“Bluestocking” is an expression used to describe an educated and intellectual woman. Some historians believe the expression was most commonly used during the 18th century, alongside the organization of the Blue Stocking Society, an English society of both females and males that encouraged academic thinking and conversation. Other historians dispute this theory of the expression’s foundation, claiming its origin actually can be traced as far back as the 15th century and to other areas of the world such as France and Scotland. Although “bluestocking” typically described a woman with a certain degree of wealth, education, and accomplishment, the expression was not always a flattering one. Other uses for the expression exist, and today people rarely use it as a way to describe a female.
Similar to many sayings, the expression “bluestocking” probably can trace its roots back to a more literal meaning. One popular theory involves Benjamin Stillingfleet, a male publisher and translator who was not wealthy enough to afford the black silk stockings worn as formal attire during the time period. During Blue Stocking Society meetings, he wore the more informal blue woolen stockings of the era. Thus, the expression “bluestocking” came to describe the informal atmosphere of the meetings, as well as the emphasis on intellectual conversation over the fashion of the attendees. Other less-known theories of the expression's origins are mostly related to the fashion of blue woolen stockings during various time periods and in other parts of the world.
Sometimes, describing a woman as a bluestocking was derogatory. Most women who were thought to be bluestocking, including those who belonged to the Blue Stocking Society, were wealthier, more educated, and more accomplished than other women of their time. Still, there were instances when the expression was regarded as one with negative connotations. For example, some people came to think of these women as frumpy. Historians believe these negative connotations were rooted in the prejudices of others.
Although the overall meaning of the expression is far from lost, “bluestocking” is not a regularly used term these days. Even so, people familiar with the history of the expression might use it to describe an intellectual woman, especially if they are speaking to or writing for an audience that also is familiar with the expression. Too, certain contemporary establishments or businesses, such as bookstores and magazines, might use the expression or some spin of it to convey a female-centric clientele, environment, or service or product.