first residential college for women, though many disputed if they should graduate with a university diploma.

Many men believed that women who spent their time studying would have less energy to carry out more “womanly” duties, like bearing children and raising a family, a sentiment voiced by men in the play. Female students also risked their reputations as marriageable women, forcing them to choose between knowledge and love.

While the direct challenges that Girton women faced are seemingly irrelevant today, cast and crew members said that there are many parallels to contemporary Dartmouth.

“Obviously, we have the right to graduate — it’s not the same exact issues we’re dealing with,” stage manager Naomi Lazar ’17 said. “But living in this community has some very intense issues. We live in a society where males dominate everything.”

Though “Blue Stockings” focuses on the broad implications of education reform for social progress, a subset of the story is about Moffat’s personal narrative. After falling in love, she struggles with the decision to continue pursuing her education.

Her personal struggle reflects the themes of sexism, oppression, learning, change and personal choice pertinent to the time period.

There is no easy fix, however. Though male characters denounce women’s place in academia during scenes of protest as well as in caustic monologues, much of their thinking is informed by popular but faulty theories about women’s roles that were popular at the time.

The play draws to a close as the final results of a vote on women’s right to graduate are announced. The vote does not pass, and the struggle for a woman’s right to graduate continues for another 50 years.

The spirit of struggling to break down barriers, in perhaps different contexts, is important to remember, Lazar said.

“There’s progress being made, but I want people to realize that we’re at such a good place, and we can go so much further,” she said.

Director Deby Guzman-Buchness ’15 said audience members could take various interpretations from the play.

“The whole point of theater, to me, is that the viewing individual will receive and take their own meaning,” Guzman-Buchness said. “To me, it’s about the entanglement of overturning and retaining history, institutional pride and tradition.”

The production featured a minimalist stage, and each prop was carefully selected to reflect a relationship with the overall storyline. The backdrop of leaves, for example, reflected the theme of change, set designer Julie Solomon ’17 said.

“There’s a lot of talk of nature, beauty and art, and I wanted something to allude to that,” Solomon said. “The play is all about change, moving forward, being progressive.”

Several students worked on set design, costume design and production. The week before the opening show, cast members and the production team clocked in more than 20 hours of rehearsals, Guzman-Buchness said.