Sunday, 1 April 2012

Bluestockings by Mary Hoffman


This is one of so many pejorative terms levelled at women. It used to be used of both men and women, meaning "an educated person." Elizabeth Montagu was happy to form the Blue Stockings Society in the 1750s; Sam Johnson was a member as was Edmurd Burke and Pope's friend, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (her cousin by marriage).

But over time the word came to refer exclusively to a woman and an unnatural woman at that - one who would put her intellectual pursuits and her reading ahead of the care of her husband and family. Or, worse, would refuse to have such relations.

In 2008 I went to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, called Brilliant Women, which featured the Montagu set. Appropriately enough, I went with my two best women friends from university, though I suspect none of us has ever worn blue hosiery.

The Linley sisters by Thomas Gainsborough

It included portraits of Angelica Kaufmann and Mary Wollstonecroft, very interesting people in their own right. Richard Samuel included several of them in his study of Apollo and the Muses.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu



Lady Mary, who was married to the Ambassador to Turkey, pioneered smallpox vaccinations, was a gifted writer and her deathbed words were reputed to have been "Well, it has all been very interesting." Not a bad epitaph.

Mary Wollstonecroft
Angelica Kaufmann


Splendid people, all of them. But I had assigned them and their struggles to an almost mythic past. After all, I had known about Lady Mary W. M. since studying Alexander Pope at university.

Then last year I read with great interest a book called Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson.


And I discovered that Cambridge awarded the first degrees to women in 1948! Now that may still seem like ancient history to many readers but it was only sixteen years before I went up to Newnham. I had no idea that the privilege I enjoyed and abused in the '60s had been so recent. Cambridge took women on as students before Oxford, though the latter awarded degrees to them in 1920. Durham did better than either, awarding degrees to women in 1895 - howway the lasses!

It is a splendid book, which is a fascinating read. Most people who know anything about women's education in the last century have heard of Miss Buss and Miss Beale - Frances Mary Buss who founded The North London Collegiate school for Girls and Dorothea Beale, who was headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies' College.

But have you heard this little rhyme?

Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid's Darts do not feel.
They leave that to us,
Poor Beale and poor Buss.

And there you have it: intelligent educated women who do not marry and have children (who are not like "us") were to be gently pitied. They were immune to the natural feelings of 'real' women. Never has it been more obvious that patronising such women is a way of controlling men's fear of them..

It should be one of the glories of the twenty-first century that a woman can be educated, literate, intellectual and still choose whether or not to enter into permanent partnership with a man or another woman and whether or not to have children without giving up her work and interests. Sadly this is still not the case.





15 comments:

catdownunder said...

Scottish universities did rather better - there were apparently three graduates from Glasgow university in 1894 (in medicine of all things!) In 1909 Edinburgh had two female graduates in Law. By then classes for women in things like Latin and Mathematics were also firmly established.
But you are so right, most people had no idea. When I went to universtiy I just assumed it was my right to attend!

H.M. Castor said...

A great post & an important one, too! Just yesterday in The Guardian an obituary began 'My aunt... might have been called a "bluestocking" if she had not been so much fun.' So, no love for bluestockings and no fun either! In 1890 a Newnham student, Philippa Fawcett, gained the top mark in the whole of Cambridge University in her year's Maths exams - it is astonishing that women could sit the exams and yet not be awarded degrees.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm off to John Lewis to buy some blue stockings. Then I shall wear them to High Table with a sexy garter and see if I can pick up a hunky man...

I presume they stopped calling men 'blue stockings' when men stopped wearing stockings. Or is that too simple?

Unknown said...

We used to say:

"How most unlike us
Are Miss Beale and Miss Buss."

But that's a rhyme we knew at school.
What an interesting post!

Unknown said...

Unknown is actually Adele Geras and I don't know why Blogger has decided to anonymous me! Mysterious...

Katherine Langrish said...

'How different from us/Are Miss Beale and Miss Buss' was the version I knew, and I took it slightly differently: that the young undergraduettes (if you'll pardon that arch term which was once in use) DID feel that they should be able to have it all - education and a relationship too.

Mary Tod said...

What an inspiring post. I love hearing about women who take different paths through life. Recently, I reread Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique for a guest post on a blog called Babes on Bay Street (Toronto financial sector). I originally read it in the 70s and although today's world is different, the stories still made my blood boil. I'll have to add Bluestockings to my reading list.

Book Maven said...

Jane Robinson uses "undergraduette" throughout her fine book but it sets my teeth on edge!

Anonymous said...

Erika W.

I learnt ...
Stronger than us
Miss Beale and Miss Buss

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I've ordered the Bluestocking book! :-)

Linda B-A said...

Great post, Mary and, as Harriet comments, an important one, too. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s/early 80s, I remember being in a conversation with a group of male students at a party. I can't remember what we talking about - politics probably, but one of the men, perfectly seriously, and not even unkindly, suggested that I might be happier dancing with the other girls in the next room ... I look at what my daughter has to put up today with and realise that the hopes we had then for sexual equality haven't all been achieved...

Lydia Syson said...

It was so lovely to read this post and hear that this wonderful exhibition has had such a lasting impact - and I'm delighted to say that the brilliant woman who put it together, Elizabeth Eger, is now writing a biography of Elizabeth Montagu, which will definitely be something to look forward to. Meanwhile, her book on the Bluestockings is coming out in paperback this July, making it affordable at last: it's called: 'Bluestockings: Women of Reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism (Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Cultures of Print)'. The thing I loved about the Brilliant Women exhibition - very appropriate in the context of this blog - was the stress on female friendships and the importance of those alternative networks for women's intellectual and emotional lives.

One more thing...Miss Buss (I always knew the 'how different from us' version too) went on to found Camden School for Girls as a more affordable alternative, and she was its first headmistress. What I don't know is whether the girls still wear posies in suffragette colours on Founder's Day as we certainly used to. Plus a daffodil, if I remember rightly. The school motto is 'Onwards and Upwards', which I still find myself saying to myself rather frequently, though I'm not really the motto type.

Did anyone else see the lovely exhibition at the John Soane's Museum of the work of another of the original bluestockings, Mary Delany - extraordinary botanical collages, a technique she invented herself?

Leslie Wilson said...

My school - Nottingham High School for Girls - was one of the ones founded in order to give girls a decent education, and its motto was 'Knowledge is Now No More a Fountain Sealed.' Though rather right-wing in its political views - which came over in the teaching of history - and though we were deplorably taught that the activities of the suffragettes were pointless, that it was women's war work that got them the vote - as if it would have occurred to the male government if no agitation had previously gone on - it was dinged into our heads that women's education was something that had been fought for, and I am grateful. We learned the 'Miss Beale and Miss Buss' rhyme, too. Of course at the time we were feeling Cupid's darts like anything, but we still went to uni. I was at Durham, actually. And yet, when I was first married and a graduate, people were reluctant to employ me without my husband's consent, and then objected that, being a young woman, I would soon have a baby.. I remember the shock of it, because I had been brought up to believe that an education was my right - though dearly bought by others. But in a world where more books by men than women are reviewed, where men still earn more than women, regardless of their responsibilities, and where childcare is a private responsibility, and priced way above what many working women can afford - and that's only the UK. Your final paragraph says it all, Mary. I fear we need to go on fighting. And please, don't let the F-word be despised. I'm one. I AM A FEMINIST!! And I'm happily married, and a mother and grandmother to three grandsons who I adore. But don't get me going on the gendering of children's clothing nowadays..

Leslie Wilson said...

sorry, the full stop after UK should have been a hyphen...

Book Maven said...

Oh Lydia, how exciting! I'll look forward to that book.

Thanks to all for the comments. I am proud to be a feminist too and have never reneged on that word or that concept.

From waving a home-made placard outside the Miss World Contest at the Albert Hall to writing Princess Grace to subvert the whole pink is for girls "culture" - the day I stop being a feminist is the date I am carried out feet first!