On Bluestockings and Beauty: 19th Century Advice for Educated Women

“Blue-stocking or not, every woman ought to make the best of herself inside and out.  To be healthy, handsome, and cheerful, is no disadvantage even in a learned professor.”
The Art of Beauty, 1883.

Portrait of a Woman by Henry Inman, 1825.(Brooklyn Museum)
Portrait of a Woman by Henry Inman, 1825.
(Brooklyn Museum)

Unlike the clever, witty bluestockings that populated the fashionable salons of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Victorian bluestocking was considered to be, as one 1876 publication puts it, “a stiff, stilted, queer literary woman of a dubious age.”  This unfortunate stereotype was so firmly entrenched that it even made its way into an 1883 edition of the Popular Encyclopedia, wherein a bluestocking is defined as a “pedantic female” who has sacrificed the “excellencies of her sex” to education and learning.

In her 1883 book The Art of Beauty, author Maria Haweis offers some well-intentioned, advice to these plain Jane academics.  As she reasons:

“It is one of the most potent objections to the cause of female education, that clever women go in for huge boots and Gampian umbrellas, setting at nought many graces essentially womanly and indispensable in woman: and the fact, which really has some truth in it, positively damages the cause.”

According to Haweis, an excess of education had the all too frequent side effect of turning attractive young ladies into unfashionable dowds.  She urges her female readers not to succumb to this unhappy transformation, writing:

“Recollect that you have a body, although exceptionally gifted with a mind: a little attention to it will neither nip your mental powers nor impede you as you clamber up the tree of knowledge.  Busy sisters, if you climb at all, climb gracefully, rather than bring the tree into disrepute.”

In the Library by August Toulmouche, 1872.
In the Library by August Toulmouche, 1872.

Later in the book, Haweis offers an unflattering example of the highly educated female.  She is described as “a mannish young lady,” of the sort which is a “hybrid between masculine and feminine.”  As Haweis states:

 “Many are her ‘ologies’ — and were she a woman of extraordinary ability one might find excuse for her elbows and knees.  But I happen to have discovered that Dorothea knows much more on any subject, though she does not straddle across the paths, nor try to ape a man.”

The Dorothea mentioned by Haweis is described as quiet, “sweet-faced,” and charming—a girl that seldom says a word and “has always men around her.”  In short, an ideal manner of Victorian female.  That is not to say that Dorothea is a nitwit.  She is, in fact, intelligent and even seems to have some level of education.  But the essential point of her character (at least as far as Haweis’ example) is that she does not flaunt her intelligence and she is never so strong-minded as to be accused of aping a man.

Based on some of Haweis’ wrongheaded remarks, one might think she was against education for women.  Quite the contrary.  For unattractive girls (referred to, rather unkindly, as “Nonentities”), Haweis asserts that education is absolutely essential.  Addressing the “Nonentity,” she writes:

“To her I have but one word to say: educate yourself…books are so cheap, and your leisure probably so large that there is little to prevent an effort to redeem lost time.”

Young Girl Reading by Otto Scholderer, 1883.

Despite her advice to nonentities, Haweis is very clear that outward beauty is a woman’s most important asset.  To this end, she is unwilling to believe those bluestockings who claim not to care what they look like, writing:

“No woman can say truthfully that she does not care whether she is pretty or not.  Every woman does care.  The immutable laws of her being have made physical attractiveness as much a natural glory to her as strength is to a man…After all, what is vanity?  If it means only a certain innocent wish to look one’s best, is it not another name for self-respect—and without it, what would woman be worth?”

The idea that a woman’s worth stems from her outward appearance is not exclusive to the Victorian era.  However, the notion that beauty and intellect are somehow incompatible in women is something which we definitely see more of in the 19th century.  That is not to say that the beliefs of those like Haweis were the norm, only that the stereotype of the unattractive bluestocking was very much a reality.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Cary, Pheobe.  “The Sunday Evening Reception.”  The Poetical Works of Alice and Pheobe Cary.  Cambridge: Hurd and Houghton, 1876.

Haweis, Mary Eliza Joy.  The Art of Beauty.  London: Chatto & Windus, 1883.

The Popular Encyclopedia. Vol. II.  London: Blackie & Son, 1883.

Williams, William.  “The Color Blue.”  Student and Schoolmate.  Boston: Galen James and Company, 1863.


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25 Comments on "On Bluestockings and Beauty: 19th Century Advice for Educated Women"

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Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
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A lady of intellect has great beauty.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I agree, Lindsay :)

caeciliadance
Guest

Thanks for posting this. I would be interested to find out more about the position of bluestockings in the pre-Victorian era. Would you recommend any particular reading or websites on the topic? Were there any particularly famous 18th/early 19th century bluestockings?

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Caecilia :) I would recommend you read up on Elizabeth Montagu, the 18th century society hostess–and one of the founders of the original Blue Stockings Society!

madamewriter
Guest

Another amazing article, Mimi. Well done!
I cannot help but wonder of societal influence in regards to women being educated. The cult of domesticity wanted woman to remain weak, fragile, beautiful, and maternal. What better way than to criticize educated, intelligent women as physically unattractive, and apperhently “left” to develop their brains for want of beauty.
Now I kinda want to start a Bluestocking Club.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m so glad you enjoyed it :) I think your line of thought is 100% correct. The educated, independent woman was seen–in many ways–as a threat. Especially at a time when women’s suffrage was on the horizon and laws were beginning to change in women’s favor. Distracting otherwise sensible, competent women with fears about their appearance is a tried and true tactic!

Vickie
Guest

Wonderful article – I love reading your articles that show how women were changing and how society tried to keep them in their place – their place as defined by men…

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much :) I love that part of history, too!

Maggi Andersen
Guest

Very interesting, thanks Mimi.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Maggi :)

Adrienne Morris
Guest

I think some modern feminists keep the a stiff, stilted, queer literary woman stereotype going with their disdain for women who embrace their more feminine side. Beauty is sometimes still seen as incompatible with intelligence. I remember a girl “friend” in college who suggested that a professor only gave me a good mark because I was attractive. It spoiled all the hard work I did!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’ve had similar experiences in work & school, Adrienne. It is disappointing when you’ve worked hard! I think the key is not to reduce anyone’s value to their outward appearance. Unfortunately, I think that we as a society are still hung up–to a large extent–on how women look as opposed to how women think.

Adrienne Morris
Guest

And sadly women are sometimes the biggest contributors to this hang up–though my feeling is that beautiful women have a lot of power and everyone else is a little jealous and scared of them if they also have intelligence too! We all crave beauty.

paper doll
Guest

Great post! I believe I read that the term” blue stocking “was used to mean bookish people of both sexes…well before Victorian times when it became to mean just women. Fascinating how terms evolve

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked it :) Yes, the term actually originated because a man who attended the 18th century salons of Elizabeth Montagu wore blue stockings! A long way from a later definition in a Victorian boys school publication which states that a bluestocking is a woman who neglects her housework in favor of literary pursuits :(

paper doll
Guest

I’m not surprised it migrated over to our side! lol

Noirfifre
Guest

I guess bluestockings is perhaps equivalent of “independent women” today. From a girl, I have always had my eye and heart as a career woman. Victorian society placed some much emphasis on the outer beauty of a woman, I am not surprise that some were of the view that intelligence is what would saved women who deemed unattractive.

Geri Walton
Guest

Good post Mimi and congrats on your book.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much, Geri :)

authorangelabell
Guest

Oh my word…that term “Nonentity” just breaks my heart! What a horrendous thing to call a fellow human being! Now I wish I could reach backward in time and give all the book-loving, Victorian ladies a good hug. And a strong cuppa, of course.

woostersauce2014
Guest

You do still get these sort of mentalities in Third World societies. I myself grew up in a Third World country and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been told that if I persisted in my cultural and intellectual interests, I wouldn’t attract a man much less a husband.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Even here in the United States that attitude still exists! It’s unfortunate really, especially for young girls who are negatively impacted by these sorts of stereotypes.

woostersauce2014
Guest

It is and stops young girls from fulfilling their potentials. That said young boys who also develop and interest in intellectual subjects and culture do get a lot of flak from their contemporaries as well.

Catherine Merrick
Guest

Reblogged this on Catherine Merrick and commented:
‘a bluestocking is defined as a “pedantic female” who has sacrificed the “excellencies of her sex” to education and learning’ – it is a bit like that question of whether you would like to be 10% more intelligent at the cost of being 10% less attractive. Intellect wins any day.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for the reblog, Catherine :)

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