This question was provoked (on this occasion, anyway!) by the production of Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge this week (it premièred at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2013).

It was an excellent, gutsy, production, and although it may be invidious to single out the roles of Fitzwilliam students, heh, this is a Fitzwilliam blog. Sam Grabiner (English 2013) was a convincing Holmes – he wanted to support the women, and knew he should, but wasn’t brave enough, in the face of the astonishingly loathsome opposition of most of his friends; Sarah Livingstone (Arch & Anth 2011) shone as poor Maeve Sullivan, the talented working class student sent home against her wishes to look after the family after her mother died. The family comes first, after all.

Rachel Hunter (English 2011) as co-producer was largely responsible for the fascinating discussion before Thursday’s performance, the most striking part of which for me was the keen acknowledgment by the senior women there (the current Mistress of Girton, and Philomena Guillebaud (Girton 1944) for example) of their own good fortune. They were keenly conscious of the privileged lives they have enjoyed. And with that privilege comes an obvious duty to speak up for those less privileged. Gender equality should not be our only concern – we should surely be shouting for ‘equality of opportunity’ not only for women, but for all those from less privileged backgrounds. Cambridge still has a long way to go.

The ADC is showing a number of plays this term addressing women’s involvement in theatre, exploring, for example, the disproportion between women auditioning for shows and the parts available in Cambridge as well as in ‘the real world’. Then there’s the question of confidence – why do women not put themselves forward in directing and writing, particularly in the area of comedy? We saw an example of this (is it reticence?) in College this week – six young men had volunteered as the main speakers in the excellent Brewster Debate (“This house believes the state should be permitted to monitor all electronic communication”), whilst women students supplied the majority of the encouraging and thoughtful audience. (Well done Max Toomey (PPS 2011) and Damiano Sogaro (Law 2013) who were worthy winners each of £100, thanks to the generous legacy of Lester Brewster (History 1948)).

The right to equality is won with great difficulty, as is evidenced in many countries around the world today where women are very far from “equal” with men. Why are we Cambridge women not more actively concerned for women in, for example, many Islamic countries?  Partly it is down to a cultural and religious sensitivity – who am I to criticize how others live?  The same difficult questions exist on our own doorsteps: rising concerns about female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK has led to the current House of Commons Home Affairs Committee inquiry into this difficult subject – you have only until 12 February 2014 to submit written evidence.

Jessica Swale’s play also explores how the Mistress of Girton in 1896, campaigning for the right of women to a degree, would not support the political campaign for the vote.  For her, education was more important.  Or was she simply targeting her campaigning energies where she thought she would be more likely to succeed?  (How wrong she was to have any immediate hope of a breakthrough! Women did not “win” the right to a Cambridge degree until 1948.) The play also explores the personal struggle of the girls: the conflict between their ambitions for love/sex/family life and their ambitions for education and careers.  Many of these pressures remain largely unchanged and unchallenged: I think my 20 year old self in the 1970s would have been astonished to learn how little would have changed by 2013. The glass ceiling may have been broken in many areas, but it is still more often women who “sacrifice” their careers for that of their partners, and their children. The concept of “equality of opportunity” is undeniably complex. The Fawcett Society provides fascinating and depressing data. Equality once won is also easily lost – it has to be nurtured. Complacency lurks in the way “feminism” has become in some quarters almost a dirty word.

And so to the title of this blog: Are women people? is the title of a comic chamber opera by Kate Waring which has its world première on 22 and 23 March, here in Cambridge. It explores the arguments for women’s suffrage in the early years of the 20th century, with the libretto based on Alice Duer Miller’s 1915 book with the same splendid title.

Keep asking the question … Let’s remember those Girton girls and avoid complacency!

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.


  1. Brilliant blog post. Myself and another old Fitzbilly are currently in Delhi, India on our elective placement as part of our final year of medical training. Despite knowing quite a bit about gender inequality worldwide, we have been shocked whilst here at the extent of the problem. As women ourselves, we have on occasion here been subject to this discrimination and have realised how lucky we are that this is a novel experience for us. We have constantly been reminded of just how lucky we are to be women who are free to travel to another country alone, study for a degree, become doctors and basically live how we want to. We have seen and been involved with so much work here which is striving to change attitudes and ideas, but there is a very long way to go. More awareness, and more people fighting for those who just don’t have a voice can only be a good thing.

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking blog post – it’s fantastic to have a blogging Master of Fitz! :)

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