Oct 6, 2009

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Bluestockings tells the story of the first generations of women to have access to a university education in the United Kingdom: from the Victorian pioneers that first attended Girton and Newnham Colleges (founded in 1869 and 1872 respectively), to the first women to be allowed to receive degrees from Cambridge in 1947.

It’s difficult for me to imagine not being allowed to read, to study, to have intellectual interests because of my gender. But I really appreciate the fact that a book like Bluestockings helps me to imagine it—not only because this was true in the past, but because there are still many places in the world where girls don’t have the same educational opportunities as boys.

Jane Robinson writes with passion and clarity; her research is impeccable, and although Bluestockings is detailed, it is anything but dry. She often cites from primary sources like letters and diaries, and retells anecdotes about life at women’s colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But, unlike what happens with certain books I could mention, the anecdotes are not just thrown in there haphazardly: they’re always pertinent, and they give the book a personal (and sometimes moving) touch.

Bluestockings gives us a glimpse of a reality similar to that which Virginia Woolf describes in the short story “A Woman’s College From Outside”, for example. Because these women had to overcome numberless obstacles to be allowed to go to college at all, once they were in it was imperious that their life be above any suspicious of “indecency”. In practical terms, what this meant was that they led the lives of medieval nuns: they were chaperoned everywhere, never allowed to be alone with a male student, and guarded like children. Social freedom was the price to pay for intellectual freedom.

But being in college and behaving above any suspicion of “immodesty” was by no means the end of their troubles. The daily mockery and opposition women students had to face included episodes such as the following:
A Cambridge professor who is in the habit of addressing his students most pointedly as ‘Gentlemen!’ proceeded to his lecture room on Ash Wednesday, to find only the ladies present. With head erect and eyes riveted on the opposite wall, he announced, ‘As there is nobody here, I shall not lecture today,’ and with stately dignity made his departure.
And since I’m sharing outrageous bits, I had to laugh at the Victorian “medical objections” to female education—though in fact they are not funny in the least:
…what could be proven was that women’s brains were on average five ounces (nearly 150 grams) lighter than men’s. And that menstruation sapped the body of life-blood. The inference was that a smaller brain meant a weaker one, and that loss of blood meant a periodic loss of vigour, bodily and mental. It was a woman’s duty as national child-bearer to take care of her body, keep it free from stress. Her mind must be pure, too: if a woman was clever she should not squander that cleverness, but hold it pristine in trust for her children, especially her sons. Use her brain too much and she would wear it would, compromising her physical and moral femininity. ‘When nature spends in one direction,’ warned Dr Maudsley, ‘she must economise in another.’
Victorian doctors were also concerned that intellectual pursuits would lead to brain overheating, which in its turn would cause women's wombs to shrivel. And as women were first and foremost walking wombs, this simply would not do.

One of the things I loved the most about Bluestockings was that it was not written with a self-congratulatory tone. Let me explain: Jane Robinson readily acknowledges how far we have come in terms of women's education, but she’s also not afraid do point out difficulties, both past and present. For example, she openly writes about the problems education created for the first few generations of women, many of whom had to return to a confining domestic existence after three years of intellectual freedom. Things were even more complicated for women who were educated out of their class and yet found no real opportunities once they left university. Of course, they did pave the way for future generations, and pushed for opportunities to be created—but at a personal cost.

Bluestockings is social history at its best: fascinating, pertinent, and impossible to put down. Also, for those of you who enjoy looking at old photography as much as I do: there are two sections with pictures! In glossy paper! This was the cherry on top of an already delicious cake.

Reviewed at:
The F-Word

(Have you reviewed this book? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)


  1. OK, I want to read this. I wanted to read it from the very first paragraph of this post and now that I've read all of your words and rec, I REALLY want to read this. Thank you, Care

  2. This really sounds fascinating and a great way to help me understand / appreciate the time period of the Brit Lit authors that I teach in the classroom. I will definitely check it out!

  3. "It’s difficult for me to imagine not being allowed to read, to study, to have intellectual interests because of my gender. But I really appreciate the fact that a book like Bluestockings helps me to imagine it—not only because this was true in the past, but because there are still many places in the world where girls don’t have the same educational opportunities as boys."

    I had the exact same experience as this when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran. Obviously, that's talking about a different part of the world rather than history, but nonetheless it comes down to the same understanding of what it's like to be restricted. It's awful. And it really brings a new appreciation to what we have in our cultures today. I'm thinking about the majority of people in the US, who hate reading and who never bother to read. People with the freedom to read, just wasting that freedom??? It's so sad.

    Was the text dry in this book? I have such a hard time with nonfiction, but it sounds like an interesting book...

  4. This is anothe one of those books that makes me appreciate the time I now live in. I would not have survived without studying. I am still overwhelmed about the professor cancelling the lesson as there were no male students in attendance.

  5. This book was on my radar as the premise excited me but after reading your review I have requested it from the library. Hopefully I enjoy it; I don't read much nonfiction but trying to make a conscious effort to read more.

  6. Wouldn't this be a wonderful setting for a novel? Not that I don't really want to read this nonfiction now, I was just thinking...

  7. Like Claire I don't read THAT much non-fiction but I am hoping to get the chance to read this. Having the chance to study is so important. The Oxford college where I work this year celebrates 30 years of admitting women - it's such a short time in its 550 years of existence.

  8. As others here have said (and as I myself have stated before), I don't read much non-fiction as so much of it comes across as dry or overly specialized, but this sounds really fascinating and engaging. I've also visited Cambridge University, so it might be nice to revisit it through text.

    Also, I love the cover!

  9. Care: Yes - yes you do :P

    Molly: Very good point! It definitely throws some light on the work of some authors from this time period.

    Amanda: Thank you for reminding me that I need to add Reading Lolita in Tehran to that book pile I took a picture of the other day :P Sadly, it's the same here...people take freedom for granted. We've been out of a dictatorship for barely three decades, and people already disdain books, freedom of information, the right to an education, etc. Anyway, this was one of the least dry works of non-fiction that I've ever read, so have no fear!

    Vivienne: I can't imagine surviving without being able to study or read either. There are some really sad stories in the book of girls who, when they had to return to their "normal" confining lives, ended up committing suicides :(

    Claire: I hope you do enjoy it! The fact that she tells so many personal stories makes it very engaging.

    Jason: YES! I was thinking the same. I know that Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (who is actually mentioned in the book) is set at a women's college in the 30's, but I can't read it yet because it's not the first in the series. Also, there was a chapter that touched on love affairs between female students, and it got me thinking how AWESOME it would be if Sarah Waters wrote a novel set at a women's college at the turn of the century...

    Verity: 30 years really is nothing!

    Steph: This is the best kind of non-fiction - well-researched and with enough detail not to be superficial, but also truly engaging, and written with more than just researchers in mind.

  10. Well, I don't have the problem that some have...I already LOVE non-fiction! And this sounds like it's going straight to the top of my non-fiction wish list! (Not that I actually keep separate lists.) Seriously hoping my library has this, because I have a long way to go before I'm allowed to buy a book. As always, superb review, Nymeth!

  11. This is the kind of book I adore. I love social history. I also love looking at old photographs. This is going straight onto my wishlist.

  12. Yay! Paging Sarah Waters... Dr. Waters, to Admitting...

  13. I wasn't young that long ago, but I wasn't allowed to take advanced math because I was "a girl."

  14. Where did you find this book? Is it new? Library? It sounds like a book I really want to read.

  15. I don't mind a good non-fiction book, and even better when there are pictures. I just can't get over those ludicrous assumptions about women's brains and wombs shrinking and all that. I would have probably been imprisoned for doing something rash had I lived back then!

  16. It sounds like a really good book. I can't believe they had to live under such strict supervision! like children. I'm curious where the term "bluestocking" came from, does the book say how it originated?

  17. Ms Jeane - Hope I'm not butting in - Bluestocking is actually a much older term, generally used to refer to an intellectual woman, particularly those who are authors or scholars. The term is actually a derogatory one, a belittling term, somewhat equivalent to calling someone a 'Velma' today, though in origin, not used ironically in the way that Velma is today. I believe, it's because, at the time of origin, fashionable women wore silk stockings - black or white. An intellectual woman, nautrally being dumpy and unattractive and lacking in natural femininity, would wear the more practical but less attractive wool stockings, which were frequently blue. I think that's right. The word was reclaimed later as a word of pride by the early (particularly British) feminist movement, I believe in much the same way that later feminists reclaimed words like 'Bitch' as symbols of strength and power. Note, I'm not a scholar, so taht answer is probably incomplete, if not partially erroneous, but I think that's the gist of it.

    Sorry if I'm butting in, Ms Nymeth - I love the word bluestocking, I love how women tooit back and threw it in patriarchy's teeth. Sort of a 'yes we're more interested in being smart than in dolling up for your pleasure. Is that a bad thing?'

  18. Wow, now I want to read this. I will add it to my wishlist!

  19. This sounds fascinating. It would also help me appreciate my opportunities more, in addition to helping me understand what women earlier had to deal with.

  20. Okay, this has jumped to MUST read status, and I hadn't heard of it before (but that's why I read blogs like yours). Glossy pages for the photographs are the icing on my cake, too. Thanks, Nymeth!

  21. Oh another book for my list! This sounds so great.

  22. This looks so great! I wish the library had it... Likely will buy it from book depository like I mentioned when you told me about it!

  23. This is most definitely my kind of book. I don't read much historical fiction, but this is the kind of historical nonfiction I gobble up. Great review!

  24. Great review! This sounds like a fascinating book, and one that I'd really like to read. The things that they thought about women back in those days were so absurd as to be laughable, but it's also sad that women were so limited in so many ways.

  25. I'll be checking the library for this one. It sounds fascinating and reminds me of the nomes in Truckers, who wouldn't let girls learn to read in case their brains exploded. *g*

  26. This does sound fascinating! My mother was the first female in my family to graduate from college (in 1949) and even then, there weren't many things a woman could study. I'm so glad our options have improved so much in this country.

  27. This sounds fantastic! Though I guess, to be honest, this is the sort of book that I purchase because the subject (and the cover) just fascinates me, and then it sits on my shelf looking pretty but not being read. I have so many British history books that fit this description. I am positive that I will read them, and I LOVE having them on my shelf, but for some reason... I just can't bring them down. However, now you've inspired me. Maybe for part of my Clear the Shelves challenge, I'll read a non-fiction history book.

    PS- It seems I am unable to comment on your blog without writing a novel :-) Apologies on the length of my comments!

  28. This sounds like such a good and interesting read...how can I resist? Seriously, you add to my tbr list like threefold :)

  29. Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation. I need more books on my TBR list.

  30. "Victorian doctors were also concerned that intellectual pursuits would lead to brain overheating, which in its turn would cause women's wombs to shrivel."

    OMG. I cant believe this. Sorry I had to laugh a bit. LOL!

    Thanks for the review, Ana. I'm putting this into my wishlist. It's fascinating, this one.

  31. Aha! Brain over-heating--so THAT'S what's wrong with me!

    You mentioned that women are still little more than "walking wombs" in some parts of the world, Ana--I would say in all parts of the world. I know in the US, at least, there are plenty of sub-cultures that still have that attitude.

  32. Jason- thanks very much for clarifying. I appreciate it!

  33. Fascinating. I love good social history books! As to the 'walking wombs' comments, even in today's world I was still treated as somethnig like that by parts of my family once I got pregnant. As if it was ok to have intellectual interests/pursuits while I was waiting around but once I was pregnant it was wrong for me to continue those interests. Some of these views are more present that we'd like to think...

  34. This sounds like a different book and something I would love. And isn't the cover really cute?

  35. Debi: My appreciation of non-fiction has definitely increased over the past few years. I can't imagine not reading it now!

    Meghan: This is right up your alley, yes :D

    Jason: We could always pull a Misery ;) (Um, I hope her publicists don't have google alerts, stumble upon this, and issue restraining orders against us :P Dear Ms Waters: We'll NEVER kidnap you, and we'll happily read whatever you decide to write)

    Jill: Ugh!

    Cara: It is new, yes! Ironically enough, I bought it because I'm on a book buying ban :P I'm currently only allowing myself to buy one book for every twenty that I read, and so I thought that I might as well treat myself to a new release, which I normally never do.

    Sandy: As much as I love reading about the Victorians, I'm infinitely grateful that I didn't live then!!

    Jeane: Jason's explanation was spot on! That's pretty much what she says in the book :P

    Jason, thank you for explaining! You can "butt in" anytime, you know :P

    Andreea, I think you'd enjoy it!

    Carol: Yes - I know I've been guilty of taking my education for granted, but books like this are eye-openers.

    ds: The photographs were fantastic to look at!

    Iliana, I think you'd enjoy it too!

    Eva: lol! Yes, you does :P

    Kailana: It's really too bad it doesn't!

    Belle: This is definitely my favourite kind of non-fiction.

    Zibilee: It IS incredibly sad :(

    Cath: lol! And you know, I bet that wasn't a coincidence. It surprises me (though it shouldn't) how often I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett when reading English history. I love how he takes the must ludicrous and obscure facts and incorporates them into his work.

    Kathi: I'm very grateful as well!

    Aarti: I LIKE long comments! Nothing to apologize for :) I think that's a fantastic goal for the challenge, and I look forward to hearing about the book you decide to read!

    Sam: Sorry! :P

    Framed: lol, don't we all ;)

    Alice: I laughed too, while feeling angry AND sad at the same time!

    Heidenkind: I completely agree! The "in some parts of the world" bit was only about girls not being given the same education as boys. But the attitudes towards reproduction are awful everywhere, yes :/

    Joanna: I agree, and I'm SO sorry that you're having to deal with that :/ A lot of people act like a pregnant woman is public property; like reproduction is everybody's business and not a personal experience. I could go on and on about the awful, intrusive, and simply appalling things people have told me because I don't want children of my own. But I'm really sorry people are giving you a hard time, Joanna!

    Violet: It is! I really love it, as well as all the pictures inside.

  36. Isn't it amazing how far we've come even in the last 50 years? That paragraph about the woman's brain and her womb is outrageous--can you imagine how small our wombs would be if that were true?? :) Sounds like a good one for the non-fiction five, huh?

  37. Nymeth, I totally understand - I didn't want kids of my own until recently so I've heard my share of judgement as well. I'm sorry you have to go through the experience too, it's so unfair that a personal choice is made an ok topic for public discussion!

  38. This looks terrific! I am adding it to my list. Thanks!

  39. You are so right - how good would it be if Sarah Waters wrote a university book? That is such a good idea - she'd do it really well, and I expect she'd like it. I mean she's an academic originally! Maybe her publicists have Google alerts and will suggest it to her (rather than issuing restraining orders). :P

  40. This book sounds amazing! It sounds like all these impressive intellectuals considered a woman simply a life support system for a uterus. :-/

  41. Now this sounds fascinating. Imagine what these women had to endure.

  42. Oh WOW...This book is called: WOMEN OUT OF BOUNDS here in the US.


  43. want to read this - thanks for review ;0)

  44. I read about this somewhere before and that person quoted the same bit about the man who said he would not lecture, which really struck me hard. And oh the medical stuff - this kind of thing was going on in medieval times and managed to persist despite all the advances of science.

    I've also popped in to see how you feel about the Booker win, I know you really liked 'The Childrens Book'.

  45. I'll have to add this to my wish list. I know something of the bluestockings and experienced firsthand much of the modern women's movement. Young(er) women today tend to forget what others had to fight for and I see women's issues and women's rights taking a backseat once again.

  46. Wow. I can't even imagine going to college or university only to be chaperoned everywhere I went. Also, the Victorian medical reasons as to why women couldn't become educated is scary. Sounds interesting though. Very interesting.

  47. Oh this sounds good. I love books like this that make me appreciate how far society has gone. I love the clips you included and am glad they added some photos in the book. I love when they do that.

  48. This sounds fascinating. Like you, I can't imagine not being allowed to expand my horizons through learning. I'm glad things have changed.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  49. Trish: The cynic in me can't help but wish we'd gone further :P But I really DO appreciate having had access to a education. I can't imagine my life without it!

    Joanna: It really is unfair :/ I always try to tell people to butt out as politely as I can :P

    Joemmama, I hope you enjoy it!

    Jenny: lol! Let's hope so :P

    Stephanie: Yep. So much changes, so much stays the same :P

    Diane, I had no idea it had a different title in the US! Thank you for that!

    Lynda, I hope you enjoy it!

    Jodie: I'd have been very happy if The Children's Book had won, but the more I hear about Wolf Hall, the better it sounds. Plus Byatt has won before, and I'm all about spreading the love :P

    Beth: SO true. This is something that worries me.

    Court: It really is scary! What bugs me the most is that you STILL see theories that try to naturalize gender social stereotypes today :/

    Amanda: I love old photos too. The book isn't very feel-good because Robinson does point out how much of the bias has persisted, but it definitely made me appreciate my education all the same.

    Anna: So am I! Hopefully they'll continue to change until we all have equal opportunities in every area.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.