By Josie Rosman
After the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, the women’s rights movement in America was organized, visible, and growing. Women were joining the long-existing abolition movement in questioning who was actually “considered equal” in America. The print media in the US was already flourishing at the time, and widely circulated newspapers and periodicals shaped public opinion. Many of these newspapers published cartoons that mocked contemporary social movements. One such cartoon was “Bloomerism in Practice,” which was published around October, 1851, the same time as the Second National Women’s Rights Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts. “Bloomerism in Practice” equates the burgeoning women’s rights movement with bloomerism and abolitionism to misrepresent the goals of the women’s rights movement and thus incite fears of gender and racial upheaval. It illustrates contemporary expectations for white and Black womanhood.
The message of “Bloomerism in Practice” depends on the contemporary cultural understanding that wearing bloomers was simultaneously part of and indicative of the goals of the women’s rights movement. There were multiple dress reform movements at the time that were adopting the look of pants under a skirt for women for comfort and ease of motion. But the outfit only became a threat when it became associated with the women’s rights movement. Inspired by Elizabeth Smith Miller, suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer adopted bloomers as their unofficial uniform in the early 1850s. By calling the cartoon “Bloomerism in Practice,” the cartoonist was communicating to his audience that what he was depicting was intended to (mis)represent the goals of the women’s rights movement.
“Bloomerism in Practice” vilified the bloomerism movement by depicting how it could lead to complete gender upheaval and even the reversal of gender roles. Women wearing pants and simultaneously engaging with activism threatened the strict gender divide, as “by wearing pants-of any kind women appropriated male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Men “charged that if women wore the pants then it would logically follow that men would wear dresses and assume the female characteristics of dependence.” This reversal in gender roles is clear in “Bloomerism in Practice” with the striking image of the domineering, masculine Mrs. Turkey, who rests her arm upon the head of the subjugated, emasculated Mr. Turkey, who is forced into the domestic task of sewing his own clothes. The juxtaposition between Mrs. Turkey and Mr. Turkey is supposed to imply that emasculation is the inevitable endgame of bloomerism and the women’s rights movement. It also suggests that men who cannot control their lives or who “allow” their wives, sisters, and daughters to defy gender roles are already pathetic. Additionally, the cartoonist is not just critiquing Mrs. Turkey’s domination over Mr. In Turkey, he also paints her as unattractive and sitting in a comfortable sprawl, taking up space in the center of the room. This is included to contrast what was expected of women: that they be attractive and unassuming, making themselves small to serve others. Mrs. Turkey is the exact opposite of an ideal woman, which is intended to vilify the women’s rights movement while simultaneously emphasizing how womanhood should and should not look.
The cartoon also portrays the dissolution of the nuclear family as a result of the women’s rights movement. Another of the most striking images in “Bloomerism in Practice” is the Turkeys’ little boy: his face is crumpled, he’s been forced to hold a sign that says “No More Mama & Papa,” and he’s being starved. Mrs. Turkey, “reposing on her laurels,” does not even look at her son, distracted by her fantasy of “President Mrs. Turkey” she envisions in the smoke. Mr. Turkey is no longer a strong male role model for his son and cannot properly help his son find his way in life. Through this imagery, the cartoonists wanted viewers to believe that if the woman’s rights movement “succeeds,” the nuclear family will fall apart and children will be neglected by their parents to incite condemnation from the viewer. It illustrates how white women were expected to remain within the realm of domesticity and childcare.
“Bloomerism in Practice” also capitalizes on white readers’ racism by depicting an African American woman collaborating with a white woman. The women’s rights movement has been described as the “offspring” of the abolition movement, and the movements were closely connected in the public eye. In the cartoon, the young women are dressed identically and hold overlapping signs that say “No More Basement and Kitchen” and “No More Massa and Missus.” The cartoonist paints a victory for one movement as one and the same as a victory for the other, which would likely discourage those who were for slavery and white supremacy from identifying themselves with the women’s rights movement. Additionally, it shows that the worst thing a Black woman in America could do is to “want to do like Missus,” both declaring her equal personhood and abdicating her subservient role. Black womens’ subjugation was necessary to maintain both white supremacy and Black servitude.
Additionally, though there is not an African American man in the cartoon itself, the depiction of any kind of interracial activism symbolized a threat to racial purity and painted the movements as immoral. White men represented appeals for “‘social equality’ as nothing more than a desire for intermarriage, particularly between Black men and white women…the mere presence of African Americans threatened white women’s purity.” Of course, threats to white female purity are not truly about the purity of the woman but of “‘the rights of houses’—that is, white men’s exclusive access to white women.” By emphasizing the interracial nature of contemporary movements, the cartoonist was trying to invoke fears of white men losing access to white women and thus their ability to maintain white supremacy, illustrating one of white women’s perceived duties to society.
Cartoons like “Bloomerism in Practice” were somewhat effective in their attacks on bloomerism and the women’s rights movement. Women’s rights activists played into respectability politics and stopped wearing bloomers out of fear that their outfits were hurting their cause. This was a step back in the progress they had made in making female fashion more comfortable and practical. Meanwhile, other women interested in dress reform made efforts to distance themselves from the women’s rights movement out of fear of ridicule. But the real potential of the movement was deeper than surface level.
Just as movements have adapted over the years, the white patriarchy has twisted and updated its attempts to control what women look like and the company they keep. Respectibility politics and purity politics have been a part of every wave of the feminist movement. In the end, the real issues are always about what groups get to have power over and access to other groups.
 Julia Petrov, “‘A Strong-Minded American Lady’: Bloomerism in Texts and Images, 1851,” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 20, no. 4 (September 2016): 381–413. doi:10.1080/1362704X.2015.1082296.
 “More Women’s Rights Conventions,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/more-womens-rights-conventions.htm. Accessed November 5, 2020.
 Gayle V. Fischer, “”Pantalets” and “Turkish Trousers”: Designing Freedom in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century United States,” Feminist Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1997): 2. http://ezproxy.oberlin.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/docview/233179369?accountid=12933.
 “Seneca Falls and the Start of Annual Conventions: Dress Reform and the Bloomer Outfit,” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibitions/women-fight-for-the-vote/about-this-exhibition/seneca-falls-and-building-a-movement-1776-1890/seneca-falls-and-the-start-of-annual-conventions/dress-reform-and-the-bloomer-outfit/. Accessed November 5, 2020.
 Fischer, “‘Pantalets’ And ‘Turkish Trousers,’” 2.
 Fischer, “‘Pantalets’ And ‘Turkish Trousers,’” 3.
 The cartoon also emphasises the “foreignness” of the bloomer outfit. The Turkeys were named as a nod to the Turkish costume. Turkish women were seen as “other” and the outfit was sometimes associated with the “un-Christian sensuality of Turkish harems”(see Petrov, “‘A Strong Minded American Lady,’” 402). The otherness of the Turkeys is emphasized by the turban and fabric on the table behind them, to further characterize them as foreign and thus un-American.
 “Antislavery Connection,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/antislavery-connection.htm.
 Any assertion of autonomy from African American women at the time was also a threat to white men’s self-granted license to rape and assault their African Americans slaves and servants whenever they chose without fear of consequences.
 April R. Haynes, “Licentiousness in All Its Forms,” In Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 57.
 Haynes, “Licentiousness in All Its Forms,” 58.
 “Seneca Falls and the Start of Annual Conventions: Dress Reform and the Bloomer Outfit.”
 Fischer, “‘Pantalets’ And ‘Turkish Trousers,’” 4.
“Antislavery Connection.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/antislavery-connection.htm.
Fischer, Gayle V. “”Pantalets” and “Turkish Trousers”: Designing Freedom in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century United States.” Feminist Studies 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1997): 2. http://ezproxy.oberlin.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/docview/233179369?accountid=12933.
Haynes, April R. “Licentiousness in All Its Forms.” In Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).
“More Women’s Rights Conventions.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/more-womens-rights-conventions.htm. Accessed November 5, 2020.
Petrov, Julia. “‘A Strong-Minded American Lady’: Bloomerism in Texts and Images, 1851.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 20, no. 4 (September 2016): 381–413. doi:10.1080/1362704X.2015.1082296.
“Seneca Falls and the Start of Annual Conventions: Dress Reform and the Bloomer Outfit.” The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/exhibitions/women-fight-for-the-vote/about-this-exhibition/seneca-falls-and-building-a-movement-1776-1890/seneca-falls-and-the-start-of-annual-conventions/dress-reform-and-the-bloomer-outfit/. Accessed November 5, 2020.