“Bluestocking” is a name, often used in a derogatory way, for an intellectual or literary woman. But this was not the word’s original connotation. The story of the first Bluestockings began in mid-1700’s Britain, when groups of women came together to discuss social and educational matters with men. They were mostly well-off and conservative, but their gatherings were fairly radical for the time and place, which belittled female intellect and made little allowance for education for girls and women.
They called themselves the Blue Stocking Society. Professors of English Nicole Pohl and Betty A. Schellenberg reveal the probable source of the name: “Bishop Benjamin Stillingfleet’s coarse blue-worsted stockings.” Stockings were then male attire, and black silk stockings were the style for formal gatherings. As Bluestocking Frances Burney told the story, the unconventional Stillingfleet was invited to a literary meeting by Elizabeth Vesey but begged off because he was not “in the habit of displaying a proper equipment for an evening assembly.” In other words, he didn’t have evening clothes. Mrs. Vesey’s reply? “‘Pho, pho,’ cried she, with her well-known, yet always original simplicity, while she looked inquisitively, at him and his accoutrements; ‘don’t mind dress! Come in your blue stockings!'”
Eighteenth-century literature expert Anna Miegon profiles fifteen of the leading lights of Bluestockings circle, including Elizabeth Montagu (“Queen of the Blues”), Hester Thrale, and Vesey herself. They formed in the 1750s as a group of writers, translators, correspondents, conversationalists, and hostesses. A second generation took the Bluestockings name into the 1780s.
Miegon’s capsule biographies brim with character. Montagu—whose social circle was a who’s who of England’s male political and cultural giants—challenged Voltaire’s perspective on Shakespeare. Catherine Macaulay Graham was the “first prominent female historian in England” as well as the first woman let into the British Library’s famed reading room. Sarah Fielding probably contributed to her brother Henry’s books and wrote several novels herself. Hester Chapone was writing from age nine, much to her mother’s chagrin.
“For better or for worse, the Bluestockings as a specific cultural, social, and political phenomenon played a crucial part in a widening and redefinition of women’s social roles in the eighteenth century,” write Pohl and Schellenberg.
Pohl and Schellenberg go on to explain that Bluestocking assemblies in London, Bath, and Dublin, “differed from the traditional card-playing gatherings by nurturing intellectual pursuits, polite conversation, philanthropic projects, and publishing ventures.” The gatherings were similar to the French salons, also led by women, in “their principles of polite sociability, a limited social mobility based on merit, and equality between the sexes based on rational friendship and intellectual exchange.” A new conception of “civic virtue and political power based on ‘reciprocal exchange’ and ‘natural sociability'” defined these hostess-managed events on both sides of the Channel.
But by the late 1770s, those who felt excluded by the Bluestockings began to use the term disparagingly, for the “ins” who kept them “out.” And into the 1790s, write Pohl and Schellenberg, the “reactionary political and intellectual climate” in Britain sparked by the French Revolution led to a “pejorative understanding of a ‘bluestocking’ as a dangerously intellectual woman—a trend that also produced a range of satires.”
So a whimsical self-description was transformed into an epithet, first for a presumed political threat and then in misogynist disparagement. “Derog.” the dictionaries now say. Luckily, historians haven’t forgotten the origins of the term.