In honor of legendary author Doris Lessing, who died on November 17 at the age of 94, I’d like to take a moment to recognize a handful of my favorite literary bluestockings.


Photo of Doris Lessing by Elke Wetzig via Wikimedia Commons

I did say “bluestockings.”

Would Lessing be offended?

I think not.

While it almost sounds like a derogatory term (think: “blue hair”), bluestocking is actually an old English term that describes a “woman with considerable scholarly, literary, or intellectual ability or interest.”

The word appears to have originated in the 18th century, when “bluestocking” referred to worsted wool stockings worn as informal attire (in contrast to the black silk stockings that were fashionable at the time) by a specific group of intellectual women led by Elizabeth Montagu, a British social reformer, patron of the arts, literary critic, and writer.


Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu-née Robinson, artist unknown, via Wikipedia

Here are a few lovely literary bluestockings who preceded Doris Lessing.

Charlotte Brontë:


Portrait of Charlotte Brontë, 1873, by Evert A. Duyckinck (based on a drawing by George Richmond), via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Woolf:


Portrait of Virginia Woolf, photographer unknown, via Wikimedia Commons


Beatrix Potter:


Photo of Beatrix Potter and her dog Kep, 1913, reportedly by father Rupert Potter, via Wikimedia Commons


Elizabeth Barrett Browning:


Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Engraving September, 1859, by Macaire Havre, engraving by T. O. Barlow, via Wikimedia Commons


Baroness Karen Blixen (with her brother, engineer Thomas Dinesen):


Baroness Karen Blixen and her brother, engineer Thomas Dinesen, on the baroness’s African farm, 1920s, by Gottlieb Foto, via Wikimedia Commons




Leave a comment 2 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    This word in new to me but what a wonderful piece of history to know about. Several of my favorite authors are listed here as part of this tradition. Thank-you for sharing!

  2. Nancy says:

    There are so many contemporary women authors who are also “bluestocking” because they certainly fit the definition of “scholarly, literary and intellectual”: Louise Erdrich; Anne Lamont; Donna Tartt; Kate Morton; Dana Stabenow; Anita Diamant etc, etc, etc, to name only a few. Not that I am addicted to reading: I can stop as soon as I finish the next chapter!!!

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