AMELIA BLOOMER: Famous Suffragist Moved to Council Bluffs, Advocated to Nebraska Legislators

By 
Elizabeth A. Elliott
The Daily Record

If it were not for a neighbor’s influence, the world would have missed out on Amelia Bloomer’s contributions to the women’s suffrage movement.

They might never have known about the 19th century fashion of bloomers, an alternative to the heavy dresses worn by American women of their era.

And Nebraska likely wouldn’t have had as strong of a movement for women’s suffrage.

“I consider her to be the mother of the area women’s suffrage movement,” said Eileen Wirth, professor emeritus of journalism at Creighton University and a board member of History Nebraska, the state’s historical agency.

Bloomer started The Lily, a pro-temperance newspaper in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1849, a year after the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. The paper focused on the temperance movement, but Bloomer’s neighbor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, encouraged her to write about the women’s rights movement as well. Bloomer later introduced Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, the author of the 19th Amendment.

It was in an article in The Lily that Bloomer became associated with pantaloons worn with a skirt reaching just below a woman’s knee. Advocating for “reform dress” spiked the paper’s circulation and prompted Bloomer to adopt the fashion statement herself.

In 1853, Bloomer and her husband moved to Mount Vernon, Ohio, and she began traveling the Midwest to give lectures. She continued the newspaper for a while before selling it before the couple’s move to Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1855.

“At that time, lectures were a big deal and someone from Omaha in 1854 heard her lecture and she got invited to address the Nebraska territorial legislature,” Wirth said. “She was one of the first women in the U.S. to speak to a legislative body. Her speech was so powerful, the Nebraska territorial house approved suffrage for women.”

However, the session of the legislature ran out of time before the proposal could make it through both chambers.

“We could have been the first state to approve suffrage, but we didn’t approve it until just before the 19th Amendment was passed,” Wirth said.

Bloomer arrived at the legislature at 7 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1855, before “enchaining the attention of her audience for an hour and a half,” according to an article by historian Jim McKee.

“The Omaha Chronotype went on to say that they might ‘doubt the policy for women to vote’ but who could question their right to do so. ‘Her only danger is in asking too much,’” McKee wrote in an article for the Lincoln Journal Star.

Bloomer was the first president of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association from 1871 to 1873. Her health declined, and she retired in the 1870s.

Bloomer was asked in 1889 by William J. Box of the Syndicate Press in New York if she would vote should the right of suffrage be extended to her.

“Yes, if the privilege of exercising my right of suffrage is granted me while I am yet able to do so, I will ‘go to the polls and vote,’” Bloomer said, in an account reported by the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil on Aug. 29, 1889. “But, alas! we pioneers in the cause of women’s enfranchisement, who have given the best years of our lives to its service, are drawing near, or have reached and passed our allotted three score and ten years, and unless men hasten to do us justice, like Joshua of old, we can only view from a distance the promised glory which our sisters of the future will surely enter upon and enjoy, after we have rested from our labors and gone to our reward.”

Bloomer never was able to cast a vote, though. She died Dec. 31, 1894, and is buried in Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs.

Kim Kazmierczak, principal of Bloomer Elementary School in Council Bluffs, said it was “a shame” that Bloomer didn’t survive to see the passage of the 19th Amendment.

“She was a big part of it, on the ground floor,” Kazmierczak said.

The school, which sits in downtown Council Bluffs, is actually named for Amelia’s husband, Dexter C. Bloomer, an attorney who led the Pottawattamie County Bar Association and helped form Western Iowa’s Republican Party. He also served as president of the school board, was mayor of Council Bluffs and he helped establish the city’s public library.

Kazmierczak said the school board is now looking into renaming the building for both Amelia and Dexter Bloomer.

“Being the 100th anniversary of woman’s suffrage, it’s important for women,” Kazmierczak said of the decision. “Women are the ones that need to speak up and do things and it’s really important that we vote for people to have their voices heard – when women vote it matters.”

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