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Who were the Bluestockings? First women’s movement had several learned Irish ladies

Group of 18th century women challenged the assumption that girls were incapable of learning

In the 18th century education for girls was seen as a waste of time. Girls from the labouring classes would have no need for book learning in their work, while middling and upper-class women were not generally expected to partake in work outside the home. Centuries of under-education led to the widespread belief that girls had little aptitude for scholarship. While boys learned Latin and Greek, rhetoric and logic, mathematics and natural philosophy, their sisters were told that learning such subjects would frazzle their brains, damage their wombs and destroy their looks.

A small number of women defied convention and sought out an education for themselves. Though this might bring personal satisfaction, it could be a risky pursuit. The diarist Mary Hamilton once confessed to her guardian that she wished to learn Greek and Latin. “If you happen to have any learning,” he replied, “keep it a profound secret, especially from the men.” No man wanted to marry a clever woman. At a time when marriage was often the only way for a woman to secure her economic future, to be considered unmarriageable was a dire prospect indeed.

But from the 1750s onwards, some women began to challenge the assumptions that girls were incapable of learning and that an educated woman was a blight on society. These were the Bluestockings. They were famed for their glittering salons at which women held forth on intellectual topics. They pursued fruitful careers as writers, critics, classicists, historians, painters, singers and actors. They made the idea of a learned lady seem respectable, even desirable. Many lived and worked in London, but the Bluestockings were not an entirely English phenomenon: there were several prominent Irishwomen among their number.

The most famous of the Irish Bluestockings was Elizabeth Vesey. Nicknamed “the Sylph” on account of her otherworldly air, Vesey spent her winters in London where she hosted salons that were said to be utterly enchanting. She had a gift for inviting the most diverse groups of guests to her drawing room and somehow coaxing them into a cohesive whole. A friend once described how, at Vesey’s, “the door opens, in trips a macaroni, or stalks a minister of state or perhaps glides a fine lady ... my dear Sylph make her company form a round O, and she sits in the centre and like the sun enlivens and illuminates the whole”. Vesey held her salons every second Tuesday – the same night that Samuel Johnson’s Club met. After the (all male) members of the club had dined, they would rush to Vesey’s, hoping they had not missed too much of the famous Bluestocking wit.


Vesey returned to Lucan each summer, where her husband Agmondesham, a member of Irish parliament, had built a fine house on the banks of the river Liffey. The house was luxurious but Vesey preferred the simple life when she was in Ireland: she would retreat to a summer house in the garden from which she had a view of rocks, woods and a waterfall. There, she would drink tea and daydream.

Though Vesey had a reputation for ditziness, she had a practical side too. She helped to publish Dublin editions of several books by English Bluestockings. In London the Bluestockings tended to publish anonymously but in Ireland their works were often printed with the author’s name on the title page. This had the effect of amplifying the Bluestockings’ fame in Ireland, as well as inspiring young women to take up their quills in pursuit of a literary life.

Another prominent Irish Bluestocking was Elizabeth Griffith. She began her career on the stage of Dublin’s old Theatre Royal on Smock Alley where her father had been manager. He had trained her as an actor and given her an unusually broad education for a girl.

When she was 19, Griffith met a libertine named Richard. His previous lover had left him and he was looking for a distraction: he made his advance, and Griffith rebuffed him. Other men might have walked away but Richard became fascinated by her. In conversation he found her charming, clever and self-possessed. When he left Dublin and returned to his home a day’s ride away in Co Kilkenny he began to write to her. Her return letters were a delight – witty and playful, brimming with literary allusions, philosophical ideas, sense and good cheer.

They wrote regularly three times each week for several years. It seems to us now like an innocent pastime but it was a dangerous game, especially for Griffith. A young unmarried woman who corresponded with an older man, particularly one known for his gallantry, put her reputation at risk.

Five years into their intense correspondence – one sprinkled with lovers’ tiffs, heartfelt declarations, the minutiae of two lives and occasional high drama – Griffith gave Richard an ultimatum: he must marry her, or cease the correspondence.

The couple wed in secret early in the summer of 1751. Griffith’s reputation was saved but the couple faced financial uncertainty as they struggled to find suitable employment. Then an idea struck them. They realised that their letters made an extraordinary will-they-won’t-they love story more thrilling than any novel. Griffith moved to London to find a suitable publisher and the resulting book was a sensation. Griffith was hailed as a plucky heroine who had used intellect, wit and logic to win the heart of a man who had sworn never to marry. More than that, she was implicitly arguing for a woman’s right to choose her husband. Griffith went on to a successful literary career in London where she attended many a Bluestocking salon, and wrote numerous novels, poems and plays featuring strong woman leads.

The Bluestockings played a crucial role in convincing men that women were capable of rational thought. And, at a time when anti-Irish prejudice was particularly strong in England, the Irish Bluestockings played a role in convincing the English that the Irish, too, might be rational beings.

Susannah Gibson is an Irish writer and historian based in Cambridge. Her book, Bluestockings: The First Women’s Movement, is published by John Murray Press in hardback, ebook and audio on February 29th

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