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“Get you to Girton Beatrice, get you to Newham. Here's no place for you maids.”

Philippa Higson discusses how a quote from Much Ado About Nothing was used in a nineteenth century article to promote patriarchal society and the suppression of women's rights.

Philippa Higson
Sketch women's degree
Photo in the Sketch, 1897

Whilst carrying out my 8-week placement in the Collections Department at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT), I have worked closely with the library and archives, gaining access to numerous historical and cultural treasures. I was thankful to learn that Mareike Doleschal, SBT’s librarian, had set up ‘The Juliet Files’ blog series to explore the enduring female presence in our varied archive, library and museum collections.

One of the items that I would like to add to this series is from the Lyceum Theatre Collection (LTC), previously known as the Bram Stoker Collection. This collection is owned by The Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Trust is working towards digitising its content so that the public may access it whilst reducing any damage caused by general handling. This amazing collection contains over 70 boxes of letters, drawings, reviews, and souvenirs of Henry Irving.

An item that really caught my attention was an article from an edition of The Sketch (Wednesday June 2 1897. No. 227. Vol. XVIII). The Sketch was a British illustrated weekly journal which was published from 1893 to 1959 by the Illustrated London News Company and was primarily a society magazine, containing regular features on royalty, aristocracy, theatre, cinema and art studies. It was also the first magazine to publish short stories by Agatha Christie; the first of her works to appear in The Sketch was ‘The Grey Cells of M. Poirot. I. - The Affair at the Victory Ball’.

The article (written by ‘A ‘Varsity Man’) discusses Cambridge’s decision to decline to give women degrees. The link to Shakespeare is in the photo within the article, captioned ‘How Cambridge Receive the Vote Against Women’ (taken by Scott and Wilkinson, Cambridge). This article really struck home how few opportunities were given to women and how far society has come since then, with regards to women’s rights. Even though I was aware of limited higher education to women in UK history, reading an article from the late 1800s invoked a raw feeling to the issue.

The centrepiece of this photo is a banner that is hung from a building which says ‘Get you to Girton Beatrice, get you to Newham. Here's no place for you maids’. This is a play upon the original line delivered in Act 2 Scene 1 by Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:

Well then, go you into hell?

No, but to the gate, and there will the devil
meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his
head, and say 'Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you
to heaven; here's no place for you maids.' So deliver
I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter; for the
heavens, he shows me where the bachelors sit, and
there live we as merry as the day is long. (ll.42-49)

Referring back to the words seen on the banner in the photo, Girton (Girton College) was the first women’s college in Cambridge, established in 1869 by suffragist Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon and Lady Stanley of Alderley. Newham College was founded in 1871, making it the second women’s college to be established in Cambridge. Newham College was founded by the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Cambridge, which included philosopher Henry Sidgwick and suffragist campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

During the Elizabethan era, women lived in an extremely patriarchal society and had to be tutored at home as there were no schools or universities that they were permitted to attend. In addition, women were not allowed to enter into professional jobs such as law or medicine. With this limited opportunity to enter higher education and professional careers, women were expected to be housewives and mothers. This expectation continued into the Victorian era, when the term ‘the Angel in the house’ was used to describe the wife – this is the era during which this article from The Sketch was published. The issue regarding sexism is further highlighted by the choice of quotation from Much Ado About Nothing as it is the one in which Beatrice refers to herself as one of society’s ‘maids’. Whilst being a maid can be seen as subservient by serving others, being a maid in the Tudor era could also refer to being unmarried. From an early age, marriage was taught to be the pinnacle of a woman’s existence and if a woman remained unmarried, she would usually either be expected to enter a nunnery or would be deemed a disappointment; in some instances, being single only added to the suspicion that a woman was a witch.

In the article, the journalist explains that any student who obtains a Bachelors at the University is able to proceed to ‘his’ Masters. He then mentions that the women’s party approached the University and said “Give us at least a ‘B.A.’ degree, which shall carry us no further, and shall give us no greater part in the affairs of the University than we have enjoyed by being permitted to attend lectures and pass certain examinations”.

With this in mind, when I saw Beatrice’s quote on the banner in the photo, I wondered if this was used not only to condescend to women who wished to study at Cambridge, but as a harsh reminder that women were still seen as subservient and that, like Beatrice, they should acknowledge that they are ‘maids’, rather than striving for better opportunities and aiming to gain a foothold on the hierarchy within their patriarchal society.

Photo women's degree
Article written by ‘A ‘Varsity Man’ (The Sketch,1897)

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