Forgotten women in history: Amelia Jenks Bloomer

Welcome to a new series that will remind you about some cool women who you should acknowledge. Allocate some of that brain space which is reserved for TikToks and impress your feminist friends with a CliffsNotes story of… Amelia Jenks Bloomer.

If anyone has heard of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, it might be for popularising women wearing pants.

Amelia was born in upstate New York in 1818. She only attended school for a couple of years and then worked as a teacher (make that make sense). She wasn’t a teacher for very long, soon moving to a different town with her sister and moving in with a young family as a governess and tutor.

In 1840, at the age of 22, Amelia Jenks married law student Dexter Bloomer. Amelia and Dexter agreed to remove any mention of ‘obey’ in their marriage vows. After marriage, they moved in with Dexter’s friend/business partner and his wife. Dexter and Isaac founded and co-edited the local newspaper Seneca Falls County Courier. After the marriage, Dexter encouraged Amelia to write pieces for the paper. They were usually social, political or moral opinions pieces, but signed as anonymous.

During this time, the temperance movement was gathering speed around the country. Multitudes of men signed a pledge to quit drinking and becoming ‘better functioning’ members of society. When the movement came to Seneca Falls, Amelia became an active member of the movement. She attended temperance meetings, praised the movement and outcomes in her column and another local newspaper. She responded to criticisms and excuses she often heard from men for needing to drink (women didn’t drink as much/as openly).

Amelia and Dexter joined the local Episcopal church around the same time. She always held Christian values, but was known to make some criticisms of the portrayal of women in the Bible being “strained and unnatural”. She also firmly believed that the Bible holistically teaches that men and women are equal.

Also during this time, the feminism movement was starting to make noise. Prominent figures in this movement Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were refused entry to an anti-slavery convention because they were women, and began a campaign for women’s rights. These included the right to hold property, vote and hold political office. In 1848, these women assisted in running the first ever women’s rights convention, called the Seneca Falls Convention. There was a petition put forth calling for these changes and 100 of the 300 attendees signed it. Amelia didn’t sign, but she was very inspired.

The next year, she started her own newspaper called The Lily. It was the first newspaper to be edited by and written for women. The paper started as a temperance journal, but began to slowly included more feminist writings as Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined the staff.

While the masthead of The Lily stated it was “published by a committee of ladies”, it was well known that Amelia was the editor and publisher. The masthead was later changed to reflect this.

Temperance was an interesting subculture of first wave feminism. This was intertwined in the women’s rights movements since men had control over the family’s money and could blow it all on alcohol. Many conservative women were drawn to temperance societies because of the negative behaviours men adopted when drinking, and alcohol induced domestic violence. The women’s temperance movement slowly became associated with women’s suffrage. It was a more ‘respectable’ association for women to join when the suffragettes were being seen as ‘too radical’.

In 1850, Amelia Jenks Bloomer perhaps made history by introducing Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who became an extremely important duo in the women’s rights and suffrage movement.

Amelia’s most famous work was reforming dress norms. She didn’t invent pants for women, but wore the outfit often and wrote a myriad of articles about it in The Lily. She wrote articles about the hazards and restrictions caused by dresses and corsets, options in styling, illustrations, sewing instructions and testimonials of other women who wore the style. Since she was so well known for this style, the pants became known as “bloomers”.

Bloomer wrote in The Lily “As soon as it became known that I was wearing the new dress, letters came pouring in upon me by the hundreds from women all over the country making inquiries about the dress and asking for patterns – showing how ready and anxious women were to throw off the burden of long, heavy skirts.”

The Lily became a symbol of women’s autonomy over dress and blew up from a circulation of 500 a month to 4000 a month.

While Amelia Jenks Bloomer isn’t one of the most famous of the suffragists, she was undoubtedly an important figure. She introduced two of the most prominent members from this movement, she was such a major influence in dress reform that the article was named after her; and later in her life she became president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association.

“ Statue, called "When Anthony Met Stanton", immortalizing the 1851 meeting of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer in Seneca Falls, New York.”