Blue Stocking Women

Kathleen DelaneyKathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to talk about those courageous women who first dared to talk about things other than fashion and society.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016.

A long time ago, in a land not so very far away, a woman by the name of Elizabeth Montague got tired of sitting in the corner of the drawing rooms of wealthy homes in merry old England with all the other women. They  worked on their embroidery and talked of nothing but fashion and who had finally landed a husband. It sounded so much more interesting on the men’s side of the room. They talked of business, politics, literature, and other interesting things. So, she gave a small party and invited women she knew who read a lot, particularly women who liked poetry and books that were considered literary works. She didn’t exclude those who wanted to discuss the “penny dreadfuls” but she wanted the emphasis to be on books with a little more meat on their bones. She further requested that the guests should come “undressed” which in the eighteenth century meant casual, not naked, and they did. At least they wore what was casual and comfortable for upper class women in the 1700’s. They also brought their take on the books they’d read, the ideas they’d gotten from those books, and the need to talk about something that actually stretched the mind. The beverage of choice was tea. They didn’t exclude men, but they had to be willing to actually discuss things with the ladies. A few came. One, Benjamin Stillingflat, an aristocrat, came wearing what could only be described as blue working class stockings. The ladies adopted them as their signature article of clothing. Wearing them became a symbolic gesture of a thinking woman’s freedom to read what she pleased and proclaimed to the world she had the brains to understand it, and discuss what she found interesting.

The Blue Stocking Society became the first female club ever known. It was a huge success in some circles, but was vilified in others. Unfashionable, downright dowdy women was only one demeaning comment.

Of course, the only women who attended were able to read. Many women in that era could not. It wasn’t considered necessary. A women’s job was to stay home, wash, cook, sew and have babies. Reading was unnecessary and expensive. Free libraries hadn’t been invented yet. Besides, reading put ideas in women’s heads. Ideas about how they might be able to get jobs outside the home, that they might be able to manage their own money and property, that they actually were able to form an idea of their own. The thought of an independent woman made a lot of men nervous. But girls, even poor ones, started to go to school, they learned to read, and things started to change. The world opened up to them. They learned about ideas, places and cultures they’d never known about, and began to realize you can find answers to questions that had long puzzled them in books. Facts about many things, from how to make their lives easier to the expansiveness of the universe were suddenly at your fingertips. They found unknown beauty in words, in thoughts about religion, about marriage, about their role as a woman.  Reading made them knowledgeable, curious and powerful. Imagine that. Reading made them powerful.

The Blue Stocking Society helped. It made women aware, for the first time, of the importance of literacy. And, reading women have changed the world.  Not enough, but we’re working on it.

However, one word of caution. Knowing how to read isn’t enough. There is one thing more we need to always remember. If I may, a quote from Mark Twain. The inserts are mine.

“The man (woman) who does not read good books has no advantage over the man (woman) who cannot read them,”

Something to keep in mind.

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