Yesterday was the 196th birthday of one of the most unheralded women’s rights activists, Amelia Bloomer. Born and raised in Homer, New York, Bloomer received minimal formal education, but became a school teacher. She was was active in the Seneca Falls Convention, the first convention dedicated to women’s rights, in 1848. Bloomer was also editor to one of the first newspapers dedicated to women, The Lily. In 1950, The Lily declared itself to be “DEVOTED TO THE INTERESTS OF WOMEN” and the “emancipation of Woman from Intemperance, Injustice, Prejudice, and Bigotry.”
Even though her contributions to the women’s rights movement were significant, she may be best known as the promoter of a clothing product that soon bore her name, bloomers. Originating from Turkey, Bloomer promoted the garment as giving women the capability for unrestricted movement and to use a more modern term, a degree of autonomy concerning women’s dress and movement. “Respectable” fashion sense at the time required women to wear whale bone corsets that were so disruptive to the internal organs that medical doctors declared that women who wore them were of no use as cadavers to study the human anatomy as the body internal organs became malformed.
Soon bloomers gained international appeal for the very reasons Bloomer promoted them: they gave women a sense of mobility that was unparalleled at the time in Western Society. Bloomers also became a symbol for the women’s rights movement and consequently received backlash from more conservative members of society, but there was no stopping the interest in the use of bloomers. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, bloomers were promoted as the ideal item to wear while riding bikes. While this may seem like a small step toward equality, freedom of movement is one of the milestones of women’s rights and foreshadows other women’s rights markers of true autonomy. The following year, Annie Londonderry wore them on her bicycle trip around the world and wrote about her experiences in the New York World under the title “The New Woman,” declaring that she was a “journalist and ‘a new woman’…if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.” Thus, thanks to Amelia Bloomer and others, bloomers and bikes helped foster reform and the elimination of negative feminine stereotypes around the world.
Marks, Patricia, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press, University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
Zheutlin, Peter. Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride. Citadel. November 1, 2007.