Bloomer should be remembered as one of the founding
sisterhoods of the women’s movement as
an attendee of the 1848 Seneca
Falls Convention, a lifelong suffrage
and temperance reformer, a pioneering female journalist, and the first American woman to own
and publish a newspaper. But she is
not. Instead she is remembered for a fashion fad or, if you prefer, a radical attempt to reform women’s clothing that she neither invented nor was the first to wear.
Jenks was born on May 27, 1818 Homer, New York on the southern end of
the Finger Lakes District. Her family were respectable people of limited income but who encouraged all of
their children to get some education. Amelia, a very bright child, got a
rudimentary education in local schools. At the age of 17 she was among the first generation of young women who for
whatever reason did not immediately marry
but became schoolteachers.
After a year, she relocated to Waterloo, New York, seat of Seneca County where she lived with her newly married older sister
before taking a job as a live-in governess
to the Oren Chamberlain family.
In 1840 Amelia married attorney Dexter Bloomer and moved to a
large, comfortable home in nearby Seneca
Falls. There her life, you should
pardon the pun, began to blossom. Not only was she now a member of the
comfortable and respectable middle class
with a fine husband and growing family, that husband was unusually supportive of her expanding her
universe. Dexter recognized her keen
natural intelligence and encouraged her to read widely and acquire in that way the education she had
missed. He also made pains to include her in conversations about the politics
and current affairs in which he was
In addition to his law practice
Bloomer published the local newspaper,
Falls County Courier. He
encouraged Amelia to become a contributor
to its columns and as time went by and as he was increasingly engaged in
his law practice, she informally assumed some editorial duties.Amelia Bloomer as a young woman in Seneca Falls, New York.
Amelia also found a close,
supportive circle of
friends. It was an unusually sophisticated group, going beyond the swapping of recipients, embroidery parties, quilting bees, prayer meetings, and gossip
sessions that were the expected purview
of “hen parities.” The women, mostly Quakers and Universalists,
were widely read and included active
reformers interested in abolition of
slavery, temperance, and,
increasingly, the rights of women. The group included Elizabeth Caddy Stanton, an attractive young mother about Amelia’s
age who had even ventured to far off London
to attend an anti-slavery convention
only to be debarred from
participating on account of her sex. On
her return Stanton and her close friend, Quaker Mary Ann McClintock began to focus discussions in the group more
closely on women’s issues.
In the summer of 1848 Stanton and
McClintock, leaders of the Western New
York Anti-Slavery Society, decided to hold a hastily called convention to discuss women’s rights
and take advantage of a visit by the well know Quaker lay minister and reformer Lucrecia
Mott to the area.
Although Bloomer, whose own activism
had to this point been concentrated in Temperance work, was not one of the core organizers, she made sure that
Stanton’s call to convention was
published in the Courier and by exchange
in most of the newspapers in Upstate
New York. When the Convention convened
on July 19 Bloomer does not seem to have been in attendance. Perhaps she was among those who could not
squeeze into the Wesleyan Methodist
Chapel, which was mobbed by an
unexpectedly large crowd of both women and men.
But Bloomer did manage to find a seat in the balcony on the second day and thus got to hear the debate about the
Declaration of Sentiments. All but a final demand added personally by
Stanton—one calling for the extension of
suffrage to women—passed unanimously,
but that clause stirred vigorous debate. Even Lucrecia Mott opposed it. Stanton argued passionately for, and it was
eloquently defended by Fredrick Douglass. She also heard Mott’s stirring speech
that night. She was both impressed by it
all and more determined to make the cause of women her own.
Bloomer came into full ownership of the early newspaper for women The Lilly making her the first woman to publish a newspaper in the United States.
Shortly after the convention the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society
was founded and launched a newspaper for “private circulation to members.” From the beginning, Bloomer assumed editorial
direction of The Lily. At first,
aside from Temperance appeals, the paper copied other publications for the
ladies and included recipes, homemaking
tips, and advise for domestic
tranquility. But Bloomer was soon
turning more of its pages over to women’s issues. She invited Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to contribute.
By 1850, perhaps because some
members of the Temperance Society were uncomfortable by the new direction, the
Society dropped its sponsorship. Bloomer
assumed ownership and total
editorial control. She became, almost accidently, the first woman to publish
a newspaper in the United States. And it
was successful. Circulation climbed to more than 4,000 copies, many of them being sent
by mail all over New York State and into New
England. Its influence grew.
Bloomer later described why she
shifted the focus of The Lily to
It was a needed instrument to spread abroad the truth of a
new gospel to woman, and I could not withhold my hand to stay the work I had
begun. I saw not the end from the beginning and dreamed where to my
propositions to society would lead me.
The fortune of the newspaper and
Bloomer’s fame took an unexpected turn in 1851.
Temperance activist Libby Miller
that year adopted the fashion first suggested in the health fad magazine the Water-Cure Journal in 1849. Miller considered it a more rational costume for women who were encumbered by yards of cloth skirts and layers of petticoats. The
loose trousers, similar to those
worn in the Middle East and Central Asia were gathered at the ankles and topped by a short dress or skirt and
vest were first called Turkish Dress. Miller’s campaign to have the outfit adopted
widely received a boost when the famed English
actress and abolitionist Fanny
Kemble began to wear it publicly.
Stanton was an early adopter of the fashion and wore it on a visit to Bloomer that
year accompanied by Miller, probably with copy in hand for The Lilly. Bloomer’s first
reaction was unadulterated joy at
the liberation of the new style. She
quickly adopted it as her own and began to vigorously
advocate it in her publication.
Her articles were picked up by other
publications, including Horace Greeley’s
sympathetic New York Tribune. From
the Tribune the subject of “pantaloons for ladies” for ladies went
the 19th Century equivalent of viral.
Unfortunately most of the press was not as supportive as Greeley. They mocked
the fashion and all who wore them, singling out Bloomer for scorn.
Soon they were calling the outfit itself Bloomers. Reaction ranged
from bemusement, to savage satire in editorial cartoons, to the expected thundering of preachers denouncing
the “debauchery of our daughters.”Amelia Bloomer posed for this daguerreotype in the outfit that was beginning to be named for her in 1851.
Bloomer was a bit mortified by the attention but refused,
at least at first, to back down.
The costume of women should be suited to her wants and
necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness;
and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it
should make that end of secondary importance.
Despite the scorn and criticism,
Bloomers did take off, at least among independent minded women, including the
first generation of female college
students. A Bloomer Ball for elegant ladies was organized in New York
City. And the fashion was readily
adopted by female travelers and in the west where commodious skirts were an impairment and inconvenience.
Who was the typical Bloomer
wearer? I picture spunky young Louisa May Alcott, a grown up Tomboy who wanted to carve out an independent career as a professional writer.Bloomers were ridiculed in cartoons on both side of the Atlantic. Most
of them, like this one from England in 1851, suggested that wearing the
garment would result in role reversal and the emasculation of men.
By the end of the 1850’s the fad, never widely adopted by
respectable middle class women was dying
out. Even Bloomer herself was having
second thoughts. She believed that the widespread introduction
of crinoline, which made those
layers of petticoats lighter in weight and less uncomfortable in oppressive
summer heat, made Bloomers obsolete.
The Civil War revived some interest as some nurses adopted the costume—although not those under the command of notoriously prudish Dorothy Dix. Later
in the century they were adapted as undergarments
to replace petticoats and in a simplified form as athletic wear for college girls.
There was a revival of interest during the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago
where suffragist Lucy Stone extolled
them in a speech at the Women’s Pavilion
and a fashion show displayed
up-dated versions.Bloomers made something of a comeback after suffragist Lucy Stone
extolled them at the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago and got
another boost from the bicycle craze around the turn of the 20th
Still, it took Hollywood icons like Gloria
Swanson, Gene Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Katherine
Hepburn being photographed in slacks
to begin to make pants acceptable on women.
They really took off during home
front and uniformed service
during World War II and became everyday
fashion wear standard for by most
women by the ’60’s and ‘70’s.
Despite widespread use and acceptance
Hillary Clinton found out that her pants suits could still be used against
her as a symbol of an aggressive,
assertive, unfeminine, and dumpy woman.
But arguably none of that might have
come about without Amelia Bloomer’s earnest advocacy.
As for Bloomer herself, in 1853 she
closed The Lily and moved with her
husband and family to Ohio and then
to Council Bluff,
Iowa two years later. She continued
to contribute articles to the now growing feminist press, including Stanton’s
and Susan B. Anthony’s The Revolution which bowed in 1868
and acknowledged Bloomer’s inspiration and example. Bloomer would open and edit small
publications in Iowa as well.
Bloomer in Council Bluff, Iowa--no longer wearing Bloomers but still a leading suffragist.
She dedicated herself to the
struggle for women’s rights and suffrage and led campaigns in Nebraska and Iowa and served as
president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage
Association from 1871 until 1873.
Bloomer died on December 30, 1894 in
Council Bluffs. Although honored at the
time as a women’s rights pioneer, her contributions, except for her association
with the Bloomer, have nearly been forgotten.
Bloomer House in Seneca Falls
was listed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 1980 and in 2002 the American Library Association has produced Amelia Bloomer List annually in recognition of books with significant feminist content for young
Anthony Met Stanton, is a life sized bronze statue in Seneca Falls,
depicting Amelia Bloomer (center)
introducing Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in May 1851.
Perhaps most interestingly she is
commemorated together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet
Tubman in the calendar of saints
of the Episcopal Church on July
20. This, by the way, would come as a shock
to Stanton, a notorious Free