Friday 15 July 2016

Amelia Bloomer, by Y S Lee

Last weekend, I travelled to the village of Homer, NY, to do an author visit at the Phillips Free Library. While strolling down Main Street, I was delighted to come across this plaque:
"Childhood home - Amelia Jenks Bloomer - Writer, Speaker & Activist - Temperance, Abolition and Women's Rights - 1818-1894
Amelia Bloomer’s childhood home is still privately occupied (the four Victorian-era mailboxes, two on either side of the door, suggest that the house was converted into flats some time ago) and there wasn’t any further information to be had that day, but it got me wondering.
North Main St, Homer, NY

I’d never given much thought to the American suffragists as individuals. I knew the names of the most famous (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Victoria Claflin Woodhull, to start with). And I’ve mentioned Bloomer before, most recently in my post about women on bicycles.

Illustration of a woman wearing the Bloomer costume. Image via National Park Service

But looking at her childhood home, I realized I didn’t know much about Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894). Here are some things I’ve learned in the past few days:

- Bloomer had only a few years of formal education, and as a young woman worked as a schoolteacher and a governess.

- She turned to journalism when her husband, Dexter Bloomer, encouraged her to write for his newspaper, the Seneca Falls County Courier.

- She began her public career as a temperance campaigner. Because temperance was a female-driven movement, she was thus exposed to other feminist ideas including women’s suffrage and abolition.

- The American women’s suffrage movement grew quite directly from the abolitionist movement: in 1840, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, they were denied seats on the floor because they were women. In response, they held the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY. As a consequence, Black abolitionist activists like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are also closely linked with women’s suffrage. The 1840s and 1850s must have been a heady time for progressive thinkers in America!

THE LILY - A monthly journal, devoted to Temperance and Literature - Published by a Committee of Ladies.
 - In 1849, Bloomer founded The Lily, the first newspaper published by women for women. (To my knowledge, the first feminist newspaper in England published by a woman was Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s English Women’s Journal, founded nearly a decade later in 1858. Please do correct if me I’m misinformed.) The Lily began as a mouthpiece for the temperance movement but soon grew to encompass the matter of women’s rights. Many of its articles about women’s rights and the necessity of legal reform were written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Amelia Bloomer in rational dress, ca. 1852-58. Image via NPS
- Amelia Bloomer didn’t invent the Bloomer costume. The radical “reform dress” came into Bloomer’s life in 1851 when a visiting friend, Elizabeth Smith Miller, wore loose, Turkish-style trousers with a short overskirt to Bloomer’s home in Seneca Falls, NY. Bloomer adored the idea and popularized it – and even published sewing instructions – in The Lily. Circulation swelled from about 500 copies a month to 4000. A few months later, the costume was widely known as the “Bloomer dress”. (No word on whether Elizabeth Smith Miller was relieved or resentful about the mis-naming of her design. Bloomers were so widely ridiculed – its wearers were frequently heckled on the street - that even Amelia Bloomer gave up wearing them in 1859.)

Ted Aub's life-sized bronze sculpture, "When Anthony Met Stanton". Bloomer, at centre, is introducing Susan B. Anthony (left) to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Both Bloomer and Stanton are wearing rational dress. Image via National Park Service.
Bloomer's home in Seneca Falls, NY (where she lived after marriage, now known as Amelia Bloomer House) may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad!

I've a lot more reading ahead of me but I can't help picturing a scene in which Harriet Tubman (a childhood hero of mine) and Amelia Bloomer meet...


Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting - and Sojourner Truth: what an amazing name!

Joan Lennon said...

I didn't know anything about Amelia Bloomer - thanks for this!