Amelia Bloomer, Fashionista and Women’s Rights Advocate
I couldn’t let March come to an end without having History Imagined pay homage to National Women’s History Month, established in 1987 by a declaration of Congress after several years of hard work from the National Women’s History Project. That organization’s goal is “Writing women back into history,” so I thought I’d take the opportunity to turn the spotlight on one of the early women’s rights reformers, Amelia Bloomer, who made an appearance in my first book, The Reluctant Debutante. My heroine, Ginger Fitzpatrick, idolized Amelia Bloomer and tried to, in her own way, become a feminist as well. But Ginger was only one of a large following that had gathered around Amelia and other outspoken women searching for equal rights.
Born Amelia Jenks in May of 1818, she received only a few years of formal education locally before becoming a teacher in a school and also performed duties as a private tutor. She married Dexter Bloomer in 1840, when she turned 22 years of age. Mr. Bloomer had a Quaker upbringing and ran a local newspaper, the Seneca Falls County Courier. Through him, Amelia became interested in public affairs and began contributing articles to his paper. She became a member of the local Women’s Temperance Society and attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention, where she met Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both early leaders in the women’s rights movement. This event marked the formal beginning of a movement in the United States to give women equal footing with men. This movement grew rapidly in the years leading up to the Civil War.
During the following year, Amelia began her own newspaper, arguably the first to be edited solely by a woman. The Lily: A Ladies Journal Devoted to Temperance and Literature, which published bi-weekly, became a sounding board for women’s rights and temperance reform. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a regular contributor. In 1851, Amelia Bloomer introduced Stanton to Susan B. Anthony. This monumental moment has been immortalized in a life-sized bronze sculpture, which is part of the Seneca Falls, NY national park.
By 1853, Amelia Bloomer was firmly entrenched in the women’s rights movement and made speaking engagements in New York City and elsewhere. She began appearing in public wearing a costume of full-cut pantaloons called Turkish trousers, under a short skirt, at a time when women were expected to have a figure resembling the number eight. This ideal figure was achieved by wearing a tight-fitting corset, followed by layers of clothing and multiple petticoats. Even though she was not the first to wear such a liberating outfit in public, the pantaloons soon became known as “bloomers.”
Her association with the costume detracted from her efforts at true reform, but she continued on with her newspaper until 1855. She and Dexter moved from New York to Mount Vernon, Ohio, and then on to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where she served as the first president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Movement. She sold the paper, but continued to write and speak on behalf of women’s rights until her death in 1894.