by UQU Women’s Officer, Amy Jelacic
bluestocking – /ˈbluˌstɒk ɪŋ/
1. a woman having intellectual, literary, and/or academic interests
2. a pejorative term for academically-inclined women
3. a reclaimed term of pride for academically-inclined women
Each year, students and staff at universities around Australia celebrate Bluestocking Week, a time devoted to celebrating women in higher education that takes its name from a historical term for women with an interest in intellectual pursuits. 2015’s celebrations will take place from August 10th to August 14th, with a range of excellent activities happening on campuses across the country thanks to the hard work of both student and staff unions. As women’s officer at the University of Queensland student union, and a bluestocking woman through and through, this is possibly my favourite event in the university calendar for many reasons. The rich history of women’s struggle for equality in intellectual fields is one that is dear to my heart; as much as women’s position in many areas of society has improved throughout the world, problems are still abundant and varied. Bluestocking Week is a time to look back on our history, to take stock of the present and its triumphs and hurdles, and to plan for the future of women in higher education.
History of Bluestocking Women
The Blue Stockings Society was a women’s social and educational movement founded in England in the early 1750s. It functioned as a literary discussion group, emphasising conversation and pursuit of intellectual growth over the less intellectually rigorous activities that women more commonly practiced in that era. These women pursued reading, writing, art, and more, encouraging each other and developing skills that they were not permitted to gain in formal educational institutions. In the words of Blue Stocking Society founder Elizabeth Montagu, writing in 1743, “in a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded”. Thus, she and others sought to create a place in society where women could pursue more than they were culturally expected and encouraged to.
The actual clothing item – the blue stocking itself – was a practical, informal garment that existed in contrast to the fine black stockings worn by those of the upper classes. How it came to be synonymous with “intellectual woman” is a matter of some speculation. Some attribute it to the beginnings of the Blue Stocking Society, when Elizabeth Vesey, co-founder of the movement, invited well-known intellectual Benjamin Stillingfleet to attend a meeting. He was not well-off and so she invited him to attend wearing his “blue stockings” – it didn’t matter than he didn’t have smart black stockings to wear. He became a popular fixture at these gatherings, and the term clearly stuck.
The term “bluestocking” evolved to refer generally to a woman who was interested in intellectual pursuits, who was academically-minded, who eschewed the typical trappings of a woman’s role in Western society during the 18th and 19th centuries. Of course, the women who were able to partake in bluestocking events were those who were of sufficient social and financial standing to do so without repercussion. Class was a core component of the bluestocking movement: those who began it originally were from the upper echelons of British society, and those women who perpetuated it were predominately cut from similar cloth.
Of course, expectations and norms for women gradually changed throughout the decades. Women were eventually permitted to attend tertiary education institutions. The profound stigma attached to a woman possessing intelligence and bookishness dissipated, slowly but surely. Women began to be taken more seriously as writers, academics, theorists, thinkers. The road to equality was traversed slowly but surely.
Bluestocking Week in Australia
Bluestocking Week was a regular fixture in university calendars from the late 1980s through to the last decade. It was an opportunity to campaign about women’s issues and celebrate women’s involvement in higher education, and was a popular and vibrant celebration that united university students and staff. Sadly, the voluntary student unionism legislation passed last decade was a severe blow to campus life around Australia, and Bluestocking Week was one of the casualties in this loss of culture.
2012 saw a resurgence in student activism and campus culture. Bluestocking Week was reincarnated by student and staff unions, who made in into a modern celebration for the university women of today. Each year since then, universities around the country have held Bluestocking Week celebrations to highlight the gains we’ve made for women in higher education and to draw attention to the pressing issues still facing us.
On being a bluestocking woman
Academically-inclined women of the 21st century are fortunate to be free from much of the extreme societal disapproval experienced by bluestockings throughout history. While it’s still considered pretty uncool to be a nerd, society does generally admire and venerate those who pursue academic excellent, those who show themselves to be accomplished and talented in intellectual pursuits, those who express themselves with eloquence and intelligence. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who encouraged me wholeheartedly to read and write and expand my mind. My family always had a wide range of interesting books around the house, and a trip to the library was never too much trouble. My successes at school were praised (but never to excess!). University was an inevitable dot on the horizon, and I was so very excited to get there.
After changing degrees a few times (yes, I was one of those people), I eventually settled on the field which I think I always secretly knew I’d pursue: political science. The little glimpses of political science that I received in modern history and English classes were tantalising, and I have a vivid memory of being about fourteen years old and telling a stranger that I wanted to be a political scientist when I grew up. While I’m not sure how well I knew what exactly that entailed at that point in life, young Amy certainly showed remarkable prescience. I am now privileged to be studying an honours year in political science at one of the finest institutions in Australia, within a great school, with an excellent supervisor, surrounded by talented peers – men and women in almost equal numbers. Despite this fortunate position, I admit to being plagued by many of the same issues that affected bluestocking women historically (albeit to a much, much less degree!). I wonder if men are intimidated by intelligent and forthright women, and then promptly berate myself for even caring what men might be intimidated by. I worry if I seem too assertive or if I come across as a know-it-all. I worry that no matter how much I apply myself to becoming truly knowledgeable in my field of study, I’ll never be taken seriously as a young woman, or, indeed, as an older woman.
As I consider my future path in academia, I am made nervous by the warnings I get from university staff about life in academia. The universal challenges of an academic career are compounded by the effects of sexism on women, which is made clear by anecdotal and statistical evidence. While my undergrad experience in an arts degree was, in my experience, relatively free from any ill treatment due to my gender, this changes as one ascends in the world of academia, and the high dropout rates of women early career researchers in many fields is testament to this. By many accounts, it is still a very blokey, unforgiving place. Frankly, I relish the challenge of succeeding in an environment that I am not predisposed to thrive in, but my thoughts inevitably turn to those who are at a much greater disadvantage in academia than I am and who face this world with fewer tools at their disposal than I have.
Bluestocking women today
In modern times, women undergraduate university students outnumber men in many areas. Gender disparity in various fields of study reflect the gendered nature of work – nursing, speech pathology, and social sciences have many more women than men, while various engineering disciplines, many science fields, and information technology/software engineering/computer science are dominated by men. Surprisingly, we now see more women than men in undergraduate law, and other historically male-dominated fields are showing similar trends in undergraduate gender divides.
It it important to celebrate the advances we’ve made, and to acknowledge the work we’ve still to do. People face many hurdles in accessing tertiary education in Australia – aspects of Australians’ lives including gender, class, race, and more contribute to various social and economic issues that can stop those who wish to get a tertiary education from attending, and present unique difficulties to those who do make it to uni. The University of Queensland has been like a second home to me for many years, and though I find much to love about my university I am also keenly aware of its shortcomings. Being able to acknowledge them is one thing, but tackling them seems fairly insurmountable.
Women who seek to become well-educated and who strive for academic excellence need to be supported, encouraged, nurtured, and shown that it is very much possible for them to succeed and thrive in university and then wherever their post-uni life takes them. Knowing the history of women’s struggle to assert themselves in academia has inspired me to keep moving towards my goals, to not be ashamed of my passion for learning, to be the one to throw myself at the glass ceiling and do my utmost to widen the cracks made by the women who have gone before me.