After the industrial revolution, the middle classes grew wealthier in Britain, leading to the development of an ideology that clearly differentiated public and private realms. While men explored the opportunities offered by industrialisation occupied the public realms, women were confined to the private realms or homes.
A number of pamphlets, magazines and conduct books were published during this period, defining and codifying women’s role and social expectations. They encouraged women to take up the private role, which was considered as a hallmark of the elite status, and urged women to read books like the Bible and historical works. Reading of novels, however, was actively discouraged.
Thomas Gisborne, in his conduct book An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, published in 1797, considered the reading of novels to be “secretly corrupt”. Books like this were designed to encourage women to keep high moral standards and to serve their husbands.
Even though these books tried to confine women to their homes, they also increased the number of educated women who wanted to look beyond the confines of domestic life. A rapid increase in the number of printed books that included not only conduct books but also novels, newspapers and journals, fuelled women to question their unequal status in society.
Widespread reading stimulated women’s curiosity about the outside world, but they had limited opportunity to engage in public debates as they were still confined to their private realms. Some educated women found support through literary ‘salons.’ Salons were spaces set up by privileged women to meet and share ideas. They saw these spaces as a way to influence society.
The Premier salon was held in the Mayfair home of Elizabeth Montagu in London. She was married into a family of wealthy coal mine and estate owners.
Elizabeth Montagu, along with the Irish intellectual Elizabeth Vesey and a number of like-minded women, established the Blue Stockings Society around 1750. Its name symbolised a less formal gathering.
The Blue Stockings Society brought together educated women as well as some men to promote rational conversations. They generally met once in a month and usual diversions like alcohol and gambling were banned during the meeting. Instead, tea and lemonade were served.
The Blue Stockings Society supported education of women. It supported women who were struggling to make their way as writers, like Fanny Burney, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, and Sarah Scott.
Each member of the society was a prolific letter writer. Elizabeth Montagu is believed to have written over 8,000 letters in her lifetime.
Each regular hostess had her unique style in holding gatherings. Elizabeth Vesey’s style was informal. She scattered chairs around the room to encourage small discussion groups, whereas Montagu arranged her chairs in an arc with herself at the centre.
The Blue Stockings Society supported education of women. It supported women who were struggling to make their way as writers, like Fanny Burney, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, and Sarah Scott. The society challenged those who criticised women and their intellectual capabilities by commenting on classical literary works as well as writing their own works. The members of the society were called ‘amazons of pen’ by Samuel Johnson, who was a member of the society.
Elizabeth Montagu wrote An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare in which she defended Shakespeare from the criticisms of Voltaire. Initially, it was published anonymously, and the work garnered applause from critics. It also dented Voltaire’s reputation when it was translated to French.
Samuel Johnson regarded Elizabeth Carter, another member of the society, as the best scholar of classical Greek he had ever known.
The Blue Stockings Society was established as a result of the desire for a more public space for women.
The Blue Stockings Society helped its members to be financially independent by earning their livelihood through writing. They were not considered a threat to the male order; instead, they were treated as the flag-bearers of virtue and the female intellect.
In 1778, an artist portrayed nine of the most eminent members of The Blue Stockings Society as the classical nine muses and symbols of national pride.
The Blue Stockings Society was established as a result of the desire for a more public space for women. Elizabeth Montagu was influenced by Scottish Enlightenment, which gave a more prominent role for women compared to other movements.
With the aid of the society, women proved themselves equals of men at the social and intellectual levels. As time passed, they became more powerful and acquired a public voice.
Within fifty years of its first meeting, women were transformed from an inferior level into rebels who raised their voice for an equal status in society. This paved the way for an era of revolution in Europe and America.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
As a teacher, how would you describe "The Blue Stockings Society " to your students?
Can you think of the ways in which the contributions of Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Vesey influenced the growth of feminist movements at that time?
How do you describe the role played by The Blue Stockings Society in uplifting the women writers of that period?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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