October 7, 2005

Wendy,

A male student in my sociobiology class called me a blue-stocking. I think I know what it means, but is it a compliment?

Marianne


Dear Marianne,

It’s not precisely a compliment, but it’s not an insult either. My guess is that he probably likes you. Today blue-stocking is used to refer to female academics, but it used to be a belittling moniker for female authors and their fans. The earliest reference I can find is in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, where he explains that “it became [in May 1781],

. . . 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. These societies were denominated Blue-stocking Clubs, the origin of which title being little known, it may be worth while to relate it. One of the most eminent members of those societies, when they first commenced, was Mr. Stillingfleet, whose dress was remarkably grave, and in particular it was observed, that he wore blue stockings. Such was the excellence of his conversation, that his absence was felt as so great a loss, that it used to be said, ‘We can do nothing without the blue stockings;’ and thus by degrees the title was established. Miss Hannah More has admirably described a Blue-stocking Club, in her Bas Bleu, a poem in which many of the persons who were most conspicuous there are mentioned. Johnson was prevailed with to come sometimes into these circles, and did not think himself too grave even for the lively Miss Monckton (now Countess of Corke), who used to have the finest bit of blue at the house of her mother, Lady Galway. Her vivacity enchanted the Sage, and they used to talk together with all imaginable ease. A singular instance happened one evening, when she insisted that some of Sterne’s writings were very pathetick. Johnson bluntly denied it. ‘I am sure (said she,) they have affected me.’ ‘Why, (said Johnson, smiling, and rolling himself about,) that is, because, dearest, you’re a dunce.’ When she some time afterwards mentioned this to him, he said with equal truth and politeness; ‘Madam, if I had thought so, I certainly should not have said it.’

 




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