Before there were pantsuits, there were bloomers. Before there were female presidential nominees, there was Susan Brownell Anthony.
Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 and grew up in Massachusetts. Her family, especially her Quaker father, Daniel, believed that everyone deserved freedom, education, and other rights, regardless of race or gender. So Susan received as much education as did the boys in her town. (On a personal note, Susan’s cousin, Sarah Anthony also received an education and in later years married my great great grandfather, Zaccheus Test.)
Inspired by news of the Seneca Falls, New York conference for women’s rights in 1848, Susan went to Seneca Falls herself a couple years later and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, anti-slavery and women’s rights activists. They were both wearing bloomers! The outfits consisted of loose Turkish-style trousers gathered at the ankles and covered by a skirt that came down just below the knees.
Bloomers may not look comfortable to modern eyes, but they were more convenient than most women’s styles of the 19th century. A woman in America back then typically wore seven layers, including a corset to mold her figure and a skirt so long and full it made everyday movement such as climbing stairs a challenge. Women could never count on making full use of their hands, much less the rest of their bodies, as they managed their hoops and layers. Bloomers freed them up considerably.
In support of such freedom, Susan B. Anthony wore bloomers–for about a year. When her clothing attracted more attention and ridicule than her lectures about women’s rights, Susan went back to wearing her usual dark blouse and skirt, with her hair pulled back in a bun. That’s how we see her in the photograph that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Susan, wearing her most conservative clothes, decided to test the voting laws in a national election. It was illegal for her to cast a ballot for either Ulysses S. Grant or Horace Greeley, so she was arrested and tried by a hostile judge and all-male jury. As the New York Times reported, “It was conceded that the defendant was, on the 5th of November, 1872, a woman.” She was ordered to pay a fine and never paid it. She continued her fight for equality throughout her life.
Fourteen years after the death of Susan B. Anthony, women won the right to vote. The 19th Amendment passed in 1920 and stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
That was 96 years ago. What will you wear to the polls on November 8 of this year? I’ll be wearing jeans and using a ballot with the name of a woman running for President of the United States. A woman wearing a pantsuit.