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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XV. The Bluestockings

§ 1. The term “Bluestocking”

DURING the first half of the eighteenth century, English-women had little education and still less intellectual status. It was considered “unbecoming” for them to know Greek or Latin, almost immodest for them to be authors, and certainly indiscreet to own 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.” It was not till the beginning of the next century—after the pioneer work of the bluestockings, be it observed—that Sydney Smith, aided, doubtless, by his extraordinary sense of humour, discovered the absurdity of the fact that a woman of forty should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve.

In society, at routs or assemblies, cards or dancing were the main diversions. Women were approached with flattering respect, with exaggerated compliment, but they were never accorded the greater compliment of being credited with sufficient intelligence to appreciate the subjects that interested men. What dean Swift wrote in 1734 to Mrs. Delany from Ireland applied equally well to general opinion in England: “A pernicious error prevails here among the men that it is the duty of your sex to be fools in every article except what is merely domestic.”

There were then, as there always had been, exceptions. There were women who, by some unusual fortune of circumstance, or by their own persistent efforts, had secured a share of the education that was given to their brothers as a matter of course. One such woman, Elizabeth Carter, a learned linguist guist and prominent bluestocking, wrote to Mrs. Montagu concerning a social evening:

  • As if the two sexes had been in a state of war the gentlemen ranged themselves on one side of the room where they talked their own talk and left us poor ladies to twirl our shuttles and amuse each other by conversing as we could. By what little I could overhear our opposites were discoursing on the old English Poets, and this did not seem so much beyond a female capacity but that we might have been indulged with a share in it.
  • The faint resentment underlying this gentle complaint indicates how a few women with a natural and cultivated taste for literature began to regard the limitations imposed by traditional prejudice on their mental activities. As an unconscious protest against this intellectual stifling, as well as against “the tyranny of cards,” it began to be

  • much the fashion for several ladies to have evening assemblies, where the fair sex might participate in conversation with literary and ingenious men, animated by a desire to please.