The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Bloomer, Amelia Jenks
(May 27, 1818–December 30, 1894)

–writer, editor, temperance advocate, and women's rights proponent—was born in Homer, New York, and grew up in several towns in upstate New York. As a young woman, she worked as a teacher and governess. On April 15, 1840, she married Dexter Bloomer, publisher of the Whig newspaper the Seneca County Courier. The ceremony was notable because the Presbyterian minister did not ask Amelia to obey her husband, and she convinced Dexter not to allow alcohol during the celebrations that followed.

    Amelia became active in the Seneca Falls community and wrote for her husband's paper. When Dexter was appointed the town's postmaster, he promptly appointed her as the deputy, and she ran the post office's daily operations. She also supported the local temperance campaign, joining the Washingtonian movement, giving speeches in New England, and writing for a temperance newspaper, the Water Bucket.

    When prominent women's rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the first women's rights convention in the United States, Bloomer attended the July 1848 event in Seneca Falls. Unlike the temperance meetings Bloomer had attended in the past, this gathering focused on women's rights. Through a Declaration of Sentiments, participants demanded the basic rights of women to their persons, property, speech, and children. Although Bloomer was too conservative to sign this then-radical document, the convention inspired her to collaborate with poet Anna Mattison to found a newspaper they called the Lily.

    For the next six years the Lily not only served its avowed purpose "to sweeten and purify the home and to rescue it from the curse of intemperance" but also became a mouthpiece for women's rights advocates, including Stanton. Publishing under the pseudonym "Sunflower," Stanton managed to move a reticent Bloomer and her rather conservative paper toward a more radical stance. But Bloomer and Stanton differed on a number of basic principles, including whether suffrage was a fundamental right, the role of religion in society, and whether slavery–which Bloomer acknowledged was a social evil–should be abolished wholesale.

    In 1851 Bloomer published an article in support of a new style of women's clothing– a loose tunic or skirt that exposed women's legs, clothed in pantelettes, to view. The design was a reaction to the traditional tight corsets and heavy layers of material that swathed a woman's figure, summer and winter, and prevented easy and comfortable movement. Although Elizabeth Smith Miller designed the outfit, the Lily was such an effective advocate for its use that the apparel eventually came to be known as "The Bloomer Costume" or just "bloomers."

    Bloomer's endorsement of the new apparel in 1851 brought notoriety to the issue of women's dress reform as a symbol of women's rights. Nevertheless, she did not don the outfit herself until a more conservative newspaper challenged her to do so. She not only wore it but also published instructions for other women to make their own versions. Within a few weeks, the Dubuque Tribune reported that Bloomer's new look was becoming extremely popular across the country.

    Not everyone approved, however. Many women and men believed the style was unbecoming, inappropriate, and laughable. Women's rights activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone, came to believe that the style had become such a focus of ridicule that wearing it prevented women's concerns from being taken seriously, and they abandoned wearing bloomers by late 1853. Bloomer, however, continued to wear the outfit in daily life and on speaking tours until after her move to Iowa in 1855, behavior that exacerbated the friction between her and other women's rights leaders.

    By the early 1850s, it was clear that Dexter Bloomer wanted to explore opportunities in the West. In 1853 he and Amelia traveled through Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, where she gave lectures about the social evils of alcohol. Amelia continued to publish the Lily after the couple moved to Mount Vernon, Ohio, but leaving the New York birthplace of women's rights, combined with the increasing philosophical differences between Bloomer and her activist peers, made publishing the Lily more of a challenge, and Bloomer sold the paper in 1854.

    In April 1855 the couple moved again–this time to the frontier boomtown of Council Bluffs, Iowa. Bloomer advertised herself in the Lily as a land agent and encouraged women to invest in Iowa, a state that allowed women to own and manage their own property. She also returned to the lecture circuit, still focusing on temperance issues, and wrote many letters published by Iowa newspapers. One missive written in October 1855 encouraged Iowans to send their daughters to the new university in Iowa City, which was inexpensive and welcomed women.

    As a couple, the Bloomers enjoyed a long and mutually supportive marriage, sharing not only political viewpoints and professional goals but also parenting decisions about their two children, who had been adopted from a Mormon family. Unfortunately, by the time the children reached adulthood, relations between the parents and the children had become strained beyond repair.

    Amelia's relationship with more radical women's rights activists also continued to be problematic. While Stanton and others fought for an array of women's rights and abolition of slavery, Bloomer continued to focus on temperance and was unwilling to speak out forcefully against the Fugitive Slave Law. The advent of the Civil War diverted public attention from women's issues, and by the end of the war Bloomer's own efforts had shifted to more general volunteer work. Although Stanton and Anthony spoke in Iowa in the late 1860s and Bloomer became friends with renowned Iowa women's rights advocate Annie Savery –and a member and officer in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association–the founder of the Lily never again experienced the level of involvement and influence she had once enjoyed.

    Women did not win the right to vote until 1920–26 years after Amelia Bloomer's death. Nevertheless, she lived long enough to see the enfranchisement of Colorado women a few weeks before she died at the age of 76.
Sources The most extensive collection of Bloomer's papers is at the Seneca Falls Historical Society. Other collections are held by the Council Bluffs Public Library and the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. See "Manuscript Collections: The Papers of Amelia Jenks Bloomer and Dexter Bloomer," Annals of Iowa 45 (1979), 135–46, which includes an extensive bibliography of secondary sources. Microfilm copies of the Lily are available at the University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, and elsewhere. Among the most useful secondary sources are Anne C. Coon, ed., Hear Me Patiently: The Reform Speeches of Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1994); Dexter C. Bloomer, Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer (1975); and Louise Noun, "Amelia Bloomer: A Biography," Annals of Iowa 47, no. 7 (1985), 575–617, and no. 8 (1985), 575–621.
Contributor: Jean Florman

Cite as: Florman, Jean. "Bloomer, Amelia Jenks" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 20 November 2017