Although one of the first references to bluestockings appeared in 1638, the term bluestocking did not became common until the 1700s. The term was applied to literary ladies and conferred on a society of literary persons of both sexes. Literary societies in England had been influenced by French salons, where conversation was famous. Moreover, these societies were equivalent to the Frenchbas bleu from the 1500s that applied to French literary women.
One of the most active promoters of England’s bluestocking society was Benjamin Stillingfleet. He was a distinguished botanist, translator, and writer. He was also a tutor, and he and William Windham — Stillingfleet’s relative and pupil — set off on the Grand Tour in 1737. In 1740, while they were in Geneva, they formed a community said to be “dedicated to the pursuit of literary discussion and play-reading.” This was partly why some people have claimed that Stillingfleet was the first bluestocking.
After Stillingfleet and Windham returned to England, Stillingfleet became involved in the 1750s with the English literary bluestocking society organized by Elizabeth Montagu. Montagu was a British social reformer, patron of the arts, salonist, literary critic, and writer. She married Edward Montagu, a man who owned numerous coal mines and who was also grandson of the 2nd Earl of Sandwich. After her marriage, Montagu became a celebrated hostess organizing all sorts of events, including gatherings and large assemblies.
In the 1750s, Montagu (along with several others) organized a literary group that eventually became known as the bluestockings. One story about the origination of the bluestocking name for Montagu’s group involves Stillingfleet as he was a popular participant who regularly attended these bluestocking gatherings. The story goes that “Stillingfleet almost always wore blue worsted stockings, and whenever he was absent from Mrs. Montague’s evening parties, as his conversation was very entertaining, the company used to say, ‘we can do nothing without the blue stockings,’ and by degrees the assemblies were called Blue Stocking Clubs and learned bodies, Blue Stockings.”
Stillingfleet has been described as eccentric, perhaps, because he wore blue stockings, but, in reality, he may have had a practical reason for wearing blue stockings. Apparently, he was too poor to purchase black silk stockings, something required as part of proper formal dress at the time. One story describing Stillingfleet and his unusual dress occurs when he was older. According to the writer, in old age Stillingfleet “wore a full dress suit of cloth of the same uniform colour, with worsted stockings, usually blue, and a small brass hilted sword peeping through the skirts of his coat. His wig was decorated with several rows of formal curls.”
Despite all the information about Stillingfleet and his blue stockings, not all historians attribute the origination of the term to him. Some historians credit it to an alternative source. Claims are that a Madame de Polignac, appeared at one of Montagu’s meetings in blue silk stockings. At the time the stockings were all the rage in Paris, and, thus, the term was adopted. (As a side note, the Madame de Polignac mentioned here is not the famous Yolande de Polastron, friend to Marie Antoinette, as she would have been a child in the 1750s, so it’s likely the reference is to her mother-in-law, Diane de Mazarin-Mancini).
No matter how the bluestocking term originated, it eventually came to be associated more with women than men. This occurred despite the bluestocking term originally being applied only to males because “the garment was traditionally favoured by working class men.” When the term first became linked to women, Horace Walpole, a man of letters, art historian, and antiquarian, thought highly of Montagu’s group and paid them a compliment. In 1769, Walpole wrote of the bluestockings stating that they were “the first public female club ever known … ladies … of distinguished virtue … [and] of the greatest beauty.”
By the late 1700s positive references to the bluestockings had changed. “A gender shift occurred, women being more and more objects of the term [bluestocking] and often in a derogatory sense.” The derogatory trend continued, and, so, later, in 1823, William Hazlitt, an English writer and well-known critic of the time, noted that the “bluestocking is the most odious character in society … she sinks wherever she is placed, like the yolk of an egg, to the bottom, and carries the filth with her.”
Stillingfleet died in 1771 in Piccadilly, and, as time passed, people perhaps forgot about him and his contributions to the bluestockings. This, however, did not mean the term disappeared. It resurfaced in Victorian times when Montagu’s bluestocking group was lauded by one magazine as a “women’s movement” and claims were made that it addressed such social issues as gambling. A tribute was also paid to Montagu and her bluestockings. It was said of them that they had remained “untainted by … wolfish passion … [and that they formed] a society in which conversation … supersede[d] cards.”
- Coxe, W. and Richard Lord Braybrooke, Literary Life and Select Works of Benjamin Stillingfleet, Volume 1, 1811
- Leslie, Charles Robert and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1865
- Sairio, Anni, Language and Letters of the Bluestocking Network, 2009
- The British Critic, and Quarterly Theological Review, 1823
- The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, Volume 33, 1881