E Jane Dickson: We're all still terrified of intellectual women

Heaven help the woman in the CEO's office who 'forgets' to display snapshots of her children

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It is the perennial joke of the roué that "women don't become bluestockings until men have tired of looking at their legs". There's not much leg on show at the National Portrait Gallery's Brilliant Women exhibition, but there are more solid feminine attributes to admire in its celebration of the female writers, philanthropists and social reformers who shouldered their way into public life in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Looking at John Frayn's portrait of the classicist Elizabeth Carter as Minerva in helmet, it would take a brave man to stand in her way.)

The original 18th-century bluestockings (their choice of hosiery was calculated to cock a snook at modish convention) were a sober-minded clique, which eschewed the fan-slapping raillery of fashionable society for "conversation parties" at the fashionable home of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu. Novelists Fanny Burney and Sarah Scott and the artist Frances Reynolds (sister of the more famous Joshua) were habituées of the famous "feathered salon", and Mrs Montagu was herself a lady of deep literary sensibility who took Samuel Johnson to task for insufficiently appreciating the Bard in his Preface to Shakespeare. We do not know if Johnson felt suitably chastened, but his warm approval of Elizabeth Carter as a woman who could "mend a handkerchief as well as she could translate Epictetus" must have stirred complicated feelings in proto-feminist breasts.

Few establishment figures could risk such a compliment today. Yet the woman who declares herself an intellectual remains an oddly embattled figure, forever compelled to prove that she's not neglecting the "womanly side" of her character. We can cope with the cosy, cardiganed side of academia, but heaven help the woman in the CEO's office who "forgets" to offset her abilities with snapshots of her children displayed on the desk.

There is, it seems, an inability in the Anglo-Saxon imagination to reconcile high intelligence in women with a sympathetic manner. And sometimes you can see why. Return, for a moment, to the original bluestocking era and you have Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (cousin of the distinctly less shrill Elizabeth) declaring the first and best tenets of feminism and screwing it up with her scolding,superior rhetoric. "Among the most universal errors," she wrote, "I reckon that of treating the weaker sex with a contempt that has a very bad influence on their conduct. How many of them think it excuse enough to say they are women to indulge any folly that comes into their heads?... Thus, what reason Nature has given them, is thrown away."

Fast-forward a century or two and you could be listening to Virginia Woolf (unarguably brilliant, but you wouldn't want to be stuck on a long train journey with her) or Camille Paglia (you wouldn't want to be stuck on a lift journey); it's the same, arrogant assumption that equality is wasted on the stupid.

It didn't have to be this way. While Mary Wortley Montagu harangued her sisters on the art of slapping down men, Madame de Staël, on the other side of La Manche, perfected the art of being an "uncompromised woman" with charm to burn, a prototype Mae West, with her sexy, teasing humour and beady aperçus on the human condition. It was Madame de Staël, a woman Napoleon considered so politically dangerous that he sent her into exile, who put her finger on a crucial gender difference: "A man desires a woman, but a woman desires the desire of the man."

Perhaps we are suffering from the niggling atavistic doubt that bluestockings simply aren't desirable. Why else would a post-feminist society entertain for one millisecond the hideous philosophy of the "surrendered wife" if there wasn't suspicion deep in our reptile consciousness that it might just be "on to something" and that men really won't make passes at girls who look clever? Why else would Simone de Beauvoir, the towering female intellect of the 20th century, "surrender" her career in philosophy to Jean-Paul Sartre's. Is there another, better reason why the author of The Second Sex, the feminist manifesto we cut our teenage teeth on, would spend her days "sweeping" public spaces for the imaginary lobsters her lover feared? You'd like to think so.

You'd like to think, too, that a woman could run for president of the United States without worrying about this stuff. But you'd be wrong. I don't imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton enjoyed squeezing those "womanly" tears when it looked as if Barack had beaten her in their tussle for the hearts (forget the minds – that's negotiable in the primaries) of voters. Any more than she enjoyed, cradle feminist as she is, standing by her man through sexual humiliations. Maybe, just maybe, the tears were genuine. But hell, it worked. Because, for the first time, Americans could say, "See, she's not so smart now."

No one can doubt Clinton has the "smarts" to run the White House. Curiously, insanely, that works against her. Even more curiously it has traditionally been the female electorate that mistrusts her brainy persona. Maybe we still have something to learn from the era of those first, passionate bluestockings: women beware women.

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