Saturday, August 11, 2012

Proud to be a Bluestocking

This article was written by Shannon Green and was originally published in the Frederick News-Post on 8 June 2012.  Click here for a link to the original article.

One day while waiting for my daughter's gymnastics class to let out, I decided to steal a few minutes to read my book. I hadn't finished one chapter when a woman plopped her gym bag on the couch seat next to me and asked, "What are you reading?" I replied that I was finishing up "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." She paused and then said, "There's a name for women like you, intellectual women, blue something or other." I told her that I was not familiar with any such term. After rummaging in her bag for a moment she made a hasty retreat. I didn't think a whole lot of the exchange until I recounted it to my husband that evening at dinner. He encouraged me to look it up, and thanks to the infinite knowledge of Wikipedia, I discovered what she was trying to call me: a blue stocking.

I had never heard this term before, so I read the entire article. Wikipedia defines "blue stocking" as an 18th-century term for an educated, intellectual woman. OK, that's not so bad. But as I read further I discovered that the term had mostly negative connotations, and the blue stocking name itself came from the cheaper stockings allegedly worn by educated women as opposed to the more fashionable black stockings that were in style. What really got to me was there was only one word in the "See Also" section of the entry. And that word was "nerd."

Upon further investigation, I also found that in 1811 an Irish playwright wrote a play titled "The Blue Stocking" that parodied such women. On the flip side, I also discovered the Blue Stocking Society. Established in England in the mid-1700s, the society was a circle of women interested in the education of their fellow females. They would meet, invite learned men to attend and discuss the intellectual issues of the day.

Since women were not allowed to attend college at that time, meetings like this attempted to fill the gap in their education. One quote from one of the most famous Blue Stocking members, Elizabeth Montagu, really struck a chord with me. In 1743 she stated: "In a woman's education little but outward accomplishments is regarded ... sure the men are very imprudent to endeavor to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves."

In the 20th century, some women's groups and colleges have tried to reclaim the name much the way Revolutionary War soldiers reclaimed the word "Yankee." Not to much avail, however, since the term is rarely used.
Now I won't pretend to know the woman's motivation or intentions when she called me this. Perhaps she didn't mean it as an insult. Most of my friends think that she did. Whatever her reason, I am thankful that she did it.
Who knows if I would have ever encountered this term or learned about these women who so bravely sought equality and an education?
Shannon Green writes from Frederick, Maryland where she still reads in public, no matter what the cost.

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