Tod Randolph, shown here in ‘Cassandra Speaks,’ will appear with other local actors.
Tod Randolph, shown here in ‘Cassandra Speaks,’ will appear with other local actors. (Kevin Sprague / Shakespeare & Company)

In Cambridge, England, in 1896, two miles from the center of the universitiy town and its 800-year-old quadrangles, a change is quietly fermenting.

Young women are walking on the paths around a square of brick buildings -- a laboratory, a hospital wing, lecture rooms, a library and a tower, a chapel and a dining hall. Here, women carrying notebooks are talking about how to translate the Greek word malon in a line of Sappho's poetry and joking about it. (The word means apple, but metaphorically in Sappho's Greek it has as many suggestive meanings as melons have now, when you associate them with a woman's form.) Here a robustly formed woman is absorbed in calculus, and her friend in a cotton summer dress is hotly debating Max Planck's work on thermodynamics. They are laughing and full of fire.

I'm imagining this scene. But this weekend it will come alive.

Walk into this heady time at Girton College, the first British college to admit women, in a reading of "Blue Stockings" by Jessica Swale. At 3 p.m. Sunday, WAM Theatre will launch "Fresh Takes," a series of five readings of plays at the No. 6 Depot Roastery and Café in West Stockbridge.

"Bluestockings" premiered last year at the Globe Theatre, said Kristen van Ginhoven, artistic director of WAM. Swale is not giving out the rights to productions yet, but she has allowed this reading -- the first public reading of the play in the United States.

In 1869, Sarah Emily Davies founded England's first college for women.


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Davies, suffragist, editor of the English Women's Journal, fought to find ways to let women learn. College was an all-male world, explained Kelly Galvin, who has called the new reading series into being.

The young women at Girton studied exactly as the men studied at Cambridge, took the full course load -- but they could not earn a degree.

By the time of the play, Davies has retired, and Elizabeth Welsh, played by Tod Randolph, has become head of the college and taken on the fight.

And the fight is about to escalate to violence.

A large and exuberant cast, Galvin said, will take on a rich and passionate movement. The women ask themselves why they are there, she said, what drives them to want to know.

Girton women finished their years of hard work without any public recognition of it except dismissal. They were called "overeducated," cold and unfit for marriage. A psychologist quoted in the play claims that education will make a woman either manic or sterile.

"Men argue that education will ruin women," Ginhoven said. "They won't be able to support themselves."

While men opposed them subtly, refusing to hear them, or openly, forcing them out of lectures when they try to join the debate, women also argued against the Girton women, and men helpd them.

Men served on the committee that ran the college. Cambridge men taught the Girton students, and the Girton women went to lectures with many Cambridge dons.

And according to Girton scholar and teacher L.I. Lumsden, Davies insisted on building the college two miles from town to keep away from wandering undergraduates -- so she must have believed that intelligent young men might take an interest in her intelligent young women, and they might return it.

But falling in love meant giving up Girton.

A woman who married then would have to leave school, Galvin said, as Maeve, a scholarship student from a poor family, had to leave when her mother died, to take care of her father and brothers and sisters.

Women today balance work and home life, van Ginhoven said, and struggle with it. But many of us have the choice. And we grow up knowing we have it.

So I imagine standing on the path in that sunny quad, listening to debate and delight.

Sarah Elizabeth Davies -- thank you for making this place.