One hundred years ago, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the long-sought and long-fought right to vote. We can be proud that a citizen of Iowa, in particular Council Bluffs, has gone down in history as a core member of the women’s suffrage revolution.
Born in central New York in May 1818, Amelia Jenks enjoyed a modest life with an encouraging family. After teaching school and serving as a nanny, she moved to Seneca Falls, New York, and married law student Dexter Bloomer in 1840. Her husband committed himself to her as an equal. He refused to include in their marriage vows that his wife “obey” him. Later, in his business dealings, Dexter Bloomer would sometimes terminate men who refused to work alongside women. Given his ahead-of-the-times thinking regarding a woman’s role in society, it’s little wonder Dexter encouraged his wife to write for the Seneca Falls County Courier newspaper.
Within a year, Bloomer became the first woman in the country to own and edit a woman’s newspaper, The Lily.
Initially focused on temperance, The Lily began to progressively address a growing pallet of women’s issues, to include recipes, childbirth and women’s fashions. During this time, she wrote about and experimented with more comfortable and expedient clothing that would be less restrictive for a woman’s daily activities.
Bloomer also gave voice to two issues normally relegated to the background: women’s equality and suffrage. In addition to her articles, Bloomer embarked on the lecture circuit. Audiences would travel miles to hear Mrs. Bloomer speak and even pay for the novelty to hear a woman address the public.
In 1851, Bloomer introduced her fellow suffragist friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a frequent contributor to The Lily, to Susan B. Anthony. In facilitating this connection, she added considerable energy to the movement for women’s suffrage and equality. This kinetic energy endures to this day.
To the west lay opportunity for those willing to risk it. The couple moved to Ohio where they prospered. In 1855, they made a long and difficult journey to Council Bluffs. Among the passengers in the stagecoach was none other than Mr. Kit Carson. (With whom she was not impressed.)
Bloomer wrote of the journey, “At two o’clock on a rainy morning ... tired and soaked and suffering from severe cold and want of sleep and rest, we bid adieu to St. Joseph and took the stage for Council Bluffs.” Mrs. Bloomer quickly made an impression. In the same year as their arrival in Council Bluffs, Bloomer was the first woman to address the Nebraska Territorial Legislature. She was the first woman to engage in Omaha-area politics.
Amelia Bloomer was prophetic about Council Bluff’s future: “Council Bluffs will be no longer ‘out of the world’ but directly in the center of it.” Indeed, by the 1880s, Council Bluffs was the fifth largest transportation center on the North American Continent. It had 17 passenger stations, numerous freight stations and the continent’s second largest postal distribution center. As the city was rising to prominence, so did the Bloomers. Dexter served as mayor of Council Bluffs and was the first superintendent of the city’s schools. Bloomer Elementary is named in his memory.
Bloomer had a way of seeing the future. She was a pioneer in the temperance movement and wielded such influence that her own husband quit drinking! While today we often understand this movement, which ultimately led to prohibition, mostly in terms of its ultimate failure, temperance laid the foundation upon which the edifice of women’s suffrage was erected.
While Amelia Bloomer did not invent the clothing style that would be known by her name, the Bloomer, she did popularize it. It consisted of comfortable pants with a dress that extended only to the knees. This meant that men would be able to spy upon women’s ankles. At the time it was considered scandalous. Women who adopted the style were openly mocked and shunned. This further stimulated the suffrage movement with a visible identity.
During the Civil War, Bloomer organized the Soldier’s Aid Society. They provided gifts by mail to Union soldiers, especially those from Iowa. Following the Civil war, Bloomer played a critical role in organizing the Council Bluff’s Women’s Suffrage Society. Her dear friend, Ruth Anne Dodge (wife of our General Grenville Dodge) served with her on the executive committee. Later, when Amelia and Dexter Bloomer celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, General Dodge’s brother, Nathan Dodge and his wife Suzanna, were the hosts of the event. The Bloomers and Dodges were good friends. They had much in common: an appetite for risk, entrepreneurship, civic service, women’s rights, and loyalty to the Union.
Most of us here in Council Bluffs only know of Bloomer by virtue of the Elementary School named in her husband’s honor. New York remembers her far better. Her home in Seneca Falls, New York, is listed on the National Register. In 1999, a statue commemorating her introduction of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony stands proud in Seneca Falls. We in Council Bluffs could do better, especially in this centennial year of celebrating suffrage, to commemorate Amelia Bloomer. Perhaps the best any of us can do, women and men alike, is to cast our vote in each and every election.
Bloomer died in 1894. Like many activists, she did not live to witness the final fruits of her labors, a woman’s right to vote would not come to pass for another 26 years. But we benefit from her tireless efforts. We do. So when you vote in this crucial November election, pause and remember Mrs. Amelia Bloomer.
— Thomas R. Emmett III is the executive director of the Historic General Dodge House.