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Defining Freedom

A New Style for Suffragists

By Sharon M. Harris | HUMANITIES, May/June 2006 | Volume 27, Number 3

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."

The general response to their unconventional dress demonstrated the fear that the public felt when women dress reformers failed to adhere to conventional feminine attire: Women's freedom of movement, in the most basic bodily sense, could rapidly lead to women's emancipation from the subservient social role they were expected and, some insisted, ordained to occupy.

Bodily knowledge was necessary to understanding the dangers of fashionable clothing, and that knowledge--just as it had been for the earliest women who, like Walker, sought to become physicians--was supposed to desex a woman. Dress reformers believed that such knowledge was the basis for advances in all realms of knowledge, that liberty of body and mind were inseparable.

Although traditional physicians were largely on the side of insisting that women remain dressed in conventional clothing, many eclectic, homeopathic, and hydropathic medical practitioners supported the new style. Aligned with temperance advocates and health reform movements--and the support of publicly recognized women such as Stanton--the dress reform campaign quickly became aligned with the women's rights movement. Most of the major figures in the suffrage movement donned the reform dress at one time or another.

The connection between suffrage and dress reform extended back at least to the 1851 suffrage convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, when Paulina Wright Davis had included in the proceedings a letter sent by a French suffragist, H. M. Weber, who supported the reform dress and asserted that wearing it did not make one eccentric or suggest that a woman was trying to pass as a man; it was, rather, a "convenience to her business."

This was a point with which Mary Walker ardently agreed. Although she would be criticized throughout her life for attempting to be a man, she always countered that she was a woman who chose to wear healthy clothing.

Walker's second contribution to The Sibyl was the lead article for the January 15, 1857, issue. In it, she covered the January 7 convention at Canastota, giving a detailed account of the gathering, its participants, and its evolving policies, including the agreement not to demand only one style of reform clothing. Walker herself had been one of the speakers, as was the Honorable Gerrit Smith. Although Elizabeth Cady Stanton could not attend, she sent a letter in support, and Walker would soon be sharing platforms with Smith and Stanton at dress reform and suffrage conventions.

In her January 7 speech at Canastota, Walker discussed the advantages of the short skirt in comparison with the long skirt, and she had Miss R. A. Donovan of Flint, Michigan, join her onstage as a model of the most efficient reform dress. She pointed out several other outfits in the audience that were notably well designed.

Walker's reputation as a dress reform advocate spread quickly. Soon her own activities were the subject of accounts in The Sibyl. A correspondent reports in the December 15, 1857, issue on a "well attended" lecture Walker had given on the subject. Walker argued that women needed to be more knowledgeable about their own "physical organization" in order to maintain their health and have an awareness of the dangers of "tight and cumbrous clothing usually worn by women." The reporter concluded that Dr. Mary Walker "manifests great desire to benefit her sex, and undoubtedly has it in her power to do much good."

But the editor of the Black River Herald had also attended the lecture, and he asserted that she would do better for her sex if she would "discard her silly notions of dress." The criticism outraged Sayer Hasbrouck, who responded that the Herald, "puffed up with a little brief authority . . . [and] with but limited ideas of the importance of the subject they are discussing," was not supporting women but doing "a world of mischief" against them. She emphasized that Dr. Walker "is an educated and practicing physician" and encouraged Walker to press on with the "great work in which she is engaged." In doing so, Hasbrouck concluded, Walker "will receive what she so richly merits, the blessings of millions now weak, suffering and faltering."

Not only did Walker continue her foray into the new realm of lecturing, she now began to submit short articles to The Sibyl rather than just letters to the editor. Her first two contributions were "Synopsis of a Sermon, By Rev. A. S. Wightman" and "A Bloomer in the Street." In the first, she reviews a sermon written by Wightman, a Methodist minister, in which he had offered progressive ideas about the rights as well as duties of Christian women. In the latter critique, she draws on an article by a "Mr. X" that had appeared in the Oswego Commercial Times criticizing a young woman who appeared on the streets of Oswego in a Bloomer outfit. Walker takes apart the argument of Mr. X , who said, "She bore herself timidly along as if conscious of the observation of the crowd, and as if she was sustained by the romantic spirit of being martyrized in the cause of a reformation in fashion."

Walker's response was, "True, Mr. X, she is a martyr, but not half as much a one as the poor devotee of fashion! No, for she has tried BOTH and found the Bloomer martyrdom much the easier; for in THIS the mental, moral, and physical are free and untrammeled and nothing suffers but the pride, while in THAT all suffer! O that the perfect slaves of fashion would break away from their masters and follow the north star freedom, leaving the terrible chains of purse misery and physical agony forever in the rear."

The success of Walker's lectures and the support of her dress reform colleagues encouraged her to become involved in other reform movements. She was well known to Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone by the late 1850s.

While they agreed on suffrage actions at this time, Anthony, Stanton, and Walker discovered distinct differences when they attended a Friends' Yearly Meeting at Waterloo, New York. The three women also discussed the women's rights movement. While Stanton and Anthony welcomed Walker's support in these years, they did not agree with her continued support of dress reform. As Walker writes about their conversations at Waterloo: "Susan B. Anthony said to me: 'Mrs. Stanton and I had to leave off short dresses and trousers, and you will have to, too!' Mrs. Stanton said to me: 'Miss Anthony and I had to leave off short dresses and pants, and you will have to!' I answered both of them that I did not see why I should have to. I was . . . in regular practice of medicine and surgery, and was well dressed. They clearly saw that I was keeping the woman question at the front, as they could not do. I made a constant exemplification of woman's equal rights."

Eventually, leading suffragists moved away from dress reform, a stance that caused Sayer Hasbrouck to rebuke them for having "little faith" and a "lack of energy" for true reform. Sayer Hasbrouck, Walker, and other women who continued to wear reform clothing for the rest of their lives endured a level of criticism that Anthony, Stanton, and Stone could not.

In September 1859, shortly before the Civil War began, The Sibyl published Walker's "Women Soldiers." Walker's article coincided with the ongoing discussion in the pages of The Sibyl and on the lecture platforms at women's rights conventions of the injustice of women's taxation without representation.

Conservatives, Walker noted, always respond to this argument with the tired charge, "'Shoulder the musket and go to the battle field,'--just as though every one that had political rights must of necessity be a warrior." It is time, she adds, that "such ignorant conservatives" hear the truth: "women have gone to the 'battle field,' fought and died in their country's cause, been willing martyrs, and you have not heard of them! Women have helped to gain the elective franchise that you to-day enjoy, and now you thrust her away from the polls, as though she were not worthy to enjoy what she has fought for by your sire's side."

From Revolutionary times, Walker argues, women have fought bravely in wartime, in spite of the numerous ways in which men attempted to thwart their activities. Such men keep women from participating because they "fear that women might dazzle!"

As Walker builds her argument, she attacks what she calls opponents' "butterflyism"--the denigration of women as incapable of such service. Her voice of indictment is uncompromising, and it is the voice she will retain for the rest of her public life: "But Mr. or Miss Conservative, you say that only very young and inconsiderate women ever expose themselves to the fury of the cannon's mouth or anywhere else out of their sphere. You are not as ignorant as you are malicious, for you wish that you could trample on all women, and you try to convince yourself that there is not, nor ever has been any women who aspired to notoriety in any other direction, than owning a 'love of a bonnet,' 'queenly robes,' 'white arms and necks,' &c."

After citing other women from various countries who have fought in righteous battles, Walker concludes that conservatives will be proved wrong: They will "see many such 'instances of Bloomerism' in our own country, among our 800 Bloomers, if war should break out and need such service. Yours in rendering to woman honors due. Dr. Walker."

Her equating Bloomerism with the warrior spirit makes a transition in the definition of Bloomerism to that of a militant force. As the Civil War began, Dr. Mary Walker would reject the musket, but she would shoulder her medical bag and "go to the battle field" with an ardent commitment to the Union cause and an insistence on her right to serve her country as a physician--not as a nurse, which the military would have preferred. It was a daunting challenge to the gendered code of the nation, and it was an act that would forever put her in the public consciousness.

Sharon M. Harris, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut, received a $40,000 NEH fellowship to conduct research for a biography of Dr. Mary Walker, Civil War surgeon.