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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 280 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 12: Bluestockings and Amazons

Saturday, February 17, 2024 - 16:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 280 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 12: Bluestockings and Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/17 - listen here)


This rather short episode is part of our ongoing series “our f/favorite tropes.” As used in the romance field, a trope is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that carries a certain set of expectations, associations, and resonances that connect the story that uses the trope to other works that have used it. The trope can be a character type, a situation, or a sort of “mini script.”

The usual premise of this series is to examine how popular historic romance tropes apply differently when the couple are both women, rather than a male-female couple. But in some cases, you have a trope that is specific to female couples—whether it’s rooted in history or has arisen within modern romantic fiction.

Today’s episode is focused on one of the former: two character types that are specifically associated with sexually transgressive women, and that are sometimes intersected as a natural couple: the bluestocking and the amazon. In this case, by “amazon” I don’t mean the probably-mythical all-female tribe immortalized in Greek myth, but rather the “sporty” woman, the jock, if you will, who were nicknamed “amazons” in early modern Europe. As usual, I’ll add the disclaimer that my generalizations and examples will largely be drawn from western culture, so if you’re writing outside that scope you’ll need to check the assumptions.

Although this trope may feel like a special case of the butch-femme couple (which needs to be considered on its own), there are some important differences. Both the “amazon” and the bluestocking transgress against ideas of conventional femininity of their time.

The Athlete

The amazon is an athlete, often specifically associated with horseback riding, who partakes of physical activities that were typically considered unfeminine. We’re talking about women of the leisure class here, because obviously working class women didn’t have the choice to avoid intense physical activity. For those with the privilege to be physically idle, the choice to engage in sports was considered a risk to femininity—not simply on a behavioral basis, but also on a physiological basis. Too much exertion, it was feared, would damage the reproductive organs and thus make a woman unfit for her expected role.

It wasn’t simply that the active, horseback-riding woman set herself apart from conventional femininity, but she intruded herself into spaces that men might consider to be a private “old boys club.” She hunted. She raced. She drove her own carriages. She moved within male society to participate in those activities in ways that would be indecorous without the excuse of the sport. Or, in a somewhat later era, in the context of all-female schools, she might participate in field sports as part of a women’s team. She might expect to be admired and valued for her physical prowess in the same way a man would be.

The amazon often had a distinctive appearance, as I discuss in the show on the development of butch imagery. The amazon “uniform” often involved wearing masculine-style coats over their skirts. (And until the very end of the 19th century, skirts were still involved, even if a rider wore pants under them.) Even when not presently involved in riding, the riding habit was the default uniform of the amazon. This was not cross-dressing in the usual sense, but the clothing borrowed the tailoring of men’s active wear and the decorative details of military uniforms.

The amazon might be thought of as a grown-up tomboy. She might—if her social standing were solid enough—be treated as something of a mascot by the men in her social circle. Not accepted as an equal, but viewed as an approved exception, so long as things didn’t go too far.

The Intellectual

The specific term “bluestocking” wasn’t invented until the mid-18th century when Elizabeth Montagu presided over the English literary salon known as the Blue Stockings Society, named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. But women as intellectuals had been challenging gender stereotypes for much longer. As I discussed in the episode on various waves of feminist sentiment across the centuries, women who pursued learning, philosophy, and science were considered to be infringing on masculine territory and—just as with physical pursuits—might be felt to be endangering their mental and reproductive health. The intellectual world was supposed to be the provenance of men. Women simply didn’t have the chops, and if they tried—poor dears—they might sprain their brains.

The answer women found was to create social circles where they set the rules and the agenda. Within those circles, they could thrive and support each other. But creating a group identity also attracts group stereotypes, and in various ages the image of the intellectual woman became associated with certain characteristics and labels.

A common theme was that if women devoted their time and energy to learning, they must necessarily be neglecting the pursuit of beauty and fashion. So whether it was the précieuses of the 17th century, the French salon movement, the English bluestockings, or the late 19th century “new women,” such women were accused of being frumpy and unfashionable, or dull and pedantic, or frigid and undesirable. It was difficult for a woman to devote herself to learning if she married, so female intellectuals became synonymous with spinsters.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

But now let’s introduce our two characters to each other: the sporty, freewheeling amazon and the brilliant, ink-stained bluestocking. The jock and the nerd, in an earlier age. They both stand slightly outside conventional society. They both reject the norms of femininity of their time. And they both long to find someone who accepts and appreciates them for who they are and the things they love—even if they both love different things. And perhaps even more relevant, they are both considered to have poor chances on the marriage market.

What more natural pairing than to bring them together? The bluestocking will admire the amazon’s energy and boldness. The amazon will be in awe of the bluestocking’s wit and conversation. And—for that matter—there’s no reason why their attributes need be completely separate. If you introduce them to an environment such as a women’s college, it might be a natural for both women to embrace both their physical and intellectual aspirations.

In the context of these character types, I’ve regularly trotted out the example of Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia with the not entirely sympathetic depiction of what is clearly a romantic couple: the Amazonian Miss Sandford and bluestocking Lady Cornelia. Once you strip away the novel’s misogyny, we see Miss Sandford in her military-style riding habit, riding to the hunt fearlessly and declaring her firm intention never to marry, and her close companion the “learned and scientific” Lady Cornelia who refuses to be embarrassed by the depth of her learning.

I confess that I’m excessively fond of the amazon-bluestocking pairing myself, as readers might guess from the characters of Barbara and Margerit in my Alpennia series. It’s a way of setting up a romantic couple who are misaligned with the conventional expectations for a woman’s life, but in a way that draws on archetypes that are solidly grounded in the culture of their times. Introduce them to each other and watch the sparks fly!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The archetypes of the bluestocking and the amazon and why they make a natural romantic pairing

A transcript of this podcast is available here.

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