WHAT IS A BLUESTOCKING?
The term "a bluestocking" is derived
from the grey or blue color of men's wool stockings worn informally at social
occasions, as opposed to the conventional white or black silk stockings of
properly dressed men.
In England around 1750, dame of society Elizabeth Montegu was having conversations & discussions of
literature replace the parlor games played at most salons. Salons were (still
are) gatherings where people socialized during pre-appointed hours at someone's
home, generally mid-day, still formal but less so than dinner. She was inspired
by the "Bas Bleu" salons in Paris, where women talked of books and
all who had good manners and wit were appreciated & accepted regardless of
their background. This format actually helped break down the stony surface of
strict societal boundaries. For example, working people chatting with
Ladies and Gentleman - this was not heard of. People were expected to stay in
the proper places of class level. The story goes that a translator of the Latin
botanist Linnaeus, Benjamin Stillingfleet, began attending the salons given by
Montegu. He did not wear formal clothes and was accepted nonetheless. Since
literature was a topic women were not believed to have valid opinion on and the
men weren't properly dressed, they were all labeled "bluestockings"
as a derogatory term & certainly not taken seriously.
This English circle in the late 18th Century read the feminist author of the
day, Mary Wollstonecraft. (The
mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who wrote
"Frankenstein.") She was one of only a few authors promoting
women's intellectualism. Another idea voiced among the bluestockings' was the
abolishment of slavery. So here we have people who really aren't supposed to be
socializing together, finding they agree on something: equality. They didn't do
this as a protest/statement like we may think of it today but because it was
exciting for society types to fraternize with actors and actresses: but by
doing so, they began to see similarities! Joking & thinking interesting
thoughts wasn't only for men or upper classes, all levels/kinds of people could
be witty and polite.
The English bluestocking women were labeled prudish and over-serious since they
downplayed their sexuality in order to be taken seriously. The word
bluestocking thus evolved to mean pedantic, cold, over-educated woman. Presumably
any education is too much if women were to focus on their real responsibilities
- having babies and providing the home with order & cleanliness! By the
mid/late 1840's, feminism was perfect territory for the press. One in the Daumier collection
on this topic shows a woman working on her novel while her baby is drowning in
a bucket behind her, but she does not stop to save it because she finishing a
sentence! Culture, intelligence and learning in women were acceptable only so
long as they served to reflect an enlarged image of the husband, lover, friend
or brother. In return, works would be dedicated to the women who inspired,
listened to or re-copied them. Women who extended their intellectual energy on their
own works were hated. As Balzac wrote, "George Sand has
created SANDISM...a form of sentimental leprosy which has ruined many women
who, but for their aspirations to genius, could have been charming...the woman
who succumbs to this disease...is what one might call a bluestocking of the
Even in early 20th century England, Helen Fletcher in her memoir
"Bluestocking" recalls being told by her mother to "get her nose
out of that book" or she'll "become a bluestocking like her
There are also bluestockings found in
Japan in the 1920s, and Redstockings in America -
all in favor of being able to think what they want.
And now there is Bluestocking Books San Diego, the Bas Bleu Bookseller by
Post, Bluestockings in NYC, various online booksellers as well as other
kinds of businesses are using this noun in their names. A local client of ours,
originally from England, was pleasantly surprised to hear a British friend use
the word in conversation simply meaning "oddball". Just as
someone unfairly shamed can become a proud survivor, this word has gone from
being a judgmental negative label to meaning "different" and a symbol
of intellectual liberation and love of language.
Want to learn a little more? Check out this BBC4 podcast on the early bluestockings!
Come as you are, think what you like. And who doesn't love some colorful socks?!?
The staff here @blusoxsd love reading, thinking, learning and
sharing all of the above and we want to continue the true bookselling tradition
while fostering these activities for all humans!!! :D
Check out the latest on our Bluestockings!
This blurb was written by Kris Nelson (owner & booknut here at Bluestocking
Books, San Diego) with help from:
- The Bluestocking Archive website.
- Human Words by Robert Hendrickson
- Liberated Women by Daumier, forward by Francoise Parturier
- The Joy of Conversation by Jaida N'ha Sandra
- Bluestocking by Helen Fletcher