Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Blue Stocking Circle

By Lauren Gilbert

Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, 1778
Contains portraits of the Bluestockings-National Portrait Gallery

After the death of Queen Elizabeth I (a very scholarly woman), education for women declined.   Gentlewomen in the early 18th century England were not encouraged to be educated.  For many, reading, writing and a little arithmetic were the most they could hope for (useful skills for acquiring religion and running a household).  Maybe a little French, drawing or painting, and some music, for social accomplishments.  For most women of lower classes, even that much education was not possible. Ideally, women should be content with whatever fathers and husbands chose from them to know.  As Alexander Pope wrote in 1720:
In beauty and wit
No mortal has yet
To question your empire has dared;
But men of discerning
Have thought that in learning
To yield to a lady was hard.  
However, not every woman was satisfied to be uneducated, confined solely to domestic interests or placated with empty compliments.  Even without the kind of formal education provided to young men, there were women who learned at home, acquired knowledge, and wanted to be able to use and enjoy it. 
     I should begin by saying that this article is an introduction, a broad and general overview, to a group of well-to-do, mostly married, society women in the mid 18th century, who wanted to do more than dance and play cards for recreation.  They were women of some education who met informally to discuss literature, the arts, education, and similar topics.  They did not allowed politics and scandal as topics for discussion.  These meetings, or “conversations”, were similar to the French salons, and were held in the women’s homes. 

     The two most noted hostesses were Elizabeth Vesey and Elizabeth Montague.    Other women who participated included Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay), Hannah Moore, Mary Delany (see earlier post  in this blog), Catherine Talbot,  Elizabeth Carter and others .   Each of these women is worthy of a blog post of her own.  Several of these women were authors or artists themselves.  (Elizabeth Montagu contributed to Lord Lyttleton’s  “Dialogues of the Dead,” Hannah Moore and Fanny Burney were both novelists. Mary Delany produced hundreds of letters and her own works of art.)  Some provided encouragement to those who did write, study, and create.  Individually, members of the group provided financial assistance to artists, writers and others who were in need.  
     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.

Heape, R. Grundy.  GEORGIAN YORK.  (1937: Methuen & Co. Ltd.,  London)
Hilton, Boyd.  A MAD, BAD, & DANGEROUS PEOPLE? England 1783-1846.  The New Oxford History of England, J. M. Roberts, Gen. Ed.  (2006: Clarendon Press, Oxford)
Hodge, Jane Aiken.  PASSION & PRINCIPLE The Loves and Lives of Regency Women.  (1996: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd., London)
Bartleby.com. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907-21), Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.  http://www.bartleby.com/221/1502.html      http://www.bartleby.com/221/1502.html     http://www.bartleby.com/221/1503.html     http://www.bartleby.com/221/1500.html
Encyclopedia.com.  Drabble, Margaret and Stringer, Jenny.  The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature, 2003. http://www.encyclopedia.com/utility/printdocument.aspx?id=1054:BlueStockingCircle.
Ludwig, Katelyn.  REINVENTING THE FEMININE Bluestocking Writers in the 18th Century.  http://www.katelynludwig.com/masters/index.html

Wikisource.com. 1911 Encyclopaedia  Britannica/Montagu,Elizabeth Robinson.  http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Montagu,_Elizabeth_Robinson

Website: CONTRIBUTIONS OF 20TH CENTURY WOMEN TO PHYSICS.  Byers, Nina.  Overview of Women’s Education in England and the United States1600-1900.  Posted 12/4/1999. http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/articles/WL.html

Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel.


  1. Great article, Lauren. I've often wondered where the term blue stocking originated and how it came to be used to denote an intellectual woman.

    1. Thank you, Teresa! This is just the tip of the iceburg! So many interesting people involved...

  2. Thanks for this, Lauren. I had read a little on the subject and it filled in a few gaps for me.


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