chapter  19
10 Pages

How intuition came to women

WithMICHÈLE LE DOEUFF

Blue stockings: these were blue worsted stockings, knitted in thick warm wool and worn in England by men even where it was not appropriate – hence, the negative connotation of the term since its origin. You may be quite indifferent to all of this, but since I have just learned something about it, allow me to tell you the story of a word. In the seventeenth century, perhaps from one day to the next, these blue stockings, hitherto worn at home for warmth, evolved into a metonymy to refer to the Parliament of 1653. For the members of this Blue-Stocking Parliament, Cromwell’s chosen few, had little interest in fashionable clothing; velvet and lace had no place in their political program, and they probably thought nothing of appearing in the House dressed in the kind of stockings they wore at home, instead of the black silk stockings deemed essential for such ceremonial occasions, even if they were not so comfortable, especially in winter. So, “BlueStockings, Blue-Stockings” grumbled those who certainly had other grudges against this Parliament. The Oxford English Dictionary, which I am meticulously plundering, does not specify whether these members of Parliament actually wore blue worsted stockings or were merely judged capable of something so inappropriate. Let us say these parliamentarians thought – or were reputed to be inclined to think – that any one, without standing on courtly ceremony, could offer an opinion on questions put to him. Perhaps no one ever came in blue stockings, but they were capable of doing such a thing – hence, the epithet – and who knows whether in fact they did not earn it? A century later, still in London, some people began to meet informally for literary conversations, at Montagu House, rather than playing cards like everyone else. “Rather than playing cards” figures in the dictionary definition; you can see what kind of subtle sociohistorical knowledge is required to determine the meaning of a word. One of the pillars of this cardless society, Benjamin Stillingfleet, is reported to have been there and really to have worn such stockings. In a private house, and his hosts tolerated it! A certain Admiral Boscawen, noting the consequences of turning up one’s nose at whist, nick-named the group “the bluestocking society,” underscoring the threat some people pose to the best society.