Editor’s note: March is Women’s History Month. Stories of women from Iowa who fought for equal suffrage tell us something important about standing up for equality and justice in a world where those seem to be scarce resources. The fight for justice and equality for all people continues, even beyond this month. These stories appear thanks to the work of the League of Women Voters of Iowa, which is marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment at 19th-amendment-centennial.org.
Amelia Jenks Bloomer was a prolific writer, speaker, and activist who recognized the power of her pen to initiate social change. Amelia wrote to newspapers across the country to denounce slavery and promote equality for women in education, employment, and property rights. In 1848, Amelia attended the first public Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. That same year she helped organize the first Ladies’ Temperance Society and created a newspaper for women.
Amelia Bloomer became the sole owner, editor, publisher of The Lily for the next 5 years, molding it into one of the most influential publications dealing with women’s issues in the early 19th century. The paper evolved to include Amelia’s writings and articles by Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as other women’s rights advocates. By 1850, The Lily had over 6,000 subscribers throughout the East and Midwest. Amelia’s paper provided an open forum where women could express themselves and share their views; this freedom of expression was not offered by other papers. The Lily allowed early women’s rights supporters to publicize their principles, educate readers about inequities, and encourage social reform; it was a model for other suffrage periodicals, providing leaders and followers with a sense of community and continuity through the years of campaigns for the right to vote.
In 1849, Amelia Bloomer was appointed assistant/deputy postmaster of Seneca Falls, becoming the first U.S. woman to hold such a position. Amelia later described her experience as a practical demonstration of a “woman’s right to fill any place for which she had a capacity.” In 1851, Amelia introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony; Anthony & Stanton would soon lead the campaign for women’s voting rights. About that same time, Amelia and other activists began wearing Turkish trousers while traveling and giving speeches, stating it was more comfortable and better adapted to the active life women were leading. Although she did not create the costume, Amelia’s name has been forever associated with it and women’s dress reform. In 1853, Amelia and her husband hired a female typesetter to work at their offices in Ohio; however, the male typesetters refused to work with a woman. Several men quit and Amelia promptly hired more female typesetters to fill their jobs.
When Amelia & Dexter Bloomer moved to Council Bluffs in 1855, they helped establish the public-school system and a library; the couple was very involved in community and church activities. The Bloomers supported co-ed education and often housed teachers in their home, mostly young women; Amelia insisted women teachers should be paid the same as the men. Amelia is a noted early Iowa suffragist; she was the only Iowa woman to speak publicly for women’s rights before the Civil War. In 1856, Amelia gave a women’s suffrage lecture before the Nebraska House of Representatives and helped organize the Council Bluffs Temperance Society. In 1867, Amelia attended the National Woman Suffrage Association meeting in New York where she was elected one of its vice-presidents, a position she held until her death. She represented Iowa at the American Equal Rights Association meeting in New York City, 1869. In 1870, Amelia was instrumental in organizing a woman’s suffrage society in Council Bluffs and became its first president. Amelia attended the first annual meeting of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, serving as president from 1871-1873. In 1880, Amelia wrote the main portion of the chapter on Iowa in Volume 3 of The History of Woman’s Suffrage, published in 1887 by Susan B. Anthony, et al. Before her death in 1894, Amelia celebrated women getting the right to vote in Colorado. Amelia & Dexter Bloomer are buried in Fairview Cemetery, Council Bluffs.
Amelia’s life is an important case history showing how women became involved in the women’s rights movement through their connections with antislavery and temperance causes. Because women were allowed only limited roles in these campaigns, the seeds of enfranchisement were sown. Women realized the ballot box was the only way to ensure equality, and they began working tirelessly to secure votes for women.
Amelia Jenks Bloomer was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995.
Linda Knell and Ben Johnson both live in Council Bluffs.