The Blue Stockings Society
It’s a man’s world, sang James Brown. Not any more, matey. But it is true that a quarter of a millennium ago, women weren’t supposed to worry their pretty little heads with the likes of Latin and Greek, the stuff of a gentleman’s education. What was good enough for them was mastery of such things as embroidery and knitting. Not all women were consigned to a life of ignorance. Anna Barbauld was persuasive enough to get her father to teach her some Latin and Greek but even she thought that a formalised education system was unnecessary for the fairer sex. Instead, “the best way for a woman to acquire knowledge”, she opined, “is from conversation with a father, or brother, or friend.”
It was this rather curious view that underpinned the formation of the Blue Stocking Society in around 1750, a rather loosely organised group of well-to-do women who shared an interest in mutual self-improvement, fortified by tea, biscuits and other light refreshments. Political talk was verboten – after all, women wouldn’t have the vote for another 150 or so years – but literature and the arts were fair game. There were no qualifications for entry, although the women were from the better sorts as they did not have to earn a living skivvying, and no subscription fee was levied. They met at the house of Mrs Montagu in the north-west corner of Portman Square in London. As well as Montagu, other stalwarts were Mrs Vesey, Miss Boscowen and Mrs Carter.
The society gets a name check in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. “About this time (1781) 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”. Surprising as it might seem because he always strikes me as a bit of curmudgeon, Samuel Johnson was keen to please as were the likes of Horace Walpole and Mr Pulteney.
One of the learned gentlemen in attendance was the rather curious Benjamin Stillingfleet, to whom, according to some accounts, the Society owed its name. One contemporary account suggested that he was somewhat unconventional in his dress, wearing grey or blue stockings rather than the normal black. Such was the excellence of his conversation and contributions to the Society’s soirees that when he was absent the assembly mourned his absence, saying “we can do nothing without the blue stockings”.
Charming as that story may be it is more likely that the name owed its origin to the tradition of the Society de la Calza, a 15th century Venetian group of academics who wore blue stockings as a symbol of their membership. Either way, these days blue stocking has rather derogatory associations as a descriptor for a literary or intellectual female.
Not everyone was enamoured by this well-meaning attempt to educate females. Thomas Rowlandson published a rather grotesque print of a group of harridans having a set-to, entitled Breaking Up Of The Blue Stocking Club. Nevertheless, several of the women members were encouraged to publish literary works and the Society flourished until the beginning of the 19th century. By then there had been a sea change in opinion when as the Reverend Sydney Smith could ask in 1810 “why a woman of forty should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve”. Perhaps their work had been done.