The Blue Stockings Society was founded in the early 1750s by Elizabeth Montagu (seen above), Elizabeth Vesey and others as a women’s literary discussion group, a revolutionary step away from traditional, non-intellectual, women’s activities. They invited both women and men to attend, including botanist, translator and publisher Benjamin Stillingfleet. One story tells that Stillingfleet was not rich enough to have the proper formal dress, which included black silk stockings, so he attended in everyday blue worsted stockings. The term came to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion.
Diarist, James Boswell wrote, “It was much the fashion for several ladies to have evening assemblies, where the fair sex might participate in conversation with literary and ingenious men, animated by a desire to please. These societies were denominated Bluestocking Clubs”.
It was a loose organisation of privileged women with an interest in education to gather together to discuss literature while inviting educated men to participate. The women involved in this group generally had more education and fewer children than most English women of the time. These women preferred to challenge the traditional view of what was ‘becoming’ such as proficiency in needlework and knitting preferring to read Greek or Latin, and many of the most immodest texts so they had their critics. Among them was one of their own members Mrs. Barbauld. Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743 – 1825) was a prominent “woman of letters” who published in multiple genres; Barbauld had a successful writing career at a time when female professional writers were rare. To find out more about her read my blog No Exaggerated Praise. Barbauld wrote, “The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, or brother, or friend.”
The original bluestocking circle included Hester Thrale, Hannah More, Hester Chapone, Mary Delany, Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, Elizabeth Carter, Sir Joshua Reynolds and his sister Frances, Fanny Burney, Samuel Johnson, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, James Boswell, David and Eva Garrick, Edmund Burke, George Lyttelton, Mrs Ord, Mrs Crewe and Benjamin Stillingfleet the man with the blue stockings.
The group has been described by many historians and authors as having preserved and advanced feminism due to the advocacy of women’s education, social complaints of the status and lifestyle expected of the women in their society as expressed by Elizabeth Montague in 1743. “In a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded … sure the men are very imprudent to endeavour to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves.”
By the early 1800s, this sentiment had changed, and it was much more common to question “why a woman of forty should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve?”
The term ‘Blue Stocking’ today refers to an intellectual woman and the name is used frequently by feminist organisations and businesses, for example:
- Bluestockings (bookstore), a feminist bookshop in New York
- Bluestocking (magazine), a Japanese feminist magazine, Bluestocking (Seitō; 青鞜) was a Japanese feminist magazine founded in 1911 by a group of 5 women including Raichō Hiratsuka, Yasumochi Yoshiko, Mozume Kazuko, Kiuchi Teiko and Nakano Hatsuko, all founding members of the Bluestocking Society (Seitō-sha；青鞜社).Many members were referred to and referred to themselves as “New Women” (shin-fujin；新婦人). This term denoted women who wore fashionable Western dress, socialized with men in public, and chose their own romantic partners. Many in the press used this term pejoratively, but the members of the Seitō-sha rejected these negative connotations and embraced an identity as leaders in the reform of gender relations.
Though originally focusing on women’s literature, the magazine soon shifted focus towards women’s liberation, and the pages of Seitō are filled with essays and editorials on the question of gender equality. In many of these, members of the group air their differing opinions on issues of the day, such as the importance of a woman maintaining her virginity before marriage. Legalized prostitution, abortion, and women’s suffrage were also the subject of animated discussion. Such writings caught the attention of the Ministry of Home Affairs because criticism of the system of private capital (capitalism) was banned under the Public Order and Police Law of 1900. Two other issues would be banned by the Ministry’s censorship bureau and removed from store shelves because their frank expressions of female sexuality were deemed threats to public morality.
Even more than the content of the journal, the private behavior of the core members of the Bluestocking society drew public criticism. Several of them engaged in affairs with married men, rumors of which the press exploited with gusto. But this was not separate from the journal, because members of Bluestocking often wrote essays and semi-autobiographical stories that described their struggles to form equal relationships based on mutual romantic attachment (rather than through arranged marriage) both inside and outside of marriage. Their frank discussions about premarital sex and their advocacy for women’s independence in this regard led to further public condemnation.
An exhausted Hiratsuka turned over the reins to Noe Itō in 1915. Ito produced the journal with little assistance for almost another year. Its last issue was published in February 1916.
- M.P., an 1811 comic opera by Thomas Moore and Charles Edward Horn, subtitled The Blue Stocking
- Bluestockings: the Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, a 2009 book by Jane Robinson
- Blue Stockings (play), a 2013 play by Jessica Swale
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on: