The National Portrait Gallery in London has opened an exhibition on the “bluestockings,” the 18th century female intellectuals who pioneered feminism, and subsequently had the term — why is this not a surprise? — turned on them as an insult.
The Bluestocking Circle or “blues” became a cultural force in the middle of the 18th century. One centre was the splendid Hill Street house of Elizabeth Montagu, a great hostess who owned coal mines in the north of England and was married to a mathematician. …
These opulent salons attracted not just women, but also men – among them Dr Johnson, Joshua Reynolds and the actor-manager David Garrick. The term “bluestocking”, which had been employed to abuse Cromwell’s Puritans a century earlier, was revived in 1756 when the poet and botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet turned up at Montagu’s house wearing blue worsted stockings instead of the fashionable white silk.
The event is recorded in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, in which the author observes that Stilling fleet’s conversation was so sparkling that in his absence people declared: “We can do nothing without the blue stockings.”
It is a curious origin for a word that came to be so closely associated with intellectual women, but the term’s history – quickly becoming a mark of approbation, then one of abuse – is just as singular. During the conservative backlash against the French Revolution, it became associated with women’s striving for sexual freedom, personified by Wollstonecraft’s unconventional private life – she had a child outside marriage with an American, and then married the atheist philosopher William Godwin after becoming pregnant with his child. Only later did the label acquire connotations of sexlessness and asceticism.
The bluestockings were acceptable, in other words, as long as they clothed their intellectual accomplishments in the trappings of conventional femininity.