"She seems to be the only woman in Iowa to publicly espouse Women's rights in the years before the Civil War."
— Louise R. Noun, Strong-Minded Women, 1969
While Amelia Jenks Bloomer became one of Iowa’s first advocates for women’s suffrage, her lasting fame drew from a new fashion style for women that freed them temporarily from the long and restrictive skirts. Bloomer was born in 1818 in New York to a family of modest means and attended school for only a few years. As a teenager, she moved to Seneca Falls, NY, to serve as a governess. In 1840, she married Dexter Bloomer when he was still a law student and, with his support, began to write articles for the Seneca Falls County Courier. She attended the Seneca Falls Convention, often cited as the start of the women’s suffrage movement. While not at first a suffrage advocate, she became an active in promoting temperance. In May of 1851 Amelia Bloomer introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two giants of the 19th C. suffrage movement.
Because Bloomer believed that public speaking was not appropriate for women, she took up writing to support her reform causes. Bloomer began editing The Lily, claimed to be the first newspaper devoted to women’s issues ever owned and edited by a woman. The Lily advocated for temperance and women’s rights. It gained national attention, however, when it promoted a liberating style of dress for women that eliminated the long, cumbersome skirt in favor of a tunic to the knees over a pair of very baggy trousers. The costume was sometimes described as “Turkish trousers.” In that day, any hint of the outline of a woman’s legs was strictly forbidden. While she did not invent the new style, it became known as “bloomers” as a result of her promotion and propelled Amelia to national fame. When she overcame her reluctance to speak in pubic on behalf of suffrage or temperance, she sometimes wore the costume she had made popular but ceased doing so because she came to feel that it distracted the audience from her messages.
The Bloomers moved to Ohio and then, in 1855, to Council Bluffs, Iowa. The year before, Bloomer sold The Lily because publication on the Iowa frontier would be difficult, but she continued to submit articles for it and to advocate for women’s suffrage.
The drive to grant votes to women became a significant political issue in Iowa in 1868 as it related to expanding the vote to black men. Traveling across the state from Council Bluffs, Bloomer helped to organize the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association at its first meeting in Mt. Pleasant and served as its president from 1871-1875. During her presidency, the organization struggled to distance itself from the scandal created by New York feminist and suffrage advocate Victoria Woodhull who promoted “free love”. Woodhull and a few other leading suffrages claimed that marriage kept women in economic dependence on their husbands and in an inferior status. Conservatives within the organization denounced anything that challenged traditional marriage traditions and claimed that votes for women would give them the ability to protect their family and children and to instill higher morality in the political process.
Bloomer died in 1894. Bloomer was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1975.