Welcome, Word Nerds! I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with today’s word, although if you’re a reader of historical novels, particularly those set during the late 1700s and early 1800s, chances are you’ve come across it. The word in question is bluestocking.
I most recently came across this word in Lynn Austin’s new release, Where We Belong, which I reviewed last Saturday and highly recommend (you can read my review here). During the course of the novel we learn that, in the absence of a mother, sisters Rebecca and Flora Hawes have been raised by their father to have a love of reading and learning. However Mrs. Worthington, a widow who has taken it upon herself to help the sisters with manners, grooming, and feminine deportment, fears the sisters will never attract husbands if they turn into bluestockings; in other words, over-educated females.
I’ve known what the term bluestocking referred to for some time now, thanks to a love of Regency novels, but I wasn’t exactly sure how the term came about. I think you can guess what I decided to do about that! 😉
Here’s the official definition from the Cambridge Dictionary:
Bluestocking – an intelligent and well-educated woman who spends most of her time studying and is therefore not approved of by some men.
So, where does the term come from?
Bluestocking gatherings began in the 1750s, when a group of wealthy, intellectual women began hosting gatherings in their homes “where the fair sex might participate in conversation with literary and ingenious men”. In her excellent biography of Hannah More, Karen Swallow Prior writes: “The Bluestocking Circle arose from an Enlightenment philosophy that characterized many aspects of this age of reason. … Rationalism and empiricism questioned some of the age-old prejudices that deemed women as inferior. Observation proved that women could make valuable contributions in art, literature, culture, and conversation and that men and women could relate on an intellectual basis, as could those from different social classes. This was the basis of the Bluestocking Circle and its agenda.” The gatherings were therefore open to both males and females, and literary, political, scientific, and cultural leaders of the day were often invited as guest speakers.
There is some dispute over how the term bluestocking came to be associated with these gatherings, but the most widely held explanation is given by 18th Century biographer James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson (as quoted in Fierce Convictions): “One of the most eminent members of those societies, when they first commenced, was Mr. Stillingfleet, whose dress was remarkably grave, and in particular it was observed, that he wore blue stockings. Such was the excellence of his conversation, that his absence was felt as so great a loss, that it used to be said, “We can do nothing without the blue stockings;” and thus by degrees the title was established.” The blue stockings referred to were a more durable, informal type of legwear than the usual formal attire of white silk stockings.
Other explanations include a report that Mr. Stillingfleet once tried to decline an invitation to the gathering on account of his informal dress, and was told, “Pooh, pooh! Come in your blue stockings.” Yet another explanation is that the French term bas bleu (blue stocking) had been used to reference learned women in France since the previous century.
Whatever the reason, it was an appellation embraced by the members themselves, and used as the title of a poem written by Hannah More extolling the virtues of such gatherings:
Our intellectual ore must shine,
Not slumber idly in the mine.
Let education’s moral mint
The noblest images imprint;
Let taste her curious touchstone hold,
To try if standard be the gold;
But ’tis thy commerce, Conversation,
Must give it use by circulation;
That noblest commerce of mankind,
Whose precious merchandize is MIND!
Enlighten’d spirits! you, who know
What charms from polish’d converse flow,
Speak, for you can, the pure delight
When kindling sympathies unite;
These gatherings reached the height of their popularity between 1770 and 1785, by which time the term began to be applied more generally to learned women. However, in the shadow of the Revolutionary War in America and the French Revolution, “[l]earned, strong, outspoken women suddenly smacked of revolution, including as conservative and pious a group as the learned ladies of the Bluestocking Circle.” The kneejerk response was to push back against even this modest ‘revolution’ surrounding a woman’s role in society.
Further, as Karen Swallow Prior notes: “For the members of the Bluestocking Circle, learning was a virtue, and all virtues were connected. The virtue of learning could not be separated from sexual morals or religious piety.” Learned and pious women were not esteemed by the ideals of romanticism that began to dominate the 19th Century, and “[f]amous romantic writers such as Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt criticized the bluestockings. Byron satirized the bluestockings in his famous poem Don Juan, Coleridge proclaimed his loathing for “all Bluestockingism”; and Hazlitt declared his “utter aversion to Bluestockings,” saying, “I do not care a fig for any woman that knows even what ‘an author’ means.””
Sadly, in the face of such scorn, bluestocking became a term of derision. As for me, I think I’ve just found the perfect label for myself! 🙂