‘Laborious learning or painful pondering’: Bluestockings and the Uses of History in Australian Higher Education Politics

In this blog, Anna Temby explores the history and evolution of the Bluestocking philosophy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century.

Bluestockings Week 2012 East Coast Poster. National Union of Students Women’s Department. Blue Stockings Week | NUS Women’s Department (wordpress.com) IMAGE REPRODUCED IN ACCORDANCE WITH COPYRIGHT ACT 1968, SECTION 41: FAIR DEALING FOR PURPOSES OF CRITICISM OR REVIEW.

In the early 1980s, the Australian Union of Students (the precursor of the National Union of Students (NUS) established an annual event called Bluestocking Day. On this day, students were enjoined to wear blue stockings in order to celebrate and pay tribute to the impact of women in higher education and also to reflect on the considerable work still needed to achieve gender equity in Australian universities. (In the 1970s the Australian Women’s Education Coalition had published a newsletter under the title ‘Bluestocking’.) By the early 1990s, Bluestocking Day had developed into Bluestocking Week with a more extensive program of activities.

Commencing in the 1980s and running for several decades, Bluestocking Day and Bluestocking Week experienced a hiatus due to waning support before the 2012 recommitment by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and NUS. In August 2022, the most recent incarnation of Bluestocking Week – organised by the NTEU in conjunction with the NUS – celebrated its 10th anniversary.  

Why is it called Bluestocking Week? Many are, perhaps, unfamiliar with the term ‘bluestocking’, and the fact that it was once used pejoratively to describe a woman who was considered too intelligent, too educated, or too widely read. Originating in Britain in the 1750s, the Blue Stocking Society was formed by a group of high-society women who, tired of the usual ‘feminine’ pastimes of their social circles (such as playing cards or embroidery), began to meet to discuss literature, art, and other intellectual pursuits.

As described by historians Nicole Pohl and Betty A. Schellenberg:

These informal gatherings united men and women primarily of the gentry and upper classes, with the participation of a number of more middle-class professionals, in the pursuit of intellectual improvement, polite sociability, the refinement of the arts through patronage, and national stability through philanthropy.

Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Society’s founders were Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800), Elizabeth Vesey (1715–1791), and Frances Boscawen (1719–1805), all prominent and powerful society women with considerable cultural capital. But it was not only women who formed the loose-knit association of the original Blue Stockings. Several high-profile men, such as Lord Lyttleton (1709–1773), William Pulteney (1684–1764) and Horace Walpole (1717–1797), were known to participate in gatherings. The origin of the term ‘bluestocking’ itself is said to rest with Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702–1771), an early participant in the Society’s activities who was too poor to afford the typical silk stockings of the upper classes, and instead wore his blue worsted stockings to gatherings.

It was not until the 1770s that the term ‘bluestocking’ came to only refer to the women of the society, likely due to the need to differentiate them from their male peers. Where intellectual and well-read men were an accepted facet of high-society life, women’s intellectual pursuits were belittled at best and actively suppressed at worst.

Learned women were perceived as unfeminine, and rendered sexually ambiguous through their adoption of the co-called ‘masculine’ trait of intellect. Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful Sublime and Other Writings (1764), wrote that a well-read woman ‘might as well even have a beard’, and suggested that a woman’s real benefit to society was in her ‘unconstrained charms’ and ‘beautiful nature’.

Laborious learning or painful pondering, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make of her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time, they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex.

Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club. Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). Etching, hand-colored (London: Thomas Tegg, 1815. NYPL, The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to see how, in the context of the intellectual tradition from which Kant is writing, the term ‘bluestocking’ quickly came to be used pejoratively. Pohl and Schellenberg suggest that by the 1790s these prevailing gendered attitudes coalesced with the ‘reactionary political and intellectual climate’ spurred on by English reactions to the French Revolution to officially rebrand the bluestocking as a ‘dangerously intellectual woman’, worthy of malice.

While there is evidence of the use of ‘bluestocking’ as a derogatory term well into the twentieth century, its usage in this sense was not highlighted until its revival in recent decades. The NTEU and NUS’s adoption of the term bluestocking makes sense through this historic context, harking back to a time of considerable educational inequity along gendered lines in order to reinforce the notion that this inequity is not yet resolved. There are quiet dynamics at play in the term’s history and use that we should be mindful of when employing it to represent a movement.

The Blue Stocking Society was comprised of elite, society women committed to adherence to conservative social and moral values. Despite their subversion of gendered expectations through a commitment to intellectual pursuits, the Blue Stocking Society’s founders and members were staunch enforcers of prevalent models of feminine respectability and adherence to gender protocols that were not attainable by working class or poor women.

The position of the bluestockings was, in many ways, a contradictory one. Historians have praised their commitment to furthering women’s education because it reshaped the social and cultural landscape for women leading into the nineteenth century. And yet, they were mainly interested in the advancement of their own class of women and could still be seen as further entrenching forms of marginalisation along class and gender lines.

It is also worth noting that several recent commentators on the bluestockings inaccurately refer to them as having been involved in the promotion of women’s university education. The first women to receive university degrees were in the nineteenth century in Australia and the early twentieth century in the United Kingdom, well after the salon activities of the Blue Stocking Society.

Considering the structural inequalities still rampant in Australian universities, it therefore pays to be mindful of the possible connotations that a term with contested origins may carry. That being said, it would be disingenuous to suggest that there was a unified understanding, or definition, of the bluestockings’ philosophy. It is worth reflecting on why this term has undergone something of a revival in the twenty-first century. If we condense the term ‘bluestocking’ down to its core meaning, it is about redefining the relationship of women to education and reassessing the role that women play in advancing human knowledge.

While the term ‘Bluestocking Society’ may be seen as a relatively neutral label for a specific group of women who met in intellectual salons in the late eighteenth century, in its more informal uses ‘bluestocking’ was a derogatory term which mocked highly educated women.

A New Court of Queen’s Bench.
An elaborate satire on what the imagined results of women’s rights efforts would be, mocking the idea of women ever becoming lawyers, judges, and legal officers. George Cruikshank for the 1850 Comic Almanack. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For decades, the reclaiming or reappropriating of derogatory terminology from history has been a staple of radical politics and marginalised identities. Words such as ‘slut’, ‘bitch’, and ‘queer’ have all been the focus of such semantic battles, with variable outcomes.

Such radical reclamation has almost always been contentious, with many questioning whether a word’s long, derogatory associations can not only be overcome, but also subverted far enough to actually become empowering. The reclamation of ‘slut’, in particular, has drawn valid criticism as a word too firmly rooted in highly racialised sexual standards and expectations to ever be considered universally empowering.

Perhaps it is the retention of these terms in common parlance throughout their history that affords them ongoing power today, in that they are subject to a constant reinscribing of offensiveness to ensure their power is maintained. How does this reappropriation play out, then, when the reclaimed word needs a certain amount of historical knowledge in order to be fully appreciated?

Anna Temby is a Research Associate at the University of Queensland examining the intersections between marginalised groups and urban environments in Australian cities. Her research interests include the social shaping of space, urban space and public order, and the aspirational/imaginative processes of urban formation and city-building. Anna has also worked as a public historian and heritage consultant specialising in intangible heritage and the social significance of space.

Twitter: @AnnaTemby.

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