Active from around the mid-18th century, the Bluestocking Circle, sometimes known as the Bluestocking Society, was an informal group which met to debate literature and the arts. The foundations of the circle began in the 1750s with gatherings held in the London homes of rich and influential women such as Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey and Frances Boscawen. Those invited were predominantly women, although eminent men were also in attendance.
The origin of the term bluestocking is uncertain, but by the 1760s leading members of the group had begun to refer to themselves as the bluestocking philosophers. The term had first been used to abuse members of Oliver Cromwell’s Little Parliament in 1653, and was revived when the botanist, polymath and author Benjamin Stillingfleet was invited to attend one of the circle’s gatherings. Having no suitable clothes for an evening event, he was told to come in his everyday blue worsted stockings, instead of the more socially acceptable white silk. The account was reported by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson (1781), in which he wrote that Stillingfleet’s contributions were so greatly missed when he was absent that it was said that “We can do nothing without the blue stockings”.
By the 1770s the term bluestocking had begun to be applied exclusively to women who pursued literary or scholarly interests. But gradually, in the wake of the French Revolution that broke out in 1789, it evolved to become a pejorative term referring to a “dangerously intellectual woman”.