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Freedom Blooming: The Women's Movement and Amelia Earhart

Written by Jane Whelan


The Women’s Movement across the United States allowed for many women to come together and unite under the same cause. It was a very nuanced movement. Not all women supported the cause for women to be granted the right to vote and were very content with the way things were. However, others were not. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, and a few other women started to meet to discuss how they would go about securing this right. 


The first meeting that started the Women’s Movement was held in Seneca Falls in 1848. Due to the Civil War, the Women’s Movement stalled. Soon after the end of the war, women started meeting again in earnest. Kansas became the first state to hold a referendum on women’s suffrage (1). Despite that referendum being defeated, Kansas did eventually recognize and grant women the right to vote in 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. 


The Bloomer Movement


lithograph of woman in bloomer costume
The Bloomer Costume (1851). Image from the digital collection of Springfield Museums

In conjunction with women’s suffrage, women were starting to break away from traditional clothing. For so long, it was not socially acceptable for women to wear pants. Instead, they wore long, often hooped skirts, with petticoats and corsets on top. At the outset of the Women’s Movement, an individual named Amelia Bloomer, wanted to make more comfortable clothing that was easier to move around in. She crafted the ‘bloomer costume.’ This outfit consisted of loose fitting pants that were covered by a short skirt (2).  The outfit garnered a lot of attention from both men and women. Some women were very enticed by this new style, while others were appalled at the idea of women wearing pants. Both men and women believed women wearing pants was unbecoming, inappropriate, and laughable (3).


Despite women wearing pants being labeled as “unbecoming,” many women continued to wear this new style of clothing. It became especially popular with the bicycle craze that came over the United States. The bicycle became popular as it was relatively less expensive than the more traditional horse and carriage. Women flocked to use the bicycle because it allowed them more freedom of movement. The bicycle helped women continue to break away from wearing long skirts and restrictive corsets. As the bicycle continued to gain popularity, women continued to wear bloomers and shorter style skirts (4). The Bicycle Movement helped make women’s style more accommodating to movement and everyday activities. 


Amelia and the Women's Movement

Black and white photo of Muriel Earhart on a swing and Amelia Earhart on stilts
Amelia Earhart on stilts and Muriel on swing (1909). Image from Amelia Earhart Papers, Harvard University.

Now, how does any of this relate to Amelia Earhart? Yes, she was one of the first women in aviation and continued to pave the way for the female pilots after her. However,  Amelia’s fiercely independent attitude did not simply develop out of nowhere. From an early age, Amelia was always running around. Muriel, Amelia’s sister, recalls how they did a lot of “tomboyish” activities that led to the two girls not wearing skirts, but rather bloomers (5). Muriel’s account of how the two girls dressed is not very common as most girls were still wearing dresses and not participating in very physically demanding activities. Amelia also recalls in her book For the Fun of It how some activities she liked to do, like reading, were acceptable, others, like her physical activities, were not (6). Like Muriel, Amelia recalls how they would not wear traditionally acceptable clothing. Rather, Amelia remembers how she and Muriel had the first gymnasium suits in town. They would run around and perform athletic activities. Yet, they still felt a little outcast from the other girls who continued to wear skirts (7).


In this way, Amelia became part of the women’s movement way before she stepped onto the airfield. Even as a young girl, she wanted the freedom to move as she pleased. Amelia did not let her style of clothing deter her from setting out to have fun. The Women’s Movement set into motion a whole string of events that affected both Amelia’s childhood and adult life. Because of the Women’s Movement, Amelia was able to pursue a career that she was passionate about, and she was not relegated to the sidelines based on her gender. All these courageous women, including Amelia, left a long lasting legacy that is still impacting the lives of many today.  


 

End Notes


  1. “Kansas and the 19th Amendment,” National Parks Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/kansas-and-the-19th-amendment.htm#:~:text=Kansas%20was%20the%20first%20state,states%20to%20 hold%20 similar%20 referendums.

  2. “Bloomers,” Fashion History Timeline, September 2017, https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/bloomers/

  3. Jean Florman, “Bloomer, Amelia Jenkins,” University of Iowa, https://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=35

  4. “Pedaling the Path to Freedom: American Women on Bicycle,” National Women’s History Museum, June 2017, https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/pedaling-path-freedom

  5.  Muriel Earhart Morrissey and Carol L. Osborne, Amelia, My Courageous Sister: Biography of Amelia Earhart, Santa Clara California: Osborne Publisher Inc., 1987, pg 17. 

  6. Amelia Earhart, For the Fun of It, Chicago: Academy Press Limited, 1977, pg. 8.  

  7. Amelia Earhart, For the Fun of It, Chicago: Academy Press Limited, 1977, pg. 11.

 

Image Citations


  1. Currier, Nathaniel. The Bloomer Costume. 1851. Hand-colored Lithograph, 9 3/4 × 13 1/2 (inches). Springfield Museums. https://springfieldmuseums.org/collections/item/the-bloomer-costume-nathaniel-currier/

  2. Amelia Mary Earhart Papers. Series III. PHOTOGRAPHS AND GRAPHICS. Photographs. Earhart, 1897-1915, alone or with others. A-129, folder 22. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. https://nrs.lib.harvard.edu/urn-3:rad.schl:33124412

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