Sunday, May 27, 2018

Amelia Bloomer - An Early Suffragette

Amelia Bloomer (May 27, 1818 Homer, NY - Dec. 30, 1894 Council Bluffs, IA)
May 27, 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of Amelia Bloomer's Birth

Amelia Bloomer
Amelia Jenks Bloomer, a native of New York, grew up there in the early 1800s.  She became first a teacher, then a governess, and at the age of 22 she married an attorney, Dexter Bloomer.  Her journalist career began then as he encouraged her to write for his newspaper, The Seneca Falls County Courier.  It was not long before she became acquainted with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  The three of them were at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  She was an advocate for women's rights.  Over 300 women attended the convention, 40 of them were men. The following year Bloomer began to edit The Lily, a biweekly newspaper for women.  At first The Lily focused exclusively on temperance but emerged with more articles of specific interest to women, particularly the suffrage movement.  Read more about that on the National Park Service's program on their site at

Originally a "committee of ladies" was responsible for the publication but for the final years it was only Bloomer's name in the masthead.  The Bloomer's family moved to Mount Vernon, Ohio in 1853, and she continued to edit The Lily.  But in 1854 Bloomer sold The Lily to Mary Birdsall as the family was moving to Council Bluffs, Iowa nd there would be no publishing facilities there.  Birdsall continued to publish The Lily for two years, during which Bloomer was a contributing editor.

It was in the newspaper that Bloomer first proposed a change in women's clothing.  She proposed a pant like garment — loose pants or trousers gathered at the ankle, and topped by a short skirt or dress.  The clothing was first worn by actress Fanny Kemble, and worn extensively by Elizabeth  Smith Miller (Libby Miller) who introduced the costume to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in turn introduced the newly designed garment to Bloomer. While Amelia Bloomer did not invent the bloomer she was the single person who did much to popularize the garment, and promoted it in The Lily.

However those who wore the Bloomer were often harassed on the streets and to much ridicule.  By 1859 Bloomer returned to conventional dress, declaring the invention of crinoline to be of a significant enough change that she could abandon the bloomer.

In 1850 President Millard Fillmore appointed Dexter Bloomer as postmaster of Seneca Falls.  Dexter appointed his wife as deputy postmaster and Amelia ran the post office for Dexter.  The couple never had children of their own but often cared for the children of relatives who often lived with them for lengthy periods of time.  When the Whigs were no longer in office (Presidency), and Dexter Bloomer lost his position as postmaster the couple decided to more ot Moutn Vernon, Ohio where Dexter and a partner established a newspaper and made provisions for an office for The Lily.  Amelia Bloomer was reluctant to leave New York and described the move as "the greatest sorrow ever laid upon her."  After only 6 months in Ohio, Dexter sold his interest in the paper, The Home Visitor, and publication of The Lily became problematic.  In the fall of 1854, Dexter Bloomer purchased a home in Council Bluffs, Iowa and the family moved to that frontier town, settling in Iowa in the spring of 1855.  At first the small house was furnished with only crude borrowed furniture - with crates for extra seating, and only a mattress for sleeping.  In July her own furnishing arrived and she again felt she could make a home.  The town of Council Bluffs (originally called Kanesville) was often a stop on the path of Mormons as they moved westward.  Dexter Bloomer became a land agent in the area during the 1855 - 1856 years.  He was practicing law and encouraging others to invest in Iowa land.  Amelia Bloomer encouraged women to invest as Iowa was one of the states that allowed women to own and manage their own land.  Dexter Bloomer's suffered severe financial losses when the 1857 panic came and the real estate business failed.  At one time Amelia Bloomer had over $5000 worth of land in her name, but by 1870, the Iowa census shows no land in her name so one could assume she also suffered financially.  Dexter became a receiver of public lands for a dozen or so years, and sold insurance.  His endeavors did support the couple in modest style.  He became a member of the Iowa board of education, and served as Council Bluff's mayor in 1869 and again in 1871.  And he was "a founder and long-time member of the city's public library" (Noun, 1985, part II, page 580).  The Bloomers added additions onto their modest two bedroom home and often rented rooms out.  Their renters were often school teachers, and wehn J.D. Edmundson first came to town he stayed with them.  Edmundson will be remembered as the philanthropist who endowed the Des Moines Art Center.

Several years after the Bloomers arrived in Council Bluffs, the couple adopted two Mormon children.  The children were most likely part of a group of English and Welsh converts to the Mormon religion, which came through Council Bluffs sometime in 1856.   The first child to be adopted was five-year-old Eddie Lewis.  His mother had died, and his father was unable to care for his five children.  He continued on to live in Idaho.  After a fire destroyed their home's roof, and a second story with additional bedrooms were built, the Bloomers adopted Eddie's fourteen-year-old sister, Mary.  The other three siblings were taken in by other families in Council Bluffs.  Amelia had warm feelings for Eddie even after he left as an adult, moved to Arizona, and rejoined the Mormons.  Mary on the other hand brought Amelia's disapproval when she married a man of which Amelia disapproved.  The two did not have further involvement after Mary's marriage but she is said to have eventually settled in Oregon with her husband Joseph Stright.
After Bloomer's family's move to northwest Iowa Bloomer remained active in the suffrage movement, working with campaigns in Nebraska and Iowa. Initially her arrival in Iowa brought ideas and advanced views that were not yet popular or acceptable.  At first she was ostracized from the Iowa Woman's Rights Movement; but by 1871 she was serving as president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association and served until 1873.   However, Bloomer through herself into work for temperance and for women's rights.  She was the first resident of the state to speak publicly regarding the rights of women.  Later she became involved in aid to the soldiers that were fighting for the Union during the Civil War.  She spent time at the World's Fair managing the Iowa efforts to sell goods to support the Veterans.  She deplored slavery but was not an abolitionist.  Her former colleagues (Stanton and Anthony) denounced Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (1862) as it only applied to the Rebel states.  There was also differences in opinion regarding the acceptance of the 14th and the 15th amendment.
But Bloomer became a strong voice for suffrage in Iowa and defended the concept with legislators, editors, and the general public who attacked the idea anonymously with letters to the newspapers.  Bloomer forged an alliance with Annie Savery who was a younger suffragette.  In the 1870 Iowa legislative session a suffrage amendment approval was passed.  But the suffrage group was plagued with its association with Victoria Woodhull who advocated free love -- and when Woodhull announced as a candidate for President of the United States, the discussion took on a strong focus.  But Woodhull was a strong and forceful advocate and her testimony in Congress, regarding woman's rights was impressive.

Cartoon of a woman wearing the Bloomer Costume, 
named after Amelia Bloomer.
Library of Congress
Bloomer's  name as a national activist receded from the limelight during her Iowa residency and the Bloomer costume revolution disappeared from national discussion but the quest for the vote persisted.  Although Bloomer was no longer active in the movement after 1872. It would be another 26 years after Bloomer's death, before women would gain the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Since 2002 The American Library Association has published a list of books for young readers, that have significant feminist themes.  Read more about the Amelia Bloomer list at


Major sources of information:
Noun, Louise. (1985) Amelia Bloomer, a Biography: Iowa Research Online, Part I.  The University of Iowa.  (PDF) Available online from 

Noun, Louise. (1985) Amelia Bloomer, a Biography: Iowa Research Online, Part II-The Suffragist of Coucil Bluffs.  The University of Iowa.  (PDF) Available online from

You might also be interested in reading:
Uthoff, Sarah S. (3 Nov 2009) Amelia Bloomer's Grave. (WEB)
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An earlier version of this article appeared in this blog in November 2016.  This version includes a couple of minor additions and an added collaborative article by Sarah S. Uthoff.