Jump to content

Blue Stockings Society

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, 1778, 130 cm × 150 cm (52 in × 61 in), by Richard Samuel. The sitters are: Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825), poet and writer; Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806), scholar and writer; Elizabeth Griffith (1727–1793), playwright and novelist; Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), painter; Charlotte Lennox (1720–1804), writer; Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791), historian and political polemicist; Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800); Hannah More (1745–1833), religious writer; and Elizabeth Ann Sheridan (née Linley).

The Blue Stockings Society was an informal women's social and educational movement in England in the mid-18th century that emphasised education and mutual cooperation. It was founded in the early 1750s by Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey and others as a literary discussion group, a step away from traditional, non-intellectual women's activities. Both men and women were invited to attend, including the botanist, translator and publisher Benjamin Stillingfleet, who, due to his financial standing, did not dress for the occasion as formally as was customary and deemed "proper," in consequence appearing in everyday blue worsted stockings.

The society gave rise to the term "bluestocking," which referred to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation rather than on fashion,[1] and, by the 1770s, came to describe learned women in general.[2]


The centre house, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath, was used as a residence and to host Blue Stockings Society events by Elizabeth Montagu

The Blue Stockings Society of England emerged in about 1750, and waned in popularity at the end of the 18th century. 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. Its leaders and hostesses were Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vesey. The women involved in this group generally had more education and fewer children than most English women of the time. During this time period only men attended universities, whereas 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 admit the fact. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a member of the club, was merely the echo of popular sentiment,contrary to the general opinion of the Blue Stockings, when she protested that women did not want colleges. "The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge," she wrote, "is from conversation with a father, or brother, or friend." However, by the early 1800s, this sentiment had changed, and it was more common to question "why a woman of forty should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve,"[3] which coincided with the waning of the Blue Stockings' popularity.

Satiric drawing by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), "Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club" (1815)

The group has been described by many historians and authors (such as Jeanine Dobbs[4]) as "having preserved and advanced feminism" via the advocacy for women's education and the social complaints regarding women's status and lifestyle in their society, as seen and exemplified in the writings of the Blue Stockings women themselves:

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 name "Blue Stockings Society" and its origins are highly disputed among historians.[5] There are scattered early references to bluestockings including in the 15th-century Della Calza society in Venice, John Amos Comenius in 1638, and the 17th century Covenanters in Scotland. The society's name perhaps derived from the European fashion in the mid–18th century in which black stockings were worn in formal dress and blue stockings were daytime or more casual wear, emphasizing the informal nature of the club's gatherings. Blue stockings were furthermore very fashionable for women in Paris at the time. Alternatively, many historians claim the term for the society was coined when Elizabeth Vesey first advised Benjamin Stillingfleet, the aforementioned learned gentleman who had distanced himself from higher society and did not have clothes suitable for an evening party, to "come in [his] blue stockings." Stillingfleet became a frequent and popular guest at the Blue Stockings Society gatherings.[6]



The Blue Stockings Society had no membership formalities or fees but was conducted as small to large gatherings in which talk of politics was prohibited but literature and the arts were of main discussion. Learned women with interest in these educational discussions attended as well as invited male guests. Tea, biscuits and other light refreshments would be served to guests by the hostesses.

The New York Times published an article on 17 April 1881, a century after the events in question, which describes the Blue Stockings Society as a women's movement combatting the "vice" and "passion" of gambling, the main form of entertainment at higher society parties. "Instead however, of following the fashion, Mrs. Montagu and a few friends Mrs. Boscawen and Mrs. Vesey, who like herself, were untainted by this wolfish passion, resolved to make a stand against the universal tyranny of a custom which absorbed the life and leisure of the rich to the exclusion of all intellectual enjoyment... and to found a society in which conversation should supersede cards."[5]

Many of the Blue Stockings women supported each other in intellectual endeavours such as reading, artwork, and writing. Many also published literature. For example, author Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806) was a Blue Stockings Society advocate and member who published essays and poetry, and translated the works of Epictetus. Contemporary author Anna Miegon compiled biographical sketches of these women in her Biographical Sketches of Principal Bluestocking Women.[7]

Notable members


Modern play


Ladies, a play written by Kit Steinkellner, is a fictional account of four members of the Blue Stockings Society and their impact on modern-day feminism. It received its world première at Boston Court Pasadena in Pasadena, California in June 2019, with direction by Jessica Kubzansky.[14]


  1. ^ a b c Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon. "Montagu, Elizabeth (1718–1800)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19014. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ "The Bluestockings Circle". National Portrait Gallery, London. Retrieved 4 June 2023. While the term 'bluestocking' was first associated with the intimate social groupings that met at the salons of Montagu, Vesey and Boscawen, by the 1770s the name came to apply to learned women more generally. This larger eighteenth-century resonance, which is investigated in the next section of the exhibition, stands testament to the high profile that bluestockings achieved in an age when women had few rights and little chance of independence.
  3. ^ Smith, Sydney (1810). "Female Education". Edinburgh Review.
  4. ^ Dobbs, Jeannine (Winter 1976). "The Blue-Stockings: Getting It Together". Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 1 (3): 81–93. doi:10.2307/3346172. JSTOR 3346172.
  5. ^ a b "Origin of the Blue-Stockings". The New York Times. 17 April 1881. Archived from the original on 23 June 2018.
  6. ^ Bebbington, William George (1962). "Blue-Stocking". An English Handbook (6th ed.). Huddersfield: Schofield & Sons Ltd. pp. 252–3.
  7. ^ a b c d Miegon, Anna (2002). "Biographical Sketches of Principal Bluestocking Women". The Huntington Library Quarterly. 65 (1/2): 25–37. JSTOR 3817729.
  8. ^ Eger, Elizabeth (2004). "Boscawen, Frances Evelyn (1719–1805)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/47078. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  9. ^ Loughlin-Chow, M. Clare (2004). "Bowdler, Henrietta Maria [Harriet]". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3028. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. ^ Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill (1887), vol. IV, p. 108
  11. ^ Johns, A. (2014). Bluestocking Feminism and British-German Cultural Transfer... University of Michigan. p. 173. ISBN 9780472035946. Retrieved 4 June 2023. ....Amelia Opie and Mary Wollstonecraft herself...
  12. ^ Handley, Stuart; Rowe, M. J.; McBryde, W. H. (2004). "Pulteney, William, earl of Bath". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22889. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  13. ^ Zuk, Rhoda (2004). "Talbot, Catherine". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/26921. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  14. ^ "Ladies". Boston Court Pasadena. Retrieved 17 June 2019.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "Blue-stocking". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne.

Further reading

Primary Sources
  • Kelly, Gary. Bluestocking Feminism: Writings of the Bluestocking Circle, 1738–1790. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999. ISBN 9781851965144
  • Clarke, Norma. The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters. London: Pimlico, 2004. ISBN 9780712664677
  • Eger, Elizabeth. Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730–1830. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0521768801
  • Eger, Elizabeth. Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ISBN 9781137018472
  • Eger, Elizabeth. Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 9781855143890
  • Gibson, Susannah. The Bluestockings: A History of the First Women's Movement. London / New York: Hachette / Norton, 2024. ISBN 9781529369991, 9780393881387
  • ohn, Alesa. Bluestocking Feminism and British-German Cultural Transfer, 1750–1837. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2014. ISBN 9780472035946
  • Myers, Sylvia Harcstark. The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship, and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0198117674
  • Pohl, Nicole and Betty A. Schellenberg. Reconsidering the Bluestockings. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library Press, 2004. ISBN 9780873282123
  • Tinker, Chauncey Brewster. "The Bluestocking Club." The Salon and English Letters. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1915. 123–183. at Open Library
  1. ^ Talbot, Margaret (22 July 2024). "The Original Bluestockings Were Fiercer Than You Imagined". The New Yorker. Vol. 100, no. 21. pp. 60–64. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 20 July 2024.