14 October 2010

What's in a name?

in which Wordwrestler considers waves and fishnets.

Since the name Fishnet Bluestockings was my idea, I felt like I should explain a bit about what it means, and what it doesn't mean.

The Blue Stockings Society was led by Elizabeth Montagu in 1750s England. She wanted a salon where members of her social circle could discuss higher-minded activities than gossip and card-playing. I suspect a fair amount of gossip took place nonetheless, since the ever colorful Samuel Johnson was also a founding member. We at FnBs wish to discuss both high-minded and low-minded topics, as long as they interest us. In fact, our interest in topics might make them high-minded. (Arcadian, are your ears burning yet?)

Though the Blue Stocking Society was open to both men and women, the term bluestocking quickly began to be applied predominantly to women. Enterprises begun by brave women are often subjected to scorn by fearful men and women. The readiest way Western society knows to show such scorn is by denigrating the beauty or sexual appeal of the transgressors. (This still goes on. If you doubt that it does, take five minutes to read comments on any news site, no matter whether they're about Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin.) Being a bluestocking quickly changed meanings, from being an intellectual, to being an intellectual with a large side order of frumpery.

I wanted to reject that implication, that with brains and the will to use them come a failure to own one's sexual power. Hence the fishnets. But that side of the formula carries its own negative charge.

I'm a bit older than the other authors here. Not much older, but old enough to remember the Mondale/Ferraro ticket, and hearing my teachers expound on how Mondale's choice of a woman as a running mate was only a symbolic gesture, since he couldn't hope to win anyway. I am old enough to remember an accountant suing and winning because she was fired for not being feminine enough. And so when Arcadian's mom commented, "Wow. That is such a third-wave feminist name," I knew just what she meant.

When I proposed the name, my co-bloggers did engage in debate about it. They were worried that it might seem exclusionary to potential male readers and guest posters. Not one of them echoed my own worry as a child of the second wave; that we'd be diminishing our intellects by including a suggestive element in our name. Their lack of anxiety on this topic makes me cycle between prideful hope, and mother-henish-ness. I am delighted that they own themselves so fully. Shouldn't I warn them not to be so naive? That we risk drawing what my own mom still calls "the wrong kind of attention" by using this name?

No. I don't have to warn them at all. They know that society's expectations often still seek to limit them, but they deny the power of those expectations. And because they do, I can.

We are sexy. We are smart. Neither of those things is for the sake or use of another. We just are. And I will no longer ask anyone to hide a part of herself. Not even me. Welcome to our society.


  1. This is where it gets interesting. Because one of the issues in third wave feminism that you didn't directly touch on is the idea of women defining things like pole dances and stripteases as feminist, and saying that these things make them feel proud of their bodies and they are regaining a certain kind of control. (There is a very, very interesting book on the subject called "Female Chauvinist Pigs" by Ariel Levy.)

    Like most feminists, I'm extremely reluctant to criticize anyone else's self discovery or perspective. Let us leave it at the fact that I understand a certain part of the reasoning, but I see those things as reinforcing certain kinds of patriarchal power, even as they give individual women confidence. And when I heard the criticism that the name might be pandering to men, that's what I came up with, and it really worried me, because that is a particular element of third wave feminism that I don't want this blog associated with.

    That is, not the idea that men might find us sexy, but the idea that we deliberately picked the name in order to draw male attention.

    I can't speak for every other blogger, but I think we cannot emphasize enough the importance of our own independent intelligence and sexuality. Of course we sometimes seek -- and get -- recognition for being smart and/or sexy. But we don't put those qualities out as things that need to be verified by others in order to be justified.

    They are our own, and for our own enjoyment -- and the enjoyment of those with whom we actively choose to share them. Just like all our other qualities.

  2. I read Female Chauvinist Pigs, and I liked it, but it also worried me. My worry connects this post to your "no judgment" post and Fish's "6 at 6" post. It's about the right (is it a right?) not to have to explain oneself. After all, we don't know just looking at someone in a Sexy!Big Bird costume if she's "reclaiming" the virgin/whore dichotomy or if she's pandering to the male gaze. And it's really none of our business.

  3. No, I totally agree. I think the point that Levy was trying to make is that it might work personally but have different consequences in the grander scheme of things.

    And lo and behold, here's a link from Sociological Images that is precisely on topic.


  4. Just wanted to say, I cheered when I read this. Word Wrestler, I salute you :)

  5. Thanks, Miss M! That means a lot to me.