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.
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.