Bluestockings: a plurality of definitions

The term bluestockings has a rich history of community and education. After a prehistory as a derogatory term to refer to poorer, religious minorities, in the 18th century England, the term first came to popular discourse in reference to a group of women and men who would hold salon-style gatherings, The Bluestockings Society.

Founded by Elizabeth Montagu, a wealthy British writer and patron of the arts, she wanted to create a space where learned women could talk openly with men as peers. She held intellectual conversations in her mansions for aristocratic Londoners to informally discuss politics, history, literature and the arts.

Amongst the women who attended the meetings were writers Elizabeth Carter, Hannah Moore and Charlotte Lennox. Elizabeth Vesey was another integral member who helped founded the group, and co-hosted the evening get-togethers. Several men were also invited to attend, one being botanist and translator Benjamin Stillingfleet. Unlike the aristocratic regulars, Stillingfleet was not a wealthy man, but that in no way affected his brilliance.

So how did the group come to be known as ‘bluestockings’?

One marker of Stillingfleet’s class was in his dress. Unable to afford traditional black stockings Stillingfeet attended the daily the gatherings in inexpensive blue worsted stockings. No one minded his style faux-pas, instead the members encouraged him to continue coming because his contribution to the conversation was so highly valued.

In Stillingfleet’s absence one day, someone remarked that they were ‘nowhere without Bluestockings’.

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Another history tells of a different origin; that Montagu adopted the name from the Compagnie della Calza, a theatrical association in Venice during the 15th century that organized the spettacoli cittadin (specticals of the citizens), carnivals, boat races, performances and the like. The members wore distinctive hosiery (calza meaning socks in Italian) which is how they got their name.

According to Elizabeth Eger, author of Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism,the term bluestockings was gendered by the 1770’s and was used to describe intellectual women. Use of the term decreased at the turn of the 19th century but re-appeared in the early 1911 as the title of a Japanese feminist newsmagazine Bluestocking, and then much later, as the title of a Portland, Oregon zine “Blue Stocking.”

Despite the various definitions each use of the term valued: education, breaking social norms and community. Though the term is generally used solely in reference to women the original discussions held by Montagu were not exclusive in this respect. Anyone could and can be a bluestocking. Bluestockings gave, and still gives, a platform for men and women who aren’t always able to have a voice in such discussions.

Bluestockings created a safe space for intelligent and respectful talks about topics such as history, politics, art, literature and science. It was a community, a society, even a family that ignored certain discriminatory and oppressive restrictions, while still being a product of its time.

Similar to our plurality of feminisms there is a plurality of bluestockings, which have evolved over the centuries, but all exist on the basis of expanding and exploring our knowledge.  As questioning and contemplating intelligent ‘women’ Bluestockings are not deterred by the ignorance of others. We work to educate those who don’t know and empower those who do.

Sock art and photography by Allison Morgan.

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