What More Can Women Do?

The 1850s Backlash against Bloomers

The Bloomer Polka & Schottisch (Baltimore: F.D. Benteen, 1851). Gift of David Doret, 2008.

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Lily (1849). Online access to issues owned by Princeton University.

Amelia Bloomer’s periodical the Lily first appeared on March 15, 1849. Published for the members of the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society, it had only a limited audience in the beginning. In 1851, Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894) popularized a new style of dress for women (a short dress over loose trousers). Thanks to the controversy around “bloomers” (as the new style of dress became known), Amelia Bloomer’s periodical soon had thousands of subscribers.

Second Annual Report of the New-York State Society for the Promotion of Temperance (Albany: Packard & Van Benthuysen, 1831).

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In the early decades of the 19th century, widespread interest in limiting or ending the consumption of alcoholic beverages gave rise to the temperance movement. Activism in New York State was especially organized. In 1831, the annual report of the New-York State Society for the Promotion of Temperance (later known as the New-York State Temperance Society) indicates that confederated societies existed on the local and county levels.

Note that the temperance society in Seneca Falls was organized in August 1828.

List of officers of the New York State Temperance Society for 1852-3, in Law a Moral Force (Albany: J. Munsell, 1853).

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For many women, especially women in western New York State in the middle of the 19th century, the temperance movement had become part of a broad reform agenda—linking temperance with the abolition movement and the women’s rights movement. But not all reformers were in lock step. In the early 1850s, the leadership of the New York State Temperance Society was still all-male, just as it had been when it was founded in 1829.

Susan B. Anthony became outraged after she was not allowed to speak at an 1852 temperance rally in Albany. In the aftermath, she organized the Women’s New York State Temperance Society, and Amelia Bloomer’s periodical the Lily soon became linked to the new organization.

Article on the evening event on behalf of the Women’s New York State Temperance Society that was published in the Water-cure Journal (March 1853).

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Portrait of Mrs. Lydia Folger Fowler from the Phrenological Journal (June 1879).

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In its March 1853 issue, Fowler & Wells’s Water-cure Journal included this account of an evening event at New York City’s Metropolitan Hall, on February 7, 1853. That evening, three women spoke: Amelia Bloomer, Antoinette L. Brown, and Susan B. Anthony, all lecturing on behalf of the Women’s New York State Temperance Society and seeking subscribers to the Lily. The news item includes quotations from descriptions of the event that appeared in five New York newspapers—revealing the false news they contained on the subject of how the speakers were dressed.

The anonymous author (who was likely Lydia Folger Fowler, the wife of one of the publishers of the Water-cure Journal, who chaired the event) states explicitly that both Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony wore dresses, and not bloomers. However, the Tribune provides two paragraphs detailing their “Bloomer costumes.” The other newspaper accounts provide nothing substantive about the speeches, but do include commentary about the women’s clothing. One senses that regardless of what the women wore, the perception that they were “radical” was enough for the various reporters to conclude that the women ... must have worn bloomers.

William Dressler, Bloomer Waltz (New York: William Hall & Son, 1851). Purchased with the Davida T. Deutsch Women’s History Fund.

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The bloomer outfit consists of a short dress over loose trousers that are gathered at the ankle. New Yorker Elizabeth Smith Miller (1822-1911) is credited with bringing bloomers into fashion among temperance activists, after she wore such an outfit to visit her father’s cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls in early 1851. Amelia Bloomer then wrote favorably about wearing the outfit in the April 1851 issue of the Lily, after which the style immediately became known as “bloomers.”

It is said to have been Amelia Bloomer who introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) to Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) in 1851. By that time, Stanton was a public figure in the wake of her participation in the Seneca Falls Convention in support of women’s rights in 1848. Stanton and Anthony became lifelong friends and collaborators in various reform activities, and especially in support of woman suffrage.

“Now, be careful!” Engraved plate in May, 1851, issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

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Today it’s hard to see what the fuss was about! The difference between radical and conservative styles of clothing (such as the dresses depicted in the plates in Godey’s Lady’s Book) is subtle to us now.

Circular by Gerrit Smith addressed to the Reform Dress Association [i.e., the National Dress Reform Association] (Peterboro, New York, 1857).

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Elizabeth Smith Miller (known as Lizzie) is said to have worn bloomer outfits when she attended receptions in Washington, D.C., in the winter of 1852-1853. In doing so, she had the support of her father, the New York Congressman and prominent abolitionist Gerrit Smith. However, the virulent backlash against bloomers prompted most women, including Lizzie Miller, to abandon the style before 1860. Note that Gerrit Smith continued to support dress reform. In this 1857 circular, he encourages women to be “brought out of [their] clothes-prison house.” Smith expresses hope that some style even better than Bloomers can be devised.

Cartoons by John Leech, published in Punch in 1851.

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Within months of the publication of Amelia Bloomer’s article in the Lily, the advocates of the bloomer outfit, which allowed women greater mobility than longer skirts, came to be depicted as gender-nonconforming radicals. The English caricature artist John Leech (1817-1864) skewered women who wore bloomers in the pages of Punch, as shown here.

“Aggregated We Become Batteries of Power”

Petition for the Women’s Loyal National League’s 1863 campaign to collect women’s signatures in support of the abolition of slavery.

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In 1863, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony organized the Women’s Loyal National League. In so doing, Stanton and Anthony, as well as many other women, took a break from other reform activities (chiefly temperance and women’s rights).

Shown here is a sample blank petition with which the League collected signatures to send to Congress in support of Emancipation.

Charles Sumner, Prayer of One Hundred Thousand (New York, 1864).

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As soon as the Women’s Loyal National League had collected 100,000 names, the signatures were submitted to Congress as the “first installment.” The League continued to collect more signatures and eventually submitted almost 400,000 in support of Emancipation. Congress passed the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, and it was ratified later that year—thus ending slavery in the United States. Many Northern women likely took satisfaction in having signed one of the League’s petitions.

This handbill, reprinting a speech by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, also includes an open letter from Susan B. Anthony, dated April 7, 1864, appealing to both men and women to sign the petitions. Anthony writes, “Slavery has long been our national sin .... The war has made it the Constitutional right of the Government, as it has been the moral duty of the people, to abolish slavery.”

Woman’s Rights, a 19th-century comic valentine.

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Popular culture ephemera often ridiculed women’s rights advocates. The doggerel under the cartoon on this comic valentine suggests that such women wanted their husbands to “put on frocks” while they “put on the breeches.” Charlotte McKay, Sarah Hale, Mary Abigail Dodge, and other women who opposed woman suffrage definitely got the message—and passed it on to others.

Annie Wittenmyer, History of the Woman’s Temperance Crusade (Philadelphia, 1878).

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After the Civil War, temperance became the “safe” women’s movement for many women. Unlike the bloomer-clad women of the 1850s, temperance advocates of the 1870s repeatedly stressed that they did not seek to challenge traditional sex roles. Many, if not most, belonged to Evangelical Christian sects. In fact, Christian women’s missionary and church groups often became chapters in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union after the group was founded in Cleveland in 1874.

Shown here is Annie Wittenmyer’s account of the grassroots uprising in Spring 1874, through which many women joined together in communities, big and small, to protect their homes from the negative consequences of drinking alcohol. Wittenmyer, who had headed the Iowa State Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, became the WCTU’s first president.

Frances E. Willard, Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman (Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Publication Association, 1889).

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In later years, under the leadership of Frances Willard (1839-1898), the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union grew to become the largest women’s organization in 19th-century America. While Annie Wittenmyer had been primarily interested in gaining Christian converts, Frances Willard used temperance as a wedge issue for a wide range of reform activities. Under her leadership, large numbers of women moved into political activism without the stigma of radicalism.

Fifty thousand copies of Willard’s 1889 autobiography sold within weeks, and helped spread her message. Willard’s strategy of describing women’s activism as an extension of their traditional roles (as “protectors of the home”) brought many relatively conservative women to the women’s rights movement.

Memorial of C.E. McKay, Remonstrating against the Right of Suffrage Being Granted to Women (Washington, 1870).

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Charlotte Elizabeth McKay (1818-1894) was particularly vocal in anti-suffrage activism. On February 10, 1870, only days after the ratification of the 15th Amendment (giving black men the vote), Mrs. McKay read this statement before a committee of the U.S. Senate.

Mrs. McKay, who had worked as a hospital nurse during the Civil War, also published an anti-suffrage periodical beginning in 1871. Her The True Woman was short-lived, but gave voice to many women’s belief that voting was “wholly outside ... [their] appropriate sphere of life and line of duty.”

“The American Privilege,” in Godey’s Lady’s Book (December, 1872).

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As editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Hale (1788-1879) often encouraged women to see their “moral power” as more important than voting. They could teach the young and help the poor. According to Hale, “woman has a sphere of her own ... and can achieve more for herself and for the world than could be effected by all the votes in the country.”

Gail Hamilton, Women’s Worth and Worthlessness (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872). Gift of Carroll Smith Rosenberg.

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Writing as Gail Hamilton, Mary Abigail Dodge (1833-1896) claimed that women did not need the vote. Her reasoning was that men would always be stronger in a competition, and therefore “until women can march faster and further,” they “must depend for justice upon the good will of men.”

First Anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association (New York, 1867).

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Formed in 1866, the American Equal Rights Association sought “to secure equal rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” Ultimately, the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 did not achieve that goal—which would have secured equal rights for women as well as freedmen.

Shown here is the handbill advertising the group’s first anniversary celebration, which was also a fundraising event. Note that Philadelphia Quaker Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) was the group’s president, and women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony was the corresponding secretary.

Henry Ward Beecher, Woman’s Duty to Vote (New York, 1867).

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Address in Favor of Universal Suffrage (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1867).

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The American Equal Rights Association brought men and women together to work for universal suffrage—ending the disenfranchisement of black men, black women, and white women. Some of the most prominent male and female leaders of both the abolitionist movement and the women’s rights movement were among its members.

Shown here are the printed speeches of Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on behalf of the AERA.

The Revolution (January 8, 1868). Gift of Edward M. Davis.

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In January 1868, Susan B. Anthony began publishing The Revolution as a weekly periodical. Two of the other members of the American Equal Rights Association, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury (1809-1898), served as her editors. Note the extraordinarily comprehensive goals: voting rights “irrespective of sex or color,” “equal pay to women for equal work,” the eight-hour day, and so forth.

In 1869, the women’s rights movement split into two factions: one faction argued that extending suffrage to black men should take precedence over women’s suffrage while the other argued for universal suffrage. The 15th Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, extended voting rights to black men only—leaving women, both black and white, still disenfranchised. When Susan B. Anthony sold the Revolution in May 1870, it was heavily in debt. It would be twenty years before the two factions joined together to work toward their shared goal of woman suffrage.

Henry Ward Beecher, Woman’s Influence in Politics (Boston, 1871).

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The members of the American Woman Suffrage Association, which had advocated voting rights for black men first, continued their efforts to secure voting rights for women after the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. The AWSA focused on expanding women’s voting rights at the state and local levels rather than seeking a constitutional amendment.

Shown here is one of the AWSA’s pamphlets, containing a speech that Henry Ward Beecher had given in 1860. Note the extent to which the group relied on male leadership, perhaps as a strategy for gaining support and legitimacy in the public eye.

National Woman Suffrage Association (U.S.), Plan of Woman Suffrage Organizations (Washington, D.C., 1879).

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The members of the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, worked on the national level for a 16th Amendment to secure voting rights for women. Due to the 1869 split in the women’s rights movement over whether black male suffrage should take precedence over voting rights for women, the NWSA lost allies as they argued that men of various ethnic minority groups did not deserve the vote before white women. Harriet Tubman, a friend of both Anthony and Stanton from antislavery days, remained committed to the goal of voting rights for women, but steered clear of the disputes between the AWSA and the NWSA. The two groups merged in 1890, with the creation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Shown here is one of the NWSA’s circulars, from 1879.

Eminent Women of the Age (Hartford: S.M. Betts, 1868).

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As early as 1868, noted suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) provided her historical account of women’s political activism. Shown here is the beginning of one of her contributions to the first edition of Eminent Women of the Age, an essay which appeared in the many subsequent editions of the volume.

Stanton’s narrative traces the origins of the suffrage movement to the abolition movement, and gives particular credit to women in her own circle.

Volume two of the History of Woman Suffrage (New York, 1882).

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After 1880, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others produced a more in-depth account of the efforts to secure voting rights for women. This series, which eventually ran to six volumes, became the key source for later histories. The History of Woman Suffrage secured some women’s place in history, but also effectively obscured other women’s contributions from the historical record.

Women would finally get the right to vote after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (although many African American women and men would remain disenfranchised for decades due to local poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments to voting). It is also worth noting that the Equal Rights Amendment, first crafted by the prominent 20th-century suffragist Alice Paul (1885-1977), has never been ratified.

Postcard depicting Frances Willard, 1907.

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The history of women’s activism in 19th-century America was not an unbroken linear trajectory. There were cycles of intense engagement, followed by backlash, infighting, and fatigue— and then renewal after women organized and started anew.

Note Frances Willard’s words, quoted on this 20th-century postcard:

“Alone we can do little, separated we are the units of weakness, but aggregated we become batteries of power.”