Defining Freedom: A New Style for Suffragists

Article excerpt

Mary Walker wanted to be famous. In her 1855 commencement address at Syracuse Medical College, she said that usefulness must be the highest priority and that she hoped that she and her fellow doctors would write their names "on the highest tablet of fame."

Walker's fame would come from her work as a Civil War surgeon and her seven-decade crusade for women's rights in all spheres-marriage, work, and voting. But her public battle for equality began with dress reform.

In early January 1857, Walker wrote her first letter to the editor for The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors and Fashions of Society.

The journal, created in 1856 by Dr. Lydia Sayer, and her soon-to-be husband, John S. Hasbrouck, was the official publication of the Dress Reform Association.

The Dress Reform Association had held its first meeting in Glen Haven, New York, in February 1856, and it is possible that Walker and Sayer Hasbrouck met there and Sayer Hasbrouck recruited Walker as a contributor. The Sibyl, although created to challenge the unhealthy fashions commonly donned by nineteenth-century women, quickly drew contributors and readers interested in a range of topics, including temperance, suffrage, and the conditions for women at coeducational and women's medical colleges.

In her first letter to The Sibyl, Walker noted that residents of Rome, New York, and neighboring communities were interested in the upcoming dress reform convention in Canastota.

"We expect there will be a good attendance of those who are richly provided with common sense, intelligence, and decision of character.... We have very numerous and very large hopes that the coming convention will 'tell well' for reformatory principles."

The idea of dress reform had been evolving over several decades. Many women who were part of the westward movement or who, like Walker and her sisters, lived on a farm had learned quickly that shortening skirts and wearing pants was practical for physical labor. These early changes in costume received little public attention.

Criticism grew louder for women such as George Sand and Rosa Bonheur who had begun in the 1840s to alter their clothing choices, but still they were seen as exceptional women who had little relation to the sex in general.

The action that is credited with bringing the dress reform movement to national attention in the United States was initiated by Elizabeth Smith Miller, daughter of Gerrit Smith, who began in the spring of 1851 to appear in public in a dress she had designed. It included what she called "Turkish trousers" (full, billowing pant legs that tapered to a tight fit around the ankles) and a skirt shortened to about four inches below the knee. Miller created a sensation, largely because she wore it without having a need to perform physical labor. She argued that it was a more healthful style of clothing, unlike the typical dresses of that day that could include thirty-five yards of fabric and ten pounds of petticoats.

Miller's cousin, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, joined Miller in wearing the reform dress, and their mutual friend, Amelia Jenkins Bloomer of Homer, New York, quickly embraced their actions.

In the June 1851 issue of her temperance magazine, The Lily, Bloomer published an explicit argument against the physical dangers of conventional clothing, which "distorted spines, compressed lungs, enlarged livers, and [resulted in] displacement of the whole abdominal viscera." Because Bloomer had the power of the press in which to make her points, the new female attire quickly became known as the Bloomer dress. Notably, she referred to Miller's design as the "Freedom Dress" in subsequent articles.

By late 1851, newspapers deemed women in reform dresses as "ridiculous and indecent," as the International Monthly asserted in its November issue, "an abandoned class... vulgar women whose inordinate love of notoriety is apt to display itself in ways that induce their exclusion from respectable society. …