Unsung Heroines: Amelia Bloomer

 

There are few questions to which there is no answer. I could ask something empirical; ‘How far is the sun from the earth?’ to which someone could answer ‘150 million kilometres.’ These are questions to which the answers can never change, they are set in stone. Then, there are questions, a more abstract variety, in which the answer could be one possibility of an infinite set of possibilities, with social and political influences, and indeed the era in which the question is asked all being key variants. By way of example, if I were a 19th century English governess, and I asked, ‘How should a young lady of our era conduct herself’ I would swiftly be given a copy of ‘Fordyce’s sermons’ and no doubt be told that a respectable young lady is not passionate, she is subservient, and well-accomplished. A respectable young lady dresses herself in fine silks and can speak the language of French and music with fluency, her tongue is the bearer of pleasantries and deference, and god forbid an opinion cross her pretty lips. However, I could ask the same question 200 years later, and here I find myself with a question that is rather difficult to answer. ‘What is a 21st century woman?’ What does she look like, how does she dress, what are her passions, and goals in life? Globalisation, the sharing, tolerance, acceptance and appreciation of other cultures, the movement away from internalised sexism and racism, the notion that a 21st century woman (at least, in the western world) can be whatever she desires to be, has made this an almost impossible question to answer. It would be ignorant, of course, to assume that systematic oppression of women is extinct; for indeed it is still alive and very real, especially for women of colour, and transgender women across the globe. But nonetheless, we are forging a path in the right direction.

Throughout history, there are many women who have waged a war against the patriarchy and have claimed their share of victory and recognition through valour and sacrifice, Emily Davison for example, a martyr of the suffrage. However, it seems absurd that a woman who has had such an influence on the way we modern women live our lives, goes so little known by comparison. Amelia Bloomer, born in the 19th century, was a woman’s rights activist and advocate of the suffrage. She had a great impact on women of her time, with strong beliefs that she communicated through The Lily, a pioneering newspaper entirely written and edited by women, for women. This, for Bloomer was a greatly empowering thing, as she was enraged by the lack of content for women in newspapers. Bloomer, however, has had the greatest impact on our lives in her women’s clothing reform. If it weren’t for her revolutionary ideas and influence in women’s fashion, it may still have been taboo for women to wear trousers, and corsets may still be the norm. Bloomer encouraged women to abandon corsets and petticoats and to adopt a more pragmatic style, with looser tops and shorter skirts, as well as undergarments branded ‘Bloomers.’ We have Amelia Bloomer to thank for our comfort. Perhaps because of the triviality, the flippant nature of this assertion, her influence goes with little recognition. However, the reality is that this clothing reform stands for much more than just woman’s ability to wear pants rather than ball gowns. She rejected centuries worth of women’s fashion that stood for their objectification, that diminished women to the status of pretty little playthings, that allowed them to be ornately decorated to please the gaze of men. Bloomer pushed back against the social norms of her day, transgressed ideas of what a 19th century woman should look like, and dress like. She changed the face of female conduct and created a platform for which women can begin to express themselves and put an end to centuries of silence. Bloomer is no doubt, one of the many reasons why women enjoy the liberty they have earnt today, and why there may never be an answer to the question, ‘What is a 21st century woman?’