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| What is 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, Elizabeth Montegu was trying to have conversation & discussions of literature replace the parlor games played at most salons. Salons were (and still are) gatherings where people socialized during pre-appointed hours at someone's home. She was inspired by the "Bas Bleu" 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. The story goes that a translator of the Latin botanist Linnaeus, Benjamin Stillingfleet, began attending the salons given by Montagu. 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 labeled bluestockings as a derogatory term & certainly not taken seriously. Samuel Johnson, author of the first English dictionary was known to associate with this circle.
A group of people in Italy who enjoyed a love of language & puns, known as the Della Cruscans, came almost a century before the British group. They were women and wool-stocking'd men (this dress sense was considered an anti-aristocracy statement) accused of being too colorful with words. The first Italian dictionary was created at this time & is associated with these punsters.
The 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") Her Vindication of the Rights of Women argued for liberty and equality between men and women. She was one of only a few authors promoting women's intellectualism. Another big idea amongst the bluestocking circle was the abolishment of slavery. Perfect examples of what people who really aren't supposed to be equal might think about - equality. Go figure.
The English bluestocking women were considered prudish and over-serious since they downplayed their sexuality in order to be taken seriously. The word thus evolved to mean pedantic, over-educated woman. Presumably any education is too much if women are to focus on their real responsibilities - having babies and providing the home with cooking, cleaning, textiles and order. 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 can't stop to save it before she finishes her writing! Culture, intelligence and learning in women were acceptable 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 heart"
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 aunt."
And now this word has made a comeback! In the first few years of the new century, bluestocking book stores & online booksellers of this name opened without knowledge of each other across the U.S. of A., besides the Bas Bleu Bookseller by Post whose bookmark hangs on the wall behind our register at Bluestocking Books, San Diego. I had a swell visit to Bluestockings in NYC during Oct. of 2005. A local client who is originally from England was pleasantly suprised to hear a friend back home use the word in conversation, simply meaning "oddball". This is kind of how I perceive it as well - come as you are, think what you like. To me it's a great descriptor for folks like myself who don't fit into a proper mold & yet hold as valid an opinion as anybody else. (I've found there can be wisdom in unexpected sources.)
As the Salons proved: with good manners and wit one can communicate anything to anyone.
This blurb was written by Kris Nelson (owner & booknut 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
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