The History of Feminist Zines: The Lily

Founded in 1849, The Lily is considered the first feminist paper run entirely for and by women.

Though it began as a community-based temperance journal (i.e. zine), within a few years, thanks to both the writerly and aesthetic influence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it had become the epicenter for the era’s most controversial fashion debate—women’s bloomers.

Nearly 150 years later, as women were transitioning into the third wave, there would be a similarly radical convergence between feminism and fashion, specifically of the anti-slut-shaming variety, and it would come in the form of the punk-inspired riot grrrl zines.

The inaugural issue of The Lily, published on Jan 1st, 1849, opens with a poem whose “lines are respectfully inscribed to ‘The Lily’” and opens thus: “Drink stranger from this crystal cup!/Our Father placed it here.”

It’s no surprise that in the shadow of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 – which was largely organized by Quakers – that the delegates would espouse the language of not only the Declaration of Independence when articulating their demands, but also the language of their egalitarian Quaker harbingers, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who, in 1837, published their germinal Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women in both The Spectator and The Liberator, the latter being the newspaper published by radical abolitionist and women’s rights champion, William Lloyd Garrison.

The early suffrage argument, much like the abolitionist argument, used biblical ethos to justify its stance for equality of the sexes, with the Grimkes claiming that according to scripture, women owed allegiance only to God, and that both men and women had been created in God’s image and were therefore equal in His eyes. The opening lines of the poem powerfully reinforce this argument, with its enticing (alcohol-free) call to “drink” of the publication’s “cup”/contents, presumably because its very existence is God’s will.   

A year prior, The Lily had emerged as a publication for “home distribution,” something to be circulated among the women who belonged to the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society, a group that felt they’d been marginalized by the larger temperance movement and desired a platform of their own. That platform, however, was anything but radical, the contents for more than a year “conforming to the emerging stereotype of women as ‘defenders of the home.’”

Regardless, its internal circulation, coupled with its creators’ feelings of marginalization, make The Lily a contender as the first extant feminist zine in America.

It wasn’t until the “revitalized” edition – the one that debuted on Jan 1, 1849 and was edited and published by Amelia Bloomer – that the first U.S. newspaper edited by and for women was officially born.

Within its first year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became a regular contributor, and her ongoing influence eventually convinced Bloomer to expand the paper’s focus beyond the topic of temperance. Stanton, writing under the pseudonym “sunflower,” grappled with child-bearing and education as well as women’s rights.

It was also Stanton who first adopted the controversial fashion trend of wearing loose trousers under a shorter, tunic-style dress, something Bloomer was immediately attracted to. Thus, by the early 1850s, The Lily had become a champion of this style of dress – which was dubbed Bloomerism – and the paper’s circulation “rose from 500 per month to 4,000 per month because of the dress reform controversy.”

On October 1, 1852, one of the many letters published in The Lily on Bloomerism opened thusly: “It is now nearly a year since I was baptized into the faith and practice of Bloomerism. Although converted in the midst of a Bloomer excitement, yet a twelve-month does not find me a backslider.”

Like this “Bloomerite,” we are forever grateful for this revisionist shift in fashion, and we’re equally grateful to The Lily and all of the limited-circulation print culture generated by the suffragists, all of which helped to disseminate this and so many other revolutionary ideas and ideologies. 

The History of Feminist Zines is a recurring column by RD, founding editor of TRR.