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Teaching With Documents:
Petition of Amelia Bloomer Regarding Suffrage in the West

Background

Mid-19th century America was in some respects an age of perfectionism. People believed religious, moral, social, or political perfection was obtainable. Many different reform causes attracted dedicated adherents. Mental health. Temperance. Education. Abolition. Utopian socialism. Diet. Seances. Fashion. Suffrage. Less serious issues competed with the more serious for a place on the public policy agenda. Disparate efforts under the umbrella of reform were united by one overriding goal: to assure that American reality matched American ideals. American women were leaders in reform movements. Some made names for themselves espousing particular reforms, while others supported a host of different reforms. Dorothea Dix dedicated her life to improve the care of the insane. Sarah and Angelina Grimke crusaded for abolition. Lydia Maria Child wrote about the right of a married woman to make a will. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the dramatic Seneca Falls Convention. Into this scene stepped Amelia Bloomer. Before she exited, she would affect popular culture and the public agenda.

Bloomer's battles both reflected and influenced gender roles in the 19th century as America debated social reforms and constitutional rights: the right to petition, the right to vote , among others. An avid volunteer, Bloomer challenged the existing social and political culture. She led a civic life that affected the nation's public agenda. She would shape and be shaped by political institutions, the media, and individual reformers with whom she shared the stage.

Ultimately, Bloomer made her mark as suffragist, editor, and temperance leader, but to many of her contemporaries she was most associated with the so-called Bloomer costume. Bloomers, actually man-like trousers underneath a shorter-than-fashionable skirt, fit "The Move Toward Rational Dress." The reaction hardly seemed rational. Fashion reformers touted the bloomers as a way to "physically and spiritually free women of the cumbersome hoop." They argued that the costume was economical since it required less fabric than traditional frocks, was comfortable to wear, and was "conducive to health, by the avoidance of damp skirts hanging about the feet and ank[l]es since they would be clad in a boot." As a later historian wrote, "Hers was a spirited effort to free women from their voluminous and constricting haberdashery: heavy skirts raking the muck of the streets, multiple petticoats, bustles, miscellaneous padding, and lung crushing whalebone-all told, some fifteen pounds."

Workers from the Hope Webbing Company Wearing Bloomers, circa 1918
National Archives Identifier: 533661

This photograph was taken c. 1918. It is of some of the employees of the Hope Webbing Company; all of whom are wearing bloomers.

Critics charged that the women were unsexing themselves, costuming themselves as men, forgetting their femininity. However loud the criticism, Bloomer continued to wear her bloomers for six or eight years, even as others gave up the fashion. The Bloomer costume certainly marked a significant achievement in her life as a social reformer. Bloomer herself was no single-issue person. She had been paying attention to other reforms of the era. At the age of 30, Bloomer witnessed, although she did not actively participate in, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, the launch of the suffrage movement that culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The Seneca Falls meeting convened against a social background that offered plenty of work for women reformers.

The setting and the conference moved Bloomer toward action, if somewhat slowly. Her newspaper, The Lily , once a voice for rational dress reform, ultimately advanced the prime objectives of the women's movement. The paper, she wrote, was "a needed instrument to spread abroad the truth of a new gospel to woman, and I could not withhold my hand to stay the work I had begun." She had started the paper in 1849 in Seneca Falls to focus on temperance. In fact, the full name of the newspaper was The Lily: A Ladies' Journal, devoted to Temperance and Literature .

Bloomer's early reform focus resulted in part from the changing immigration patterns affecting American life. The immigration boom of the early 19th century brought not only new populations of Germans, Irish, and other Europeans but also new dietary customs, including beer and hard liquor. As women reformers spoke out and wrote about the need for temperance, their critics responded by suggesting that women should keep silent, adhering to the 19th century notion that public speaking fell into the prerogative of men, not women. Should women keep silence on what many considered a moral issue, moral since women often bore the brunt of drunken men's behavior? Bloomer responded clearly: "None of woman's business, when she is subject to poverty and degradation and made an outcast from respectable society! None of woman's business, when her starving naked babes are compelled to suffer the horrors of the winter's blast! . . . In the name of all that is sacred, what is woman's business if this be no concern of hers ?"

In temperance reform as in fashion reform, Bloomer's work fit the mode of the early 19th century reform movement. Yet her work revealed the divisions among the advocates standing under that umbrella of reform. Bloomer, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw her, represented a conservative stance. In a letter to Susan B. Anthony, Stanton wrote that Anthony must "take Mrs. Bloomer's suggestions with great caution, for she has not the spirit of the reformer." Anthony remembered Bloomer from the Seneca Falls convention where "she stood aloof and laughed at us. It was only with great effort and patience that she has been brought up to her present position. In her paper, she will not speak against the fugitive slave law, nor in her work to put down intemperance will she criticize the equivocal position of the church."

But Bloomer changed into a reformer of whom Stanton could approve. Later, The Lily educated its audience about women's issues, served as a model for other suffrage publications, and published Elizabeth Cady Stanton's pieces. Some historians credit it as the first newspaper in the United States owned and operated by a woman. In any case, its pages proved a boon to women seeking to publish addresses and essays in support of suffrage for women. She sold it when in 1854 she moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa, with her husband of 14 years, Dexter Chamberlain Bloomer, whom she had not promised to "obey." Moving west, she packed her reform impulses along with her material possessions. Like many reformers, she sought improvement in many areas of American life. In Council Bluffs, she worked to establish churches, Good Templar lodges (a reform fraternal organization similar to the Masons), suffrage legislation, and the Soldiers' Aid Society. In 1871 she became president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Society and supported a legal code that ended the distinction between male and female property rights.

From Iowa, Bloomer exercised her First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. In 1878, she wrote the 45th Congress petitioning for relief from the burden of taxation or for the "removal of her political disabilities." The Archival record "Petition from Mrs. Amelia Bloomer of Council Bluffs, Iowa Regarding Suffrage in the West, 1878," is that petition. Here she acted as the single author of a petition. Other women sent similar petitions, some writing on their own, others as members of organizations. Bloomer's words in this petition echo the sentiments expressed in the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration: "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her."

She did not stop there. She continued to speak and write, advocating "Woman's Right to the Ballot." In an essay of that title, she wrote that women and men had equal claims to "the enjoyment of all these rights which God and nature have bestowed upon the race." "Woman," she wrote, "is entitled to the same means of enforcing those rights as man; and that therefore she should be heard in the formation of Constitutions, in the making of the laws, and in the selection of those by whom the laws are administered."

By now, Bloomer and other women had learned the necessity of political organization. They had a broad range of tactics: they lobbied, they marched, they protested, and they engaged in peaceful and not so peaceful civil disobedience. And they developed the necessary forms for soliciting support. A political network had been born, as shown by the form letter Stanton and her associates developed to ask friends to send in petitions. Bloomer's speaking and writing in the late 19th century echoed the spirit of perfectionism that had set the scene for her work in designing fashion to free women; her work now suggested that the public policies expanding suffrage, not the Bloomer costume, would free women. In 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution brought what she had hoped: a public policy of equality of suffrage for women and men. Only one of the women who had attended the Seneca Falls Convention, Charlotte Woodward, was alive to vote for the president in 1920.

The Documents

Amelia Bloomer's Petition Regarding Suffrage in the West
Click to Enlarge

Petition from Mrs. Amelia Bloomer
of Council Bluffs, Iowa Regarding
Suffrage in the West, 1878
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the United States House of Representatives
Record Group 233
National Archives Identifier:

Article Citation

This article was written by Linda Simmons, an associate professor at Northern Virginia Community College, in Manassas, VA.

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