Bloomer, Amelia Jenks (1818–1894)
Bloomer, Amelia Jenks (1818–1894)
American feminist and temperance crusader best known for her advocacy of dress reform. Pronunciation: BLOOM-er. Born Amelia Jenks on May 27, 1818, in Homer, Cortland County, New York; died on December 30, 1894, in Council Bluffs, Iowa; daughter of Augustus Jenks (a clothier) and Lucy Jenks; received no formal education; married Dexter C. Bloomer, in 1840; children: none.
editor and publisher of The Lily (1849–55) and numerous articles in feminist and temperance journals.
One morning in 1850, the citizens of Seneca Falls, New York, were astounded to see two young women walking down the main street in a new, rather strange costume. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her cousin Elizabeth Smith Miller were wearing what quickly became known as a "Bloomer" dress, a name derived from the woman who had done more in the popular imagination to promote the cause of female dress reform than anyone else—Amelia Jenks Bloomer.
Amelia Jenks was born on May 27, 1818, in the small hamlet of Homer, situated in Cortland County, New York. Her father Augustus (or Ananias) was a successful clothier who was later killed during the battle of Gettysburg when serving as an officer in the Union army. Little is known of Lucy Jenks , Amelia's mother, except for the fact that she was a deeply religious woman who attempted to raise Amelia and her siblings in accordance with Biblical precepts. Both parents were strong supporters of the then powerful and influential temperance movement, taking an active part in the campaign to limit and control the consumption of alcohol.
Bloomer's education was restricted to a few terms at the local district school in Homer. She was, however, a bright and enquiring student who was encouraged by her parents to spend much of her spare time reading a broad variety of subjects. When Amelia was 17, her academic abilities were recognized, and she was employed to teach several terms at the school. In 1837, Amelia and her family moved to Waterloo, New York, where she became governess to the three small children of a prominent local businessman. Waterloo was a larger and more cosmopolitan community than Homer, and Bloomer, well-liked and popular, expanded her circle of friends.
One such, Dexter C. Bloomer, was a young man only a few years older than Amelia. Though he was an aspiring law student, Dexter took a greater interest in local and state politics. He was also part-owner and editor of a small, but successful, local newspaper, the Seneca County Courier, in the nearby town of Seneca Falls. The young couple fell in love and, after a brief engagement, were married in April 1840. By this time, Amelia was already beginning to develop her own ideas about the proper role of women in society. Accordingly, with Dexter's support, she requested that the word "obey" not be included as part of her wedding vows. Bloomer also took this occasion to reinforce what had now become her own strong pro-temperance beliefs by refusing to consume any alcohol at the wedding reception.
Indeed, at that time, the temperance cause was Bloomer's most urgent social concern. Shortly after her marriage, two founders of the Great Washingtonian Temperance Reformation visited Seneca Falls and stayed with the Bloomers. Subsequently, Amelia founded a local chapter of the society. Thanks to her infectious enthusiasm, the branch soon had well over 500 members. Shortly after, she began contributing a series of short articles, under the pseudonym Gloriana, for the national temperance journal, The Water Bucket. At the same time, Bloomer began to write a series of (unsigned) commentaries for the Seneca County Courier on a variety of social, moral, and political issues.
In 1847, Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott , two of the leading advocates of women's rights, arrived in Seneca Falls to organize the first public meeting in the U.S. on female emancipation. According to their announcement placed in the Seneca County Courier, they aimed to discuss "the social, civil and religious conditions and rights of women." Toward the end of the meeting, Stanton called for a show of hands in support of a woman's right to vote. This was an extremely radical proposal for the time and, although it was eventually passed by a narrow majority, had the effect of splitting and dividing the delegates present. Much to Stanton's annoyance, Amelia Bloomer, who had attended the convention simply in a role of spectator, refused to sign the "Declaration of Sentiments," a statement of intent which included the call for female suffrage.
Although Bloomer had serious reservations about Stanton's strategy, she had no doubts about the need for female emancipation. The Bloomers took an important step towards advancing the cause of women's rights in 1849 following Dexter's appointment as postmaster of Seneca Falls. In accepting this political assignment (which necessitated relinquishing his position as newspaper proprietor), he insisted that his wife be appointed assistant postmaster. Amelia Bloomer thus became the first woman to hold such a position in the United States. She was later to describe her experience as a practical demonstration of a "woman's right to fill any place for which she had a capacity."
Bloomer's principal concern during this period, however, remained the temperance movement. Shortly after assuming her duties as postmaster, she became a founding member of the nationally based Ladies Temperance Society and was elected to the governing council. When this council subsequently decided that the society required a journal to propagate and promote its views, they turned to its one member who already had substantial journalistic experience. On the first of January 1849, Bloomer edited and published the first edition of The Lily, then a monthly publication, six pages long and the first of its kind produced by a woman in North America.
Miller, Elizabeth Smith (1822–1911)
American reformer. Name variations: Lizzie or Libby Miller. Born Elizabeth Smith in Hampton, New York, on September 20, 1822; died in 1911; daughter of Gerrit Smith (a prominent politician); cousin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton; married Charles Dudley Miller (a well-known New York lawyer), in 1850.
In 1851, Libby Miller, after her Grand Tour of Europe honeymoon and years of feeling constrained in the long skirts of the day while attending her garden, came up with an outfit that would allow her to prune and dig unfettered. Fashioned after women she had seen in sanatoria in Switzerland who were recuperating from the effects of tight-lacing and lack of exercise, it was described by her as a "short dress" with a skirt that stopped "some four inches below the knee" under which she wore "Turkish trousers to the ankle." Her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton was delighted and took quickly to the idea, while Amelia Jenks Bloomer began advocating the attire in a women's reform paper called the Lily. Because of Bloomer's fervent backing, the Turkish trousers became known as Bloomers. Elizabeth Miller also wrote a bestselling cookbook, In the Kitchen, which was published in 1875.
The initial editions of The Lily were solely devoted to exhorting its principally female audience to back prohibition and advising it on how to withstand the effects of spousal drunkenness. From the beginning of 1850, however, the focus of the journal underwent a significant alteration. This was connoted on the front page of the publication which began to carry the new, more all-embracing masthead, "Devoted to the Interests of Women." What this meant in practical terms was the adoption of a broader range of issues concerning women. From then on, articles on such topics as education, unjust marriage laws, and female suffrage (often written by such leading reformers as Stanton) made a regular appearance in the pages of The Lily. The result was dramatic. From an initial subscriber's list of between 200 and 300 in late 1849, circulation of the journal would rise to over 4,000 (for an expanded bi-monthly edition) by 1853.
The reasons for this dramatic rise in circulation were two-fold. First, the militant stance which the journal now adopted on questions of women's rights and social reform accurately reflected the increasingly combative attitude assumed by the nation's leading feminists. Secondly, and more significantly, The Lily had also begun to advocate a revolution in women's style of dress.
Throughout the 1840s, there was an increasing realization among women that their "fashionable" clothes were both awkward and unhealthy. Current norms dictated that the "well-dressed" woman wear a costume that was comprised of at least half a dozen cumbersome skirts and petticoats that, because of their length, frequently became coated in dust and mud. Moreover, the tightly laced stays and rigid bodice which accompanied this costume served to restrict breathing (causing shortness of breath and abdominal pains) and was responsible for needless complications in pregnancy and childbirth. The restricting
garments could even stunt the normal physical development of a young woman.
In addition, the question of women's fashion had broader implications. During the late 1840s, English feminist Helene Marie Weber argued that, regardless of any other social and legal reforms in their status, women would not be considered equal with men unless they were permitted to dress in the same manner. A broadly similar view came to be held in the U.S. by Stanton and another leading advocate of women's rights, Susan B. Anthony . The problem was to find a form of dress that would combine greater comfort and practicality without relinquishing current middle-class norms of respectability and constraint.
A solution was thought to have been found in 1850 by Stanton's cousin, Elizabeth Smith Miller, during a visit to a sanatorium in Switzerland. It was there that Miller observed some of the staff wearing an imitation of the clothing then customarily worn by Turkish women. This costume constituted a three-quarter length tunic, belted at the waist, over a knee-length skirt and was completed by a pair of ankle-length baggy pantaloons (or trousers). Although a comparable attire had first made an appearance in North America on the New York stage in 1849 (courtesy of the English actress, Fanny Kemble ), its first public display was by Stanton and Miller on the streets of Seneca Falls the following year. When Stanton's son asked that she not wear the outfit when she visited him at school, she replied: "Suppose you and I were taking a long walk in the fields and I had on three long petticoats. Then suppose a bull should take after us, why you with your arms and legs free, could run like a shot, but I, alas, should fall a victim to my graceful flowing drapery. … Why do you wish me to wear what is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and many times dangerous … [because] you do not like to have me laughed at[?]"
Amelia herself enthusiastically adopted the new style and, shortly afterwards, wrote an editorial in The Lily strongly endorsing its adoption by all women. In response to a patronizing editorial by a conservative gentleman who had purchased the Courier and was suggesting tongue-in-cheek that women should, indeed, wear Turkish pantaloons, she replied: "Had we broached this subject, the cry would have been raised on all sides, 'She wants to wear pantaloons,' and a pretty hornet's nest we should have got into. But now that our cautious editor of The Courier recommends it, we suppose that there will be no harm in our doing so. Small waists and whale-bones can be dispensed with, and we shall be allowed breathing-room; and our forms shall be what nature made them. We are so thankful that men are beginning to undo some of the mischief they have done us." She was then deluged by letters, from all over the U.S., from women asking for more details and a pattern in order that they could make the new "Turkish" or "American" costume, as Amelia initially called it, for themselves. These names were not to last for long. Despite the fact that Amelia was neither the first woman to publicly wear the costume nor its inventor, the national press in both North America and Europe quickly nicknamed it the "Bloomer" costume. It was not long before all female advocates of equal rights became popularly known, and diminished, by such nicknames as "Bloomerettes" or, more simply, "Bloomers."
Amelia Jenks Bloomer">
I had no idea … that my action would create an excitement throughout the civilized world.
—Amelia Jenks Bloomer
Weber, Helene Marie (b. 1824)
European feminist. Name variations: Hélène Marie Weber. Born in 1824.
Europe's Helene Marie Weber was known to plow her land during the day and write through the night on behalf of women's rights, specifically the right to retain property, to study in universities, to become ministers and priests, and to vote and engage in politics. She was also known for her attire: a black coat and pantaloons. For dress up, she would wear a dark-blue dress coat with gilt buttons, an elegant waistcoat and trousers. "Those who suppose that women can be the political, social, pecuniary, religious equal of man without conforming to his dress, are deceiving themselves," wrote Weber, who advocated androgyny. "While the superiority of the male dress for all purposes of business and recreation is conceded, it is absurd to argue that we should not avail ourselves of its advantages."
Broadly speaking, two different groups of women adopted the Bloomer style. On the one hand, women such as farm workers and pioneers found the freedom and comfort of the new fashion conducive to the requirements of life on the frontier. On the other hand, a smaller group of radical feminists (who came to call themselves the "ultras") viewed this breakthrough simply in terms of its symbolic significance for women's liberation.
The eager response of both these groups was in sharp contrast to many leading newspapers who interpreted the adoption of this (vaguely) male form of dress as a fundamental threat to the structure of existing society. The New York Herald, for example, editorialized that any woman who adopted the Bloomer costume should either be sent to prison or, preferably, to an asylum. Similarly, the dress outraged many members of the clergy who publicly denounced it as "devilish." These condemnations did not, however, prevent several enterprising entrepreneurs from tapping into the widespread public curiosity surrounding this phenomenon. Before long, several theatrical productions and operettas appeared dealing with "Bloomerism," along with specially commissioned waltzes and polkas, even a range of china figurines.
Like many other fashions, the craze for the Bloomer outfit was shortlived, and, by the end of 1852, it had largely run its course. A few feminist stalwarts, such as Stanton, persisted, but she too abandoned it in 1854 when she realized that increasing public ridicule was taking away from the more serious demands of the women's movement. "Like a captive set free from his ball and chain," wrote Stanton, "I was always ready for a brisk walk through sleet and snow and rain, to climb a mountain, jump over a fence, work in the garden, and was fit for any necessary locomotion. What a sense of liberty I felt with no skirts to hold or brush, ready at any moment to climb a hill-top to see the sun go down." Because of her special association, Amelia felt an obligation to continue wearing the costume, and she only finally abandoned it 1857. She later wrote, echoing Stanton, that "the dress was but an incident, and we were not willing to sacrifice greater questions to it." Despite this apparent failure, however, within the next few decades a variant of the Bloomer costume had become accepted gym uniform for all American women.
By 1853, the costume had made Amelia the most publicized lecturer in the United States and, indeed, a figure of worldwide fame. Later that same year, Dexter and Amelia's contract with the post office in Seneca Falls came to an end, and the couple moved to Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Dexter then became part-owner and editor of a pro-temperance newspaper, the Western Home Visitor. Although Bloomer continued to write and produce The Lily, she also served as assistant editor of her husband's publication and contributed many articles on the topics of temperance and women's rights. Moreover, despite the determined resistance of their male employees, the Bloomers attempted to give concrete expression to their belief in women's emancipation and insisted on hiring female printers and typesetters.
Twelve months later, Dexter sold his interest in the Western Home Visitor, and the couple migrated west to Council Bluffs, Iowa, then a small frontier settlement. This move represented the fulfillment of one of Amelia's deepest desires, to become a pioneer. Unfortunately, it also meant the end of her involvement in The Lily, as Council Bluffs was too far from the railroad to make mailing the newspaper a practicable proposition (the paper was sold and continued to be published in Richmond, Indiana, for three more years). This did not, however, mark the end of Bloomer's reforming activities. In 1856, she was asked to address the House of Representatives of the Nebraska legislature where she spoke in favor of a bill, then before the assembly, granting women's suffrage. Although this bill subsequently lost in the state senate, subsequent legislation allowing women to hold and own property was passed largely thanks to Bloomer's influence. Later, she sought to establish a small women's cooperative in Council Bluffs that aimed to relieve women of the daily burden of household chores through an equitable division of day-care responsibilities, cooking, and the sharing of various labor-saving devices. Unfortunately, insufficient funds were available for this experiment in social reform to proceed.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 found Bloomer a strong supporter of the Northern cause. Like other women reformers of the time, she was an uncompromising opponent of slavery. She organized the women of Council Bluffs to supply warm clothing and hospital supplies to the federal troops. Her efforts were so successful that, at the end of the war, General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Northern armies and future president of the United States, made a special request to meet Bloomer to thank her for the example she had given others.
Although the Bloomers never had children of their own, they adopted the young son and daughter of friends who had died during the war. Amelia continued to lecture despite these extra responsibilities and, in 1867, made what was to be the first of several journeys to New York to attend the inaugural meeting of the Women's Suffrage Association. Bloomer was still one of the most popular feminist reformers in the country, and this standing was reflected by the association's choice of her as vice-president. Three years later, she further solidified her standing as one of the nation's great feminists by becoming president of the Women Suffrage Society of Iowa.
In his later years, Dexter was instrumental in developing the public-school system in Council Bluffs, and Amelia became the leading advocate of hiring female teachers. Her main concerns always remained, however, temperance and women's suffrage. Although she did not live to see the fruition of the former cause, she was overjoyed when, in 1869, the territory of Wyoming became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to grant women the vote (to be followed shortly after by similar measures in Utah and Colorado). Amelia Bloomer spent her last years in quiet retirement in Council Bluffs where she died on December 30, 1894, at the age of 76.
Anthony, Susan B., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida Husted Harper. History of Woman Suffrage. Vols. 1–3. Fowler and Wells, 1881 (reprint, NY: Arno, 1969).
Bloomer, Dexter C. The Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer. Boston, MA: 1895 (reprinted by Schocken).
Gattey, Charles Neilson. The Bloomer Girls. London: Femina Books, 1967.
Newton, Stella Mary. Health, Art, and Reason. London: 1974.
Riegal, R. American Feminists. Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1963.
Stanton, Elizabeth C. Eighty Years and More. NY: 1898.
Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada