Bluestockings: The First Women’s Movement by Susannah Gibson - review by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour

Fights & Tights

Bluestockings: The First Women’s Movement


John Murray 352pp £25

To be a ‘bluestocking’ is nowadays considered the pits. Yet in their heyday, the second half of the 18th century, the original bluestockings were respected and even admired. The trashing of this lively, intelligent, spirited group of women began in around 1800. It culminated in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 caricature of a group of harridans tearing each other’s hair out and clothes off over – connecting them to dangerously radical politics – a puddle of French cream. The Victorians, discomforted by their wit, reshaped or ignored them. As recently as 2008, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition devoted to them confused the issue of just what a ‘bluestocking’ was by including artists like Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, women whose pleasantly uncontroversial works enabled them to take their place as founding Royal Academicians.

Susannah Gibson’s spirited, lively and scholarly book offers us the chance to stop sneering at the bluestockings and recognise them as a remarkable group of pioneers who established the right of independent-minded women to meet, debate and even flirt (an art in which both the legendarily prim Hannah More and Catharine Macaulay excelled) with men in elegant London salons. Blue stockings were seldom, if ever, worn by the female members of these salons. The group acquired its name when an absentminded male botanist attended a gathering without changing out of the blue stockings he wore while doing fieldwork.

Money was key to the foundation of the group. Elizabeth Montagu (‘Queen of the Blues’) used her devoted and supportive husband’s coal fortune to create splendid settings for the (strictly teetotal) London salons, at which women could debate with men as equals. This, in an age when a pamphleteer could

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