Amelia Bloomer was an early suffragist, political activist, dress reformer and proto-feminist, and played a key part in the American female suffrage movement.
Bloomer was born in New York in 1818, where she worked as a teacher before marrying David Bloomer in 1840 and moving to Seneca Falls, Florida. Instead of becoming a passive housewife, she began volunteering at a local temperance society, and her husband suggested she write as an outlet for her enthusiasm for social reform.
In 1848, she attended the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention – the first held in America – and it inspired something in her which led her to found The Lily – a newspaper dedicated to women, its motto being “It is WOMAN that speaks through the LILY. It is upon an important subject, too, that she comes before the public to be heard.” – the next year (it’s been recently revived by The Washington Post). While initially focusing on temperance, demand led her to expand the topics she addressed, and after meeting activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she started publishing material on women’s rights.
In 1849, Bloomer’s husband was appointed Postmaster for Seneca Falls, and he made Amelia his assistant. Through this platform, she created a headquarters for the Seneca Fall’s women’s rights movement, and her activism expanded from there.
The action she’s best known for is in revolutionary female dress reform. At the time, standard, everyday clothing for women was floor-length gowns with multiple petticoats or cumbersome crinolines to give volume to their skirts, and restrictive corsets to cinch in the waist – Bloomer saw this as completely impractical and dangerous. Indeed, the sheer volume of skirts could cause hazards like getting caught in carriage wheels or catching on fire, and super-tight corsets could prompt organ damage and rib deformation.
She proposed an alternative to the traditional gown – loose, Turkish-style pantaloons, which since become known as Bloomers, with a short overskirt.
Despite looking very tame to the modern eye, the idea of a woman effectively wearing trousers was ground-breaking and frowned upon by many. In Victorian times, women’s legs, and even their ankles, were even more scandalous than cleavage is today, and were expected to be covered at all times. This repression and extreme modesty led to the sexualisation of the smallest suggestion of the female form, so the Bloomers were truly shocking to many.
This was not her intention. Bloomer and her fellow advocates of the new garment just wanted greater practicality, and to be freed from the limitations and discomfort of corsets and ruffles. She thought it was such a good idea that she promoted it in The Lily, and it caught on across a whole community of women’s activists, as well as hugely boosting the paper’s readership.
Bloomer had unwittingly kickstarted a new branch of the women’s rights movement: Bloomerism. Various groups of women attended events wearing Bloomers, including the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Rather than being a mere fashion statement, this was a form of protest – the garment represented gender dissent and transgression from Victorian moral standards of female meekness.
The garment became known as the ‘reform dress’ or the ‘freedom dress’, and even prompted the formation of the American National Dress Reform Association (NDRA) in 1856. Near the end of the 19th century, Bloomers were adopted as popular attire for female cyclists (another deeply controversial and emasculating female activity).
Bloomer sold The Lily in 1854, but continued to lecture on temperance and women’s rights, and served as the President of the Iowa Suffrage Association from 1871-1873, helping women get the vote in Ohio in 1873. Overall, she was more focused on the social reform and temperance mission, but it cannot be denied that she was an important figure in the early women’s rights movement in America.