Tuesday, 11 March 2008

brilliant women - the 18th century bluestocking

fashion my dear readers is a fickle mistress...one minute one is de rigeur or a la mode then just as swiftly a laughing stock, old fashioned, irrelevant.

as a proud and self proclaimed bluestocking, i have often straddled the gulf, nay abyss, between these two continents, and lately amidst the dismaying and all too common cry by young women that they are most certainly not a feminist, plus the dubious rise of the footballers wife as a suitable role model for girls, i have secretly wondered whether learning, freedom, curiosity and the spirit of independant adventure as desirable aspirations for women have gone for good. certainly the very term bluestocking has for a long time been used primarily as a prejorative, not a celebration.

but the tide appears to have suddenly turned. this weekend saw a full page article on the original bluestocking circle and this morning radio 4 interviewed two marvellous women dedicated to the repositioning and re-evaluing of the role and influence of those educational pioneers in 'breaking the boundaries of what women could be expected to undertake or achieve.'

as the exhibition curators eger and peltz eloquently explain, initially associated with the informal and intimate groupings of the fashionable bluestocking circle revolving primarily around the london homes of the fashionable hostesses Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey and Frances Boscawen from the 1750s, the term 'bluestocking' came to apply to learned women more generally, testament to the high profile these women achieved in an age when women had few rights and little chance of independence. the circle, which welcomed men, including famously the blue stockinged mr stillingfleet, nurtured a sense of intellectual community and potential. guests included the leading literary, political and cultural figures of the day, including the scholar and classical translator Elizabeth Carter, the critic and writer Samuel Johnson, the novelist Fanny Burney, and the artists Frances Reynolds and her brother Sir Joshua.

moreover, despite beginning as a high society, fashionable drawing room club, the bluestockings developed into a broader social and literary network in which friendship, charity and female education were celebrated as the key components of modern civilized society, both in london and the provinces.

but sadly, as our champions of the movement go on to explain, this desirable state of affairs came to an abrupt end with the dawning of the regency era and the changing social and political situation in the aftermath of the french revolution. the ideas and radicalism of outspoken women such as republican historian Catharine Macaulay and the early 'feminist' Mary Wollstonecraft, were increasinlgy viewed by the establishment with suspicion and hostility. both held radical beliefs, greeted the french revolution with enthusiasm and spoke out for women's rights. their rejection of traditional female behaviour, especially in their liberal attitudes, publicly-voiced political opinions and unconventional sexual lives scandalised society. in a changing moral climate which saw new limits placed on self-expression, the traditionally demarcated roles of the sexes was emphasized once again.

increasingly women themselves such as christian social reformer Hannah More, who did not believe in women's rights, promoted instead the traditional female duties of charity, piety and child-rearing as the foundation of a new model of female activism which was to dominate the victorian age. the bluestocking sadly became a byword for monstrous, unnatural women, meddling in affairs that should not concern them, and the very idea of a studious, academically inclined female still carries a risidual stigma of a peculiar spinster, somewhat unkempt of appearance, condemned to a life without love of a good man and doomed to childlessness.

margaret rutherford as miss marple - an inspiration!

the scholarly man or boffin has similarly had something of an image problem, sexiness-wise, but whilst geeks have recently entered the popular vernacular as actually rather desirable despite themselves, female scholarliness has not fared so well, and the attribute 'inventor' or 'genius' is synonymous with the male mind. i dont recall albert enstein, despite his dishevelled appearance, experiencing much mockery or ridicule, and it certainly didnt put marilyn monroe off...

brilliant women is an exhibition, conference and publication opening on thursday 13 march at the national portrait gallery. do have a little look at their website for details and an overview: http://www.npg.org.uk/live/wobrilliantwomen.asp

meanwhile i shall bask in my rush of fashionability whilst it lasts.

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