Hard to believe there was a time in England and the United States, not too long ago, when it was considered indecent for a woman to ride a bicycle.
And unfortunately, such is still the case in some countries today, such as Pakistan.
“Blue Stockings,” a drama by Jessica Swale, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, at Carroll College FLEX Theatre.
It takes the audience time traveling to an earlier era, when women were bound by corsets and Victorian rules of propriety and morality. The play runs through Feb. 16.
Step back into 1896, when a small group of feisty, driven young women arrive at Girton College to attend classes at Cambridge with men.
While the men will earn degrees, the women who work just as hard, are denied that opportunity and only get certificates.
Although the women are permitted to attend classes with men, they’re not allowed to speak up in class.
During this era, some scientists actually believed that women’s intellectual pursuits would cause a “wandering womb” and female hysteria.
The young intellectual women are often mocked as “blue stockings.”
Each of the four main characters must come to terms with her own future, whether to pursue her education with little hope of a career or pick instead love, marriage and raising a family.
Seeking an education was considered a passport to spinsterhood.
The characters are continually pressured to put family and societal demands ahead of their own dreams.
The story unfolds as women in England are demanding the vote and are confronted by men’s violent opposition to women’s rights.
The events in the play are based on history, while most of the characters are fictional.
Opening the play is Tess Moffat (DeAundra Shackelford), a very bright young arrival at Girton, dressed in bloomers for her first lesson on bicycle riding.
Tess has a strong sense of herself, yet is conflicted about following her dream to pursue knowledge or love, said Shackelford.
“Like Tess I also struggled,” Shackelford said, reflecting on their similarities. Like Tess, she knew she wanted to go to college but struggled with what path to take.
Shackelford said their personalities are similar, as well. Tess is self-assured like her. “I’m just myself. I don’t apologize for who I am.”
To get into the “skin” of being a Victorian women, Shackelford and her fellow Girton colleagues have been donning corsets and long skirts each rehearsal to feel just how physically confining it was to be a Victorian woman.
Corsets not only tightened waistlines, but forced women to hold upright postures and limited their mobility to even bend down.
The play has a lot to offer, Shackelford said. “I think everyone should see it and come out and have a sense of how far we did advance. There’s also some good comedic moments.”
The play appealed to director of theatrical productions Kimberly Shire for a number of reasons.
Shire is seeking out works by women playwrights.
And “Blue Stockings” is a period piece that requires her students to try a different style of acting and also speak in dialects.
She’s hoping the play sparks both thought and conversations about what feminism is, which is a term that is often derided just like the terms suffragists and “blue stockings” were.
“I think it’s a really compelling story that most of us have not heard,” Shire said. It “gives a perspective on how far we’ve come.”
“I think it’s particularly good for college students who haven’t grappled with systemic sexism like this.
“It has a lot of strong female characters,” Shire added, who are having “intelligent conversations” rather than just discussing boys.
“So many issues are brought up in this,” said director Julia Harris. “We’re still fighting to find that equality” and trying to balance career and family.
“There’s something in here for everyone,” said Harris. “I’m drawn to history, and this is an important story we tell.”
There’s a little drama, a little humor and “some big serious moments.”
Although playwright Swale is not yet well known in the theater world, her play earned positive reviews.
Charles Spencer of The Telegraph wrote, “Jessica Swale tells the story with both wit and a hint of righteous indignation – and the final reveal of the date when women finally were awarded degrees at Cambridge took me completely by surprise.”
The Evening Standard nominated Swale as a Most Promising Playwright in 2013 for her work on the play, which opened at the Globe Theatre in London that year.
Shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16 and a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday, Feb. 10.
Parking is free in the Campus Center lot off of Lyndale for all performances. The theatre is ADA accessible through the Campus Center east entrance.
Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 students and seniors, $5 children 12 and younger, and $5 with a current Carroll College ID. and are available at the door or online at carroll.edu/theatre/theatre-season.
Twenty tickets will be reserved for door sales beginning one hour before curtain.