I originally set upon this topic with one very simple question that I wanted answered: what term would an educated young lady in Regency England use to identify herself as a person interested in the progress of women’s rights?
I knew that feminist thought existed at the time (my favourite example: Beauty’s Triumph or, The Superiority of the Fair Sex Invincibly Proved, Anonymous, 1757), though the movement didn’t yet have the label of “feminist”, and likewise predated “suffragette.” Somehow this minor research topic for a secondary character in an upcoming novel that I’m writing led me down a complex rabbit hole, and had me procuring rarer and rarer books from universities, many of which I quickly discarded in frustration.
I’ve followed this trail of bread crumbs as far as I, as a layman non-academic, can go, or am willing to go at this time, for this project. I found, most significantly, the bluestockings:
The term ‘Bluestockings’ has two implications. As a group, in its purer sense, the bluestockings were a social circle of upper class white women. Unlike some of the other women writers of the era, their group was specifically not political.
However, what they DID have, and what made their group so significant, was that they had community, discourse, and a sense of identity. The latter implication of ‘bluestocking’, which correlates generally to what we today understand as ‘feminist’, indicates more than just the social circle, and came to be a sort of caricature, almost a slur. Any educated, opinionated woman could be labeled a ‘bluestocking’, even after there no longer was a formal bluestocking circle. I struggled to find any other term for women’s rights advocates of the era: I was looking for any term that would have been used as either identity or slur to designate, specifically, female advocates of women’s rights.
There was quite a bit of feminist thought occurring in Georgian and Regency era England. My research was focused upon 1750-1830, predating the suffragettes and the modern feminist movements. There were hundreds of women writers during this period, many of them discussing feminist topics, many of them extremely popular and successful in their time. Significant among them, if you want some germs for research, were Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Clara Reeve, Catherine Macaulay, and many, many others.
What they significantly lacked, from what I found, was the ability to organise, to discuss, and to form a sense of identity. Most of the discourse that was happening on the topic of “the female cause” (Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance, 1785) was being conducted in publicly published essays which responded to other publicly published essays. (E.g., Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France spurred Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men as a response. Later in response to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly, she wrote her famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, now considered to be a keystone early feminist text.) Discourse was occurring at a public level, often internationally, but, so far as I could find, there weren’t many options for the major female writers to gather in person to share ideas. Aside from the bluestockings, I found very little sense of community amongst the women writers of the era, and little attempt to organise together (their efforts of organising were almost universally focused upon organising better education for women, both at home and in the “petty schools”).
Except for the Bluestockings. Because they were upper class and white, they had more mobility and freedom than many women of their era, and certainly more visibility. They did have the opportunity to organise, discuss, and to form a sense of identity. And although the viewpoints and the writings of the bluestocking circle should not be considered the standard for feminist thought in the 18th century, they provide what I found to be the earliest indication (in 18th century England, not discounting that there have been many very significant movements and periods of equality in earlier eras and other parts of the world) of a feminist identity.
Initially, the term bluestocking indicated only the social circle, led especially by Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Carter, but by the late 18th century, it had developed much wider use both as an identity and a slur.
Further sources on this subject are lacking, particularly as to the specific source and development of the term ‘bluestocking’ and the identity and the movement for women’s rights in the 18th century. It existed, but scholarship on feminist movements during this era is still somewhat lacking.
Some of my sources:
The domestic revolution : Enlightenment feminisms and the novel / Eve Tavor Bannet.
Bluestockings : women of reason from Enlightenment to Romanticism / Elizabeth Eger.
Early feminists and the education debates : England, France, Germany, 1760-1810 / Carol Strauss Sotiropoulos.
The bluestocking circle : women, friendship, and the life of the mind in eighteenth-century England / Sylvia Harcstark Myers.
Her own woman : the life of Mary Wollstonecraft / Diane Jacobs.
Romantic outlaws : the extraordinary lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley / Charlotte Gordon.