Amelia Jenks Bloomer, May 27, 1818
Amelia Jenks Bloomer is one of my favorite suffragists, not just because she introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, thus providing us with a wonderful team who worked tirelessly together for suffrage for over 50 years, but because of her courage. She first let her voice be heard campaigning against the evils of alcohol, later turned her considerable attention to working for suffrage, and even dared to challenge the cruel laws of women’s fashion.
Amelia is best remembered for the Bloomer costume, a daring new style that set the world of fashion buzzing. In 1852 the average American woman wore long, dark skirts over four to six petticoats, sometimes heavily starched or lined with horsehair. Under those petticoats were worn lace-trimmed drawers, a camisole, and a corset laced with whalebone – an outfit that weighed an average of fifteen pounds. Skirts trailed the ground, gathering dirt, dust and debris from the streets
When Amelia’s cousin Elizabeth Smith Miller introduced her to her new, comfortable fashion invention, Amelia embraced it at once. Instead of the skirts and petticoats, Elizabeth had designed a costume that consisted of trousers worn over a shorter skirt, and no stays or corsets. Thrilled by its comfort, Amelia wore it everwhere – on the streets of her hometown of Seneca Falls, to meetings and gatherings, and to work at her job as editor of her newspaper, The Lily. She convinced many of her friends to wear it; both she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were wearing it when she introduced Elizabeth to Susan B. Anthony on a corner in Seneca Falls in 1851. (Photo, left, top. Anthony: left; Amelia: center; Elizabeth: right.) Since she was a more public person that her cousin, (and braver!) Elizabeth Smith Miller named it for her.
Reaction was swift and condemning. Women were accused of trying to usurp male roles, “wear the pants in the family,” and relegate men to more secondary roles. Amelia knew these to be ridiculous arguments, but eventually gave up wearing the Bloomer costume, not because it was uncomfortable, but because it drew attention away from causes that were more important to her – temperance and suffrage. It experienced a resurgence later in the century when women adopted the bicycle, but most women didn’t wear pants or trousers again until well into the 20th century
It is a shame in a way that we remember Amelia more for her clothing than for her brave spirit. She believed woman’s greatest power lay in her strength of character and intelligence, and that those strengths could help her overcome any restrictions society might impose upon her. Only when a woman could dress as she pleased, own property in her own name, support her children and let her feelings be known through the ballot box could she participate fully in the life around her, sentiments that are just as valid today as they were then.
Happy Birthday, Amelia Jenks Bloomer!