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If the Bluestocking Fits

Some words carry so much baggage that we cringe when we hear them. Don’t believe it? Try saying the word "intellectual" without feeling your lip curl up in just a little bit of a sneer. This sensation is especially baffling considering that most of us would support the value of a good education even without thinking about the mountain of research that says exercising the brain is good for both physical and mental health.

Long ago, of course—before we knew that the brain was such an influential organ—“men of letters" (cringing again) were relatively rare and they were highly valued as companions, advisors, and tutors. As the skills of reading and writing were passed on to those who could afford the leisure time to learn them, the lines between the educated and uneducated were usually drawn along class divisions, although in some times and cultures these extended to race and gender too.

The historical record is virtually littered with men who believed their servants' minds were incapable of learning and that their daughters' minds were too delicate for it, although in almost every period and place there have been some who have bucked the system, educating everyone in their sphere—whether sons, daughters, or servants. Thomas More, for example, did such an outstanding job educating his daughter, Margaret, that even More's own contemporaries had difficulty distinguishing between their writings.¹

Still, a servant who bothered to educate himself was generally seen as "getting above his station" and a woman who did so was seen in some circles as decidedly unfeminine. For at least a quarter of a millennium, in fact, the derogatory term “bluestocking” was applied to women with even the slightest intellectual interest. While some trace the origin of the epithet as far back as Renaissance Venice and Paris, it seems the English term first turns up around 1750.

That’s when Elizabeth Montagu and a number of her London society friends decided it might be fun to imitate the well-known Paris salons and host a series of (relatively light) literary evenings in their own parlors. They invited the day’s foremost “men of letters” to discuss their works, hosting notables such as Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. As the story goes, they eventually invited a minor poet named Benjamin Stillingfleet to join them one evening, but he protested that he didn’t have the proper evening clothes. The ladies hospitably insisted that he come in his day clothes, which included a pair of bright blue stockings. These proved such a contrast to the sea of black ones in the room that they caused quite a stir and gradually attached themselves to the group as a nickname.

At first, it seems, most members of the group were rather proud of their newfound label. Unfortunately it was soon picked up by those who were scornful of women with literary pretensions and by Victorian times, the fear of being considered a “bluestocking” had become so pronounced that some young ladies would go to great lengths to avoid appearing the least bit “scholarly.”

Fortunately the situation is no longer quite so extreme, although we still have women who think they need to pretend to be airheads to snag a man. And we still make vague negative judgments about people who enjoy collecting new information to stuff into their brain. We assume if someone excels intellectually, they must be neglecting what really matters: relationships, for instance, or moral and ethical standards.

What research actually says, however, is that people whose judgments are tied into stereotypes rely on a sort of categorical thinking that actually limits their creativity in other areas. In other words: we limit our ability to think creatively when we opt for shortcuts in our thinking.

Few of us would argue with Thomas A. Stewart, a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, who contended more than a decade ago that “intellectual capital” is indispensable to the global economy. But we might be tempted to take his full assessment of the high importance of intellectual thought with a grain of salt. Clearly, history underscores that intellect applied without morality can have devastating results. And nobody is arguing with that. But what Stewart means by intellectual capital implies more than simply "knowledge." It’s a combination of assets that are difficult to measure, chief among them being something called “human capital.” Human capital refers—not only to the people themselves who contribute to business—but also their implicit experience and abilities, whatever that might imply. Beyond intellect and creativity, the value of human capital includes the social, ethical and moral competencies each individual has developed over a lifetime of interacting with other people in morally charged situations.

Is it worth working to increase our inner capital—our intellectual, creative, moral, social and personal competencies? The research does suggest that these skills are somewhat interdependent and interactive. There is also research to suggest that when we exercise and build these competencies we also increase the chance of living a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life.

That, and maybe we also increase the chance of being called a tall poppy. But that's better than being so short (or short-sighted) that you can't see over the garden fence. And that applies across gender, race, or any other artificial lines.



¹ Hitchcock, Elsie Vaughan (ed.). 1935 (for 1934). The lyfe of Sir Thomas Moore, knighte, written by William Roper, esquire, whiche maried Margreat, daughter of the sayed Thomas Moore; and now edited from thirteen manuscripts, with collations, etc. EETS OS 197. London: Oxford University Press.


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