Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, 1778
Contains portraits of the Bluestockings-National Portrait Gallery
Interestingly, the participants at these meetings were frequently fairly evenly divided between men and women right from the beginning. (This was not about men v.s. women; these were women who wanted to be involved on an even level with men.) Elizabeth Vesey was the first important hostess of these gatherings, and her husband participated in her events. He himself was interested in literature, and was considered an excellent host. The hostesses invited educated men to participate and mixed society figures with writers and artists. The male guests included David Garrick, Horace Walpole, James Boswell, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lord Lyttleton, and Samuel Richardson. Science, music, art, literature and education itself were all represented at these meetings and were widely discussed. Sometimes, one particular speaker would dominate the event; other “conversations” might consist of small groups conversing among themselves.
Where did the term “Blue Stocking” come from? There are several theories, but the most accepted indicates that the term was coined as an affectionate nickname for Benjamin Stillingfleet, botanist and poet, who had given up society. He originally declined his invitation to Mrs. Vesey’s “conversation” because he did not have formal evening wear, which included black stockings. She told him not to mind, just to come in his blue stockings (his usual every day wear) and he did; he was very popular and was called “blew stockings” afterwards. According to Boswell, “Such was the excellence of his conversation, that it came to be said, we can do nothing without the blue stockings, and thus, by degrees, the title was established.” This term was gradually applied to the women members of the group as a good natured (yet somewhat malicious) nickname. Hannah Moore wrote a poem “Bas Bleu” (French for Blue Stocking) celebrating the group. The term seems to have begun as an informal, affectionate nickname within the group that later was applied in derision by outsiders. Ultimately, to be called “blue” or “bluestocking” became a negative term for an earnest or priggish woman who likes to show off her knowledge.
Today, the “Blue Stocking Circle” is considered an early feminist movement. Personally, I find it difficult to apply the modern term “feminist” to these women. They were women of their time. Their positions and resources allowed them certain freedoms that other women did not have; although they clearly supported intelligent women and education, there is nothing to show they sought a radical change in social structure. Politics were not a subject for their “conversations” and there is no indication that they were actively discussing significant changes on a societal or political level in relation to the position of women in general. In fact, they were not always tolerant of those who did flout certain society standards. For example, Hester Thrale was friends with Elizabeth Montagu and Fanny Burney. However, Mrs. Montagu and Miss Burney couldn’t accept Hester’s second marriage to an Italian music teacher named Gabriel Piozzi, and the friendships ended. Clearly, even though they were willing to mix elements at their “conversations,” there were still conventions to be upheld. They were generous with their support, but there is no indication they tried to change the world in which they lived. However, these women clearly showed that females could hold their own with men in intelligent conversation, that women were capable of enjoying literature and learning about science and the arts as well as how to embroider and draw. Their group was the most well known, but by no means the only group involving women in discussion; debating societies were very popular. In a very real sense, their “conversations” and similar groups contributed to people thinking about the issues that ultimately became feminism.
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