Blue Stockings Society

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Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, 1778, 130 cm x 150 cm (52 in x 61 in), by Richard Samuel. The sitters are: Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825), poet and writer; Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), scholar and writer; Elizabeth Griffith (1727-1793), playwright and novelist; Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), painter; Charlotte Lennox (1720-1804), writer; Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791), historian and political polemicist; Elizabeth Montagu; Hannah More (1745-1833), religious writer; Elizabeth Ann Sheridan (nee Linley). Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel.jpg
Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, 1778, 130 cm × 150 cm (52 in × 61 in), by Richard Samuel. The sitters are: Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743–1825), poet and writer; Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806), scholar and writer; Elizabeth Griffith (1727–1793), playwright and novelist; Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), painter; Charlotte Lennox (1720–1804), writer; Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791), historian and political polemicist; Elizabeth Montagu; Hannah More (1745–1833), religious writer; Elizabeth Ann Sheridan (née Linley).

The Blue Stockings Society was an informal women's social and educational movement in England in the mid-18th century, emphasising education and mutual cooperation. It was founded in the early 1750s by Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey and others as a literary discussion group, a step away from traditional, non-intellectual women's activities. Both men and women were invited to attend, including the botanist, translator and publisher Benjamin Stillingfleet, who was not rich enough to dress properly for the occasion and appeared in everyday blue worsted stockings. The term came to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion. [1]



The centre house, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath, was used as a residence and to host Blue Stockings Society events by Elizabeth Montagu II Lansdown Crescent, Bath, Somerset, UK 2.jpg
The centre house, 16 Royal Crescent, Bath, was used as a residence and to host Blue Stockings Society events by Elizabeth Montagu

The Blue Stockings Society of England emerged in about 1750, and waned in popularity at the end of the 18th century. It was a loose organization of privileged women with an interest in education to gather together to discuss literature while inviting educated men to participate. The Blue Stockings Society leaders and hostesses were Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vesey. The women involved in this group generally had more education and fewer children than most English women of the time. During this time period only men attended universities and women were expected to master skills such as needlework and knitting: It was considered "unbecoming" for them to know Greek or Latin, almost immodest for them to be authors, and certainly indiscreet to admit the fact. Mrs. Barbauld was merely the echo of popular sentiment when she protested that women did not want colleges. "The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge," she wrote, "is from conversation with a father, or brother, or friend." By the early 1800s, this sentiment had changed, and it was more common to question "why a woman of forty should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve," [2] which coincided with the waning of the Blue Stockings' popularity.

Satiric drawing by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), "Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club" (1815) Rowlandson-Bluestockings.jpg
Satiric drawing by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827), "Breaking Up of the Blue Stocking Club" (1815)

The group has been described by many historians and authors such as Jeanine Dobbs [3] as "having preserved and advanced feminism" due to the advocacy of women's education, social complaints of the status and lifestyle expected of the women in their society, seen in the writings of the Blue Stocking women themselves:

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.

The name "Blue Stocking Society" and its origins are highly disputed among historians. [4] There are scattered early references to bluestockings including in the 15th-century Della Calza society in Venice, John Amos Comenius in 1638, and the 17th century Covenanters in Scotland. The society's name perhaps derived from the European fashion in the mid–18th century in which black stockings were worn in formal dress and blue stockings were daytime or more informal wear. Blue stockings were also very fashionable for women in Paris at the time, though many historians claim the term for the society began when Mrs. Vesey first said to Benjamin Stillingfleet, the aforementioned learned gentleman who had given up society and did not have clothes suitable for an evening party, to "Come in your blue stockings". Mr. Stillingfleet became a popular guest at the Blue Stocking Society gatherings. [5]


The Blue Stocking society had no membership formalities or fees but was conducted as small to large gatherings in which talk of politics was prohibited but literature and the arts were of main discussion. Learned women with interest in these educational discussions attended as well as invited male guests. Tea, biscuits and other light refreshments would be served to guests by the hostesses.

The New York Times archives contain an article published on 17 April 1881 which describes the Blue Stockings Society as a women's movement away from the "vice" and "passion" of gambling which was the main form of entertainment at higher society parties. "Instead however, of following the fashion, Mrs. Montagu and a few friends Mrs. Boscawen and Mrs. Vesey, who like herself, were untainted by this wolfish passion, resolved to make a stand against the universal tyranny of a custom which absorbed the life and leisure of the rich to the exclusion of all intellectual enjoyment... and to found a society in which conversation should supersede cards." (1881, The New York Times).

Many of the Blue Stocking women supported each other in intellectual endeavors such as reading, artwork, and writing. Many also published literature. Author Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806) was a Blue Stocking Society advocate and member who published essays and poetry, and translated Epictetus. Contemporary author Anna Miegon compiled biographical sketches of these women in her Biographical Sketches of Principal Bluestocking Women. [6]

Notable members

Modern play

Ladies, a play written by Kit Steinkellner, is a fictional account of four members of the Blue Stockings Society and their impact on modern-day feminism. It received its world première at Boston Court Pasadena in Pasadena, California in June 2019, with direction by Jessica Kubzansky. [12]

Related Research Articles

Anna Laetitia Barbauld English author (1743–1825)

Anna Laetitia Barbauld was a prominent English poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and author of children's literature. A "woman of letters" who published in multiple genres, Barbauld had a successful writing career at a time when women rarely wrote professionally.

Bluestocking intellectual woman

Bluestocking is a term for an educated, intellectual woman, originally a member of the 18th-century Blue Stockings Society from England led by the hostess and critic Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800), the "Queen of the Blues", including Elizabeth Vesey (1715–1791), Hester Chapone (1727–1801) and the classicist Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806). In the following generation came Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741–1821), Hannah More (1745–1833) and Frances Burney (1752–1840). The term now more broadly applies to women who show interest in literary or intellectual matters.

Hannah More English poet and playwright

Hannah More was an English religious writer and philanthropist, remembered as a poet and playwright in the circle of Johnson, Reynolds and Garrick, as a writer on moral and religious subjects, and as a practical philanthropist. Born in Bristol, she taught at a school founded there by her father and began writing plays. She became involved with the London literary elite and became a leading Bluestocking member. Her later plays and poetry became more evangelical; she joined a group campaigning against the slave trade. In the 1790s came several Cheap Repository Tracts on moral, religious; political topics for distribution to the literate poor. Meanwhile, she broadened her links with schools that she and her sister Martha had founded in rural Somerset. These modelled her strictures on education of the poor, permitting a limited reading ability but no writing.

Elizabeth Carter English poet and polymath

Elizabeth Carter was an English poet, classicist, writer, translator, linguist, and polymath. As one of the Bluestocking Circle that surrounded Elizabeth Montagu, she earned respect for the first English translation of the Discourses of Epictetus, by the 2nd-century Stoic philosopher. She also published poems and translated from French and Italian. Most of her other output took the form of correspondence to family and friends. Carter had many eminent friends and was close to Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, Hester Chapone and other Bluestocking members. Anne Hunter, a minor poet and socialite, and Mary Delany were also noted as close friends. She befriended Samuel Johnson, editing some editions of his periodical The Rambler.

Hester Chapone British writer

Hester ChaponenéeMulso, was an English writer of conduct books for women. She became associated with the London Bluestockings.

Elizabeth Montagu English social reformer and arts patron

Elizabeth Montagu was a British social reformer, patron of the arts, salonnière, literary critic and writer, who helped to organize and lead the Blue Stockings Society. Her parents were both from wealthy families with strong ties to the British peerage and learned life. She was sister to Sarah Scott, author of A Description of Millenium [sic] Hall and the Country Adjacent. She married Edward Montagu, a man with extensive landholdings, to become one of the richer women of her era. She devoted this fortune to fostering English and Scottish literature and to the relief of the poor.

Sarah Scott

Sarah Scott was an English novelist, translator, social reformer, and member of the Bluestockings. Her most famous work was her utopian novel A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent, followed closely by the sequel The History of Sir George Ellison.

Protofeminism is a concept that anticipates modern feminism in eras when the feminist concept as such was still unknown. This refers particularly to times before the 20th century, although the precise usage is disputed, as 18th-century feminism and 19th-century feminism are often subsumed into "feminism". The usefulness of the term protofeminist has been questioned by some modern scholars, as has the term postfeminist.

<i>Bluestocking</i> (magazine)

Bluestocking was a literary magazine created in 1911 by a group of five women: Haru Raichō Hiratsuka, Yasumochi Yoshiko, Mozume Kazuko, Kiuchi Teiko, and Nakano Hatsuko. The group called themselves the Japanese Bluestocking Society and used the magazine to promote the equal rights of women through literature and education. The magazine they developed was designed to articulate women’s self-awareness and the gender-based societal limitations they faced, but its promotion of early feminist beliefs through controversial publications caused it to be banned by the Japanese Home Ministry for being “disruptive to society.” Members of The Bluestockings were berated by the press, and their private lives were a source of outrage for the public. Bluestocking produced 52 issues with over 110 contributors. It is credited as an influence for modern Japanese feminism.

Elizabeth Ann Linley English operatic singer

Elizabeth Ann Sheridan was a singer who possessed great beauty. She was the subject of several paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, who was a family friend, Joshua Reynolds and Richard Samuel. An adept poet and writer, she became involved with the Blue Stockings Society and participated in Whig politics.

<i>Lessons for Children</i> 1778/79 early reader by Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Lessons for Children is a series of four age-adapted reading primers written by the prominent 18th-century British poet and essayist Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Published in 1778 and 1779, the books initiated a revolution in children's literature in the Anglo-American world. For the first time, the needs of the child reader were seriously considered: the typographically simple texts progress in difficulty as the child learns. In perhaps the first demonstration of experiential pedagogy in Anglo-American children's literature, Barbauld's books use a conversational style, which depicts a mother and her son discussing the natural world. Based on the educational theories of John Locke, Barbauld's books emphasise learning through the senses.

A bluestocking is an educated, intellectual woman.

Elizabeth Vesey

Elizabeth Vesey was a wealthy Irish intellectual who is credited with fostering the Bluestockings, a society of women which hosted informal literary and political discussions of which she was an important member.

Richard Samuel

Richard Samuel was an English portrait painter who won several prestigious medals in the 1770s in London. He is known for a small number of paintings including what came to be known as The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain of 1778 in which he painted the nine leading blue stocking women of his time.

Benjamin Stillingfleet

Benjamin Stillingfleet (1702–1771) was a botanist, translator and author. He is said to be the first Blue Stocking, a phrase from which is derived the term bluestocking now used to describe a learned woman.

Frances Boscawen

Frances Evelyn "Fanny" Boscawen was known as an English literary hostess, correspondent and member of the Bluestockings Society. She was born Frances Evelyn Glanville on 23 July 1719 at St Clere, Kemsing, Kent. In 1742 she married Edward Boscawen (1711–1761). When his navy work took him away from home, his wife would send him passages from her journal, some of which were later published.

Elizabeth Eger

Elizabeth Selina Eger is a reader in the Department of English at King's College London. She is a specialist in women's writing of the eighteenth century, the concept of luxury, and the lives of "Bluestocking" women. She initiated and co-curated the exhibition Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings which was held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2008.

Sarah Chapone, born Sarah Kirkham and often referred to as Mrs Chapone, was an English legal theorist, pamphleteer, and prolific letter writer. She is best known for the treatise The Hardships of the English Laws in Relation to Wives, published anonymously in 1735.


  1. 1 2 3 Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon (2004), "Montagu, Elizabeth (1718–1800)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), retrieved 22 April 2007(subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. Smith, Sydney, 1810, Female Education, The Works of the Rev. Sydney Smith, retrieved 28 August 2014.
  3. Jeanine Dobbs, "The Blue-Stockings: Getting it Together", Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3. (Winter, 1976), pp. 81–93.
  4. NY Times 1881 Article
  5. Bebbington, William George (1962). "Blue-Stocking". An English Handbook (6th ed.). Huddersfield: Schofield & Sons Ltd. pp. 252–3.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Miegon, Anna, "Biographical Sketches of Principal Bluestocking Women," The Huntington Library Quarterly 65.1/2 (2002): 25-37
  7. Elizabeth Eger "Boscawen, Frances Evelyn (1719–1805)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 16 December 2008].
  8. ODNB: Subscription required. Retrieved 18 February 2011.
  9. Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill (1887), vol. IV, p. 108
  10. ODNB entry: Retrieved 29 June 2011.
  11. Rhoda Zuk, "Talbot, Catherine (1721–1770)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [accessed 16 December 2008]
  12. Theater site. Retrieved 17 June 2019.

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain :  Wood, James, ed. (1907). The Nuttall Encyclopædia . London and New York: Frederick Warne.Missing or empty |title= (help)

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