Who’s got their blue stockings on?

As the political quick-storms continue, Britain’s second-only female Prime Minister moves like lighting into number 10 Downing Street (sometimes you have to take the great opportunity that comes your way…) Much is being said about Theresa May, her political career, her marriage, her dress sense and her liking for kitten-heeled shoes.  She has also been called a “blue stocking” Tory.

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When we label someone a blue stocking, it’s often meant in a derogatory way –  to describe a type of dull, dowdy woman, snooty of the shires.   She’ll likely be middle aged, middle class, all-round middling.


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But historically the term refers to an educated, intellectual woman belonging to the “bluestockings” an informal social and educational movement of mid 18th Century.  Far from dull the original bluestockings inhabited a world in which brilliance was valued at every level and women were encouraged to shine.

“A number of ‘bluestocking’ women, noted for their intellectual accomplushments, let the droning worl of polite drawing-room converstation to exercise their minds, enjoy social independence and cultivate new tastes, and romanices, abroad” (Ladies of the Grand Tour, Brian Dolan)

And what’s wrong with that?

Not much according to painter Richard Samuel.  The Blue Stockings Society of England emerged in about 1750. It was a loose organization of privileged women with an interest in education to gather together to discuss literature while inviting educated men to participate. Commissioned to honor the contributions of  these women to English society and learning, Samuel went decidedly high-brow using the Temple of Apollo and the women as characters of the Nine Muses from ancient Greece as the setting. And he dressed the women in roman dress to convey the intellect and ancient high-culture of Rome – something to be emulated. The facial expressions on the women suggest intelligent contemplation/questioning – something the bluestockings were famous for.

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The women featured are; Elizabeth Montagu (Queen of the Bluestockings), Elizabeth Griffith (actress and playwright), Elizabeth Carter (author), Charlotte Lennox (feminist satirist), Elizabeth Linley (soprano), Angelica Kauffman (artist), Catharine Macauley (historian), Anna Barbauld (poet) and Hannah More (author). Together these women formed a network of artists and intellectuals and forged a sense of community through patronage, conversation and correspondence.

This bluestocking salon became lauded for it’s development of new levels of moral significance (particularly the education of women) and for it’s contribution to the central cultural transformations of the time. Then only men attended universities and women were expected to master skills such as needlework and knitting. It was considered “unbecoming” for them to know Greek or Latin, almost immodest for them to be authors, and certainly indiscreet to own the fact.

In a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded … sure the men are very imprudent to endeavor 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.

The Blue Stocking society had no membership formalities or fees but was conducted as small to large gatherings of interested women to talk about literature and the arts (but not politics). Hostesses served light refreshments,  and male guests were often invited to speak.

Today there are British and American clubs inspired by the high-minded, literary ethos of the original bluestockings (https://blue-stocking.org.uk, american literary salon: https://thebluestockingsalon.com, Nottingham based women’s network – http://bluestockings.co.uk) and and other similar-minded organizations. It’s a name oft used in blogs and writings on both sides of the Atlantic (and perhaps in danger of becoming cliched.)

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The original blue stockings would be perhaps, happy to see an educationally transformed world.  Girls are outperforming boys at school in every subject (in 64 countries and economies according to a recent OECD study). The average gap is equivalent to an extra year of schooling.  A trend that is now being reflected in higher education too. As University study has boomed worldwide, women’s enrolment has increased almost twice as fast as men’s. In the OECD women now make up 56% of students enrolled, up from 46% in 1985. By 2025 that may rise to 58%.

But is the cultural legacy of the Bluestocking Society so impressive? Does the idea to support and develop women’s achievements and talents continue?  Can we see the impact on our contemporary cultural material – if so, where’s the evidence?  Where are the stories or artistic works to celebrate the educated, intellectual woman? Or the inspirational woman…

Just like women’s experience of the workplace (the stumbling block for women is now happening at the highest levels of business and the professions, where they remain notably scarce. For example, men and women join the medical and legal professions in roughly equal numbers, but 10-15 years later many women have chosen unambitious career paths or dropped out to spend time with their children) there is also a paucity of intellectual women on screen – big or small.

Except for some BBC Radio 4 voices (and some of the broadsheets columnists) there really are few clever heroines for us to enjoy.  (Zoella appears as the only role model for my 8 year olds girl twins – really….)

As repeatedly noted by actress, Kiera Knightley – where are the films about female geniuses?

This is an issue that shows no sign of going away (Hollywood, we are looking to you). When strong female characters are written they usually have a nasty side too (Claire Underwood, House of Cards; feisty, ambitious and cold as ice).

Where are the stories, showing characters with humanity, community, love?  Little Women, Sex and the City, Girls – perhaps can just about count as bluestockings – in a sea of animations and super-heroes and females as accoutrements.

And herein lies another threat. “In our desire for unfettered opportunity we have unleashed malignant forces that lie within the celebrity culture, dominating the hopes, dreams and fears of our children,” Mrs Brazil said.”The power and presence of the celebrity culture allied to profit and peer pressure, multiplied by millions of digital devices is creating a world we may not want.” (Bobbie Brazil, University of Southern Queensland Chancellor).

‘The only thing a woman can own is knowledge…
We must build our Trojan horse and infiltrate from the inside.’ (Elizabeth Welsh, Principal Girton College, 1896)

So we really could do better and show a world of intellectual opportunity to our little girls.  Here are 9 Great (British) Muses of today (a list to argue with) who I call upon to bluestocking up their cultural offerings and lead the way;

Caitlin Moran (author and journalist),Francesca Martinez (comedian, actress and disability campaigner), JK Rowling (author), Martha Lane Fox CBE (digital campaigner), Abi Morgan (playwright), Tracey Emin (artist), Carol Ann Duffy (poet laurete), Katherine Viner (editor of The Guardian) and Sara Khan (Director of Inspire, women’s rights and anti-extremism activist).

Margaret Thatcher did little to progress women in her day, here’s hoping Theresa May will be enable more female achievement.




To listen:


Hear readings of the bluestockings correspondence and conversations. Fascinating podcast series that accompanied the National Gallery’s Brilliant Women exhibition (2008)

The Hidden Histories Podcast, Series One: The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen (episode 2 – Bluestocking culture: how did women become writers)

In Our Time (BBC R4) – The Bluestockings. Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Bluestockings.


To read:

Bluestockingswomen of reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism, Elizabeth Egar (2008)

Collection of essays: Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730-1830, Elizabeth Egar (2014)

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson (2009) – following the first female Oxbridge entrants.

Bluestockings – Jessica Swale (2013, modern play). A moving, comical and eye-opening story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage.

To inspire:

More than a list this one, Life changing women from around the world. Stories to tell our children.


To watch: There really are very few film or tv offerings – past or present on intellectual womenThe best on offer are;

List of films based on 18th century literature

and a list of films based that feature intelligent women (these are lone women mainly, there is little sense of the sorority of the original salons)

Aristocrats (2009, BBC series) – A fascinating insight into 18th century aristocratic life through the lives of the four Lennox sisters, the great grandchildren of Charles II. A sumptuous, glittering miniseries; the voices of the Lennox sisters provide rich historical narratives to the period.  Based on the book by Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox 1740 – 1832 by Stella Tillyard.



Featured Image – Blue Stocking Week, National Tertiary Education Union, Australia.