Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Discussion Group: Bluestocking Week 2012

Celebrating Bluestocking Week
 August 2012

At the Discussion Group last Sunday we celebrated the start of Bluestocking Week for 2012, enjoying a delicious dinner and delving into discussions about what ‘bluestocking’ represents for women, education and society today.

Below is a blog by one of our members, ‘Lizzy Unpronounceable’, with some fascinating insights into the history and significance of the Bluestocking ‘movement’. Thanks Liz!

Lizzy’s disclaimer: This post is very brief, and so skirts around a lot of issues. It is also focused on English and Australian higher education.  History of bluestockings in non-English speaking countries such as Japan would be pretty fascinating, and I invite others to comment with any information about such movements.


It is ironic that the term 'bluestocking', now used to exclusively refer to women in academia, was actually coined in this sense in 1756 in reference to a man.  Benjamin Stillingfleet was the first Bluestocking; the term referenced his eccentric behaviour of wearing his blue woollen stockings to a high society literary gathering, rather than fine white silk stockings as was expected.  The literary gatherings were hosted by Elizabeth Montagu, a member of the literary elite who was wealthy enough and well connected enough to encourage the growth of a circle of fashionable intellectuals.  The group (the membership of which also included Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, Hannah More, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Burke) become known as the 'blue stocking philosophers' after Stillingfleet's faux pas, and Montagu's house became known as the 'Blue Stocking Lodge'.  Stillingfleet's blue stockings were taken on as a sort of symbol of unconventional behaviour, just as the idea of women being interested in and able to participate in intellectual pursuits was unconventional.  The term came to refer only to women engaging in intellectual pursuits, and then to women lobbying for (greater) access to higher education and as a derogatory term for supposedly unfeminine, unwomanly, and worst of all unmarriageable women engaging in academia and higher education in conjunction with women's rights more generally.

Bluestockings and women in higher education

Elizabeth Montagu and her intellectually minded friends were operating at a time when women were completely excluded from higher education.  Universities were elite institutions, and higher education was not nearly as accessible in the 18th century as it is now in the 21st century.  However, while men were excluded from the academy on the basis of class or wealth, women were excluded because they were women.

Girls were notionally expected to be educated up to a point, either through the contemporary equivalent of primary and secondary schools, or home schooling by a parent or governess.  However, schooling was limited by the teacher's own level of education and by the parents' willingness to bear the financial burden, particularly when the child reached an age where they could start to earn an income.

There were avenues that women could follow if they were academically minded, for example enjoying religious and literary scholarship by joining nunneries, or self instruction through reading their way through fathers' or husbands' libraries.  Girls could learn vicariously through their brothers when they were home for the holidays, relying on second-hand information remembered from the boys' own classes.  However, until the 1800s, there were no social structures for girls' continued schooling or for encouraging women to engage with academia.

In England in the 1800s, teaching colleges started to spring up, providing women a way to qualify for one of the only respectable careers available to them.  Colleges and universities started to allow women to attend out-of-hours public lectures.  In America, a number of colleges admitted women from about 1830 onwards, and women-only colleges like Vassar and Smith were established in the second half of the century.  In Australia, the first universities were established in the 1850s, and women were excluded from them until 1881.

Once women were admitted to universities, there was still no guarantee of equal access to educational experiences.  Some universities still excluded women from certain courses, effectively funnelling women into education and home economics.  There are examples of lecturers refusing to lecture when only the female students had bothered to turn up to class, and of tutors setting different problems for female students, or marking them differently.  Oxford and Cambridge allowed women to matriculate, studying the same degree courses as men, from the second half of the 1800s.  However, women were not awarded degrees until 1920 and 1948 respectively.  After winning the fight to occupy academia, women had to fight to participate in academia.

A range of bizarre beliefs about women and women's capacity to learn plagued the bluestocking cause.  One commonly held medical belief was that women's reproductive 'apparatus' would be endangered by the redirection of energy from the ladyparts to the brain.  Anti-bluestocking arguments asserted that the act of studying would lead to a withering of the womb, and would make women barren, weak or sickly, mentally ill, and possibly eventually cause death.  Those whose education did not rob them of their reproductive abilities and physical and mental strength were attacked for marrying later in life or not at all, and anti-bluestocking arguments morphed into concerns about low birth rate leading to humans dying out.  Another argument against higher education for women was a little closer to reality.  There was little demand for women with degrees in the labour market, and so what use was a university education to a women whose post-degree options were often limited to a career in teaching or homemaking?  For many women, university life was a brief respite from familial duty, and once the classes ended, so did their access to the academic world.

Arguments that supported women's higher education were not all that enlightened either, and tended to focus on the benefits of an educated thinking woman to society and to their menfolk.  That is, an educated woman would be better placed to pass on that education to their sons.  Education for the betterment of women as individuals did not seem to be taken as a compelling argument.

Bluestocking and Suffrage

Restricting women’s access to higher education was also a way of restricting women's access to other freedoms, particularly suffrage.  As male student riots in Cambridge in 1897 demonstrated, people were motivated by an underlying fear of gender equality that manifested in attacks against women's education, women's suffrage, and even women's right to ride bicycles – all symbols of the freedom and equality that first wave feminists were fighting for.  Arguments against women being allowed to vote often centred on their supposed inability to think rationally and their childish or uninformed opinions.  Voting while female was a danger to society, as women were not in a position to know enough about the world to make meaningful decisions about it.  Increased equality in higher education was a slippery slope that would eventually lead to equality in many other areas where men enjoyed privilege.  Give women degrees and soon they would expect equal access to employment, income, and suffrage.  With hindsight, we can now happily say that they were spot on about that, at least.

In 1949, women accounted for 20% of all university undergraduate students in Australia.  A government briefing paper from 2003 put women's engagement in higher education at just over 50%.  However, echoes of the historical bluestocking experience are still evident when looking at the subject areas that men and women tend to pursue.  In 2002, women were still more likely to engage in arts and humanities, and far more likely to pursue education than men.  Men were slightly more likely to enrol in physical and chemical sciences, and far more likely to pursue information technology and engineering.  This is also true across the globe, as women are vastly more likely to graduate with a degree in an education area than one in engineering or computing [UNESCO have released an atlas of global access to education].

In less than 200 years, women have gone from complete exclusion from higher education to making up more than half of the global student body.  However, 19th century ideas of biological 'fitness' for certain areas of academia still inform both women and men's choices about higher education.  Women still tend to pursue higher education in traditionally 'feminine' fields seen as requiring communication and nurturing skills, and are actively discouraged from pursuing areas that are perceived as requiring 'masculine' abilities of logic and rational thought or of manual dexterity and strength.  'Bluestocking' as a label has changed from a badge of honour to a vicious pejorative, and back again.  Women's education is now seen as an integral part of economic and social growth, recognising the potential for women as change agents.  Far from bringing about the end of the human species, Bluestockings started the ball rolling for equal access to higher education and academia, a cause that we must still actively pursue.

Further Reading

Aleman, Ana M. Martinez & Renn, Kristen A. (2003) Women in Higher Education: an encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO []

Carrington, Karry & Pratt, Angela (2003) How Far Have We Come? Gender disparities in the Australian higher education system, Information and Research Services, Department of the Parliamentary Library. []

Eger, Elizabeth (2010) Bluestockings: Women of reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism, Palgrave MacMillan,

Kamm, Josephine (1965) Hope Deferred : Girls' Education in English History, Routledge []

Robinson, Jane (2009) Bluestockings: The remarkable story of the first women to fight for an education, Viking. []

UNESCO eAtlas of Gender Equality in Education (2012) []

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