A bluestocking is an educated, intellectual woman. Such women are stereotyped as being frumpy and the reference to blue stockings refers to the time when woolen worsted stockings were informal dress, as compared with formal, fashionable black silk stockings.
The term originated with the Blue Stockings Society – a literary society founded by Elizabeth Montagu in the 1750s. Such women have increased in number since, as women now enter higher education in large numbers. For example, in Britain, women are now 55% of new entrants to university and outnumber men at every level up to PhD.
Women are still under pressure to dress fashionably and an old saying is “women don’t become bluestockings until men have tired of looking at their legs”.
What is especially odd about the term, though, is that the first bluestocking was a man. He was a learned botanist, translator, publisher and minor poet of the eighteenth-century named Benjamin Stillingfleet. He wrote an early opera and also published the first English editions of works by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus.
The story starts in the early 1750s, when a group of independently minded women decided to break away from the stultifying sessions of card playing and idle chatter which was all that tradition allowed them. They began to hold literary evenings, in direct imitation of the established salons of Paris, to which well-known men of letters would be invited as guests to encourage discussion.
One of the leading lights of this group was Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, a powerful and rich figure in London society (she was the cousin of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who brought smallpox inoculation back from Turkey). Literary and theatrical luminaries like Samuel Johnson, David Garrick and Lord Lyttleton attended what she and her friends referred to as conversations, but which Horace Walpole, a frequent guest, called petticoteries. Another regular visitor was Joshua (later Sir Joshua) Reynolds, who painted a portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in 1786. Mr Stillingfleet was asked to attend by Mrs Vesey, one of the group. He felt he had to decline, as he was too poor to afford the formal dress then required for evening events, which included black silk stockings. According to Fanny Burney, who told the story later, Mrs Vesey told him to come as he was, in his informal day clothes. Which he did, wearing his blue worsted stockings, and started a trend.
Another name was the French form Bas Bleu, which Hanna More, another member, used in her poem, The Bas Bleu, or Conversation, which gives a lot of information about the group. A very fine bookseller is also called Bas Bleu (www.basbleu.com).