Day 88. Early Feminists

Whose name comes to mind when you think of feminists?  Without spending too much time thinking about it, a few come to my mind.  

Susan B. Anthony, who was an American suffragette.  Liz Carpenter, one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus.  Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an American writer and journalist, who was one of the first girls to celebrate a bat mitzvah in Conservative Judaism.

Harriet Tubman, the African American slave who went on to become an abolitionist, humanitarian and Union spy.  And perhaps, one of the best known, at least in our time, Gloria Steinem, the American journalist, social and political activist.

What I didn’t know, is that there are some men who have made the list of feminists.  Here’s just a few:

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, who was born way back in 1486.  He was a German magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer and alchemist, who also happened to write the “Declaration on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex”.  Alan Alda, an American actor of some note, who campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  John Lennon, who presumably needs no introduction, and Joss Whedon, the writer-director and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But because my post today is about words that start with the letter “B”, here’s a really interesting fact I just discovered, and am happy to share:  Way back in the 18th Century, very early feminists, those women who were interested in literature or politics, were called Blue Stockings“.  In fact, they were members of the Blue Stocking Society, an informal women’s social and educational movement in England; and they met regularly at the home of Elizabeth Montagu (one of the founders).

Back then  women of forty were supposed to be more ignorant than a twelve year old boy (XV, Cambridge History of English and American Literature).  So needless to say, this ‘movement’ was considered quite a revolutionary step away from traditional, non-intellectual women’s activities, like needlework and knitting.

They invited male ‘guest speakers’ to join them, one of whom was the botanist/translator/publisher, Benjamin Stillingfleet.  It’s been said, but never verified, that he couldn’t afford the proper formal dress, which included black silk stockings.  So, instead, when he went to their get togethers he wore his everyday blue worsted stockings which, in turn, became the term that was used to describe these informal gatherings; and the fact that they emphasized conversation, over fashion.  Blue Stockings.

If you’re wondering just what kind of impact they actually made, the group has been described by many historians and authors as “having preserved and advanced feminism” due to the advocacy of women’s education, social complaints of the status and lifestyle expected of the women in their society, seen in the writings of the Blue Stocking women themselves.  I love this quote from Elizabeth Montagu from 1743:

“In a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded … sure the men are very imprudent to endeavour to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves.”

It’s been 269 years.  How far do you think we’ve come since Elizabeth Montagu uttered those words?  There are still those who would like to see us powerless.  There are still those who would like to ‘limit’ our possibilities.  There are still those who would like to take away from us, the rights we have fought so hard to have over our bodies.

And when you think about it, how different is it really, between being kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, to being kept in binders?

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