(WOMENSENEWS)–They came to Syracuse, N.Y., in September 1852 as a movement gathering steam: Two thousand people crowded into the city hall, electing Lucretia Mott, to preside. a force in motion since the meeting that started the movement in Seneca Falls four years before, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, awaiting the birth of her fifth child, sent a letter urging women to refuse to pay taxes until they had representation in the government, advocating equal education for girls and boys and naming religious institutions as “our most violent enemies” for opposing any change in women’s status. Susan B. Anthony, then a temperance movement worker, and Matilda Joslyn Gage were in attendance at their first women’s rights event.
One of the most provocative subjects proved to be clothing. Several speakers wore elegant evening costumes with their necks and arms daringly exposed. Quakers like Mott and Anthony wore simple dresses. Many attendees came clad in what was becoming known as the “Bloomer Costume,” after Amelia Bloomer, the dress reformer who promoted loose-fitting attire that did cover necks and arms but consisted of a tunic and–even more daringly–trousers.
Opponents of women’s rights focused on the clothes. One minister rose to denounce the “infidel” assembly, which represented “the loss of true female delicacy.” He warned that the nation was in danger of becoming one of “social, civil and political hermaphrodites!” Mott called the reverend out of order and the audience shouted for him to “shut up” and “sit down.”
When Congregational minister Rev. Sunderland kept the outrage going by telling his parishioners that it was against God’s will for women to adopt men’s clothing, Gage took him on, with her characteristic wit, passion and erudition. Writing sarcastically in the local newspaper that men who shave their beards violate scripture and “are intruding on woman’s sphere and deserve to be punished,” she also pointed out that God had clothed Adam and Eve in identical furs after the fall.
This verbal battle continued for months, with supporters writing that Gage “had him fast.” Teasing aside, Gage’s point was an attack on the concept of authority itself: “Persons who will not accept an opinion unless propagated by their party or some great man would have rejected Christ had they lived when he was on earth.”
Thus began the ongoing debate over the politics of women’s clothing. But this was the beginning, too, of Gage’s and Stanton’s focus on religious institutions as major oppressors of women, a focus later censored as the movement became more popular and its goal, well into the 20th century, narrowed to winning the vote.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].
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For more information:
National Park Service, Women’s Rights Conventions:
Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation:
“Back In Bloomers: Filmmakers Pedal Sports History”:
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