What We’re Reading – Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener, by Kimberly A. Hamlin
By Pat Williamsen
With the publication of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener, Kimberly A. Hamlin introduces readers to one the most important suffragists we’ve never heard of. While the efforts of many individuals secured voting rights for women, one of her peers called Helen Hamilton Gardener “the most potent factor” in the last years of the suffrage movement. Moreover, Hamlin rightfully claims that “Gardener’s life provides a window into another America—a nation that women helped to make and the nation that women imagined America might become.”
Born in Virginia in 1853, Hamilton was christened Mary Alice Chenoweth, a name she would carry until her young adulthood. Like many nineteenth-century women who wished to be self-supporting, she chose to teach, studying first at the Cincinnati Normal School, then taking up a teaching post in Sandusky. Hamilton’s time in Ohio was cut short when her affair with a married man was publicly revealed. With the death of her teaching career, Chenoweth self-resurrected as Helen Hamilton Gardener—an outspoken champion of free thinking and the rights of women and girls. For the next 25 years, she kept company with the man whose love precipitated a sudden career change and refused to accept the role of “fallen woman.”
Instead, she became a celebrated speaker and writer, a Free Thinker agitating for the rights of women and girls. She took on the American Christian establishment, asserting that the Judeo-Christian tradition simply provided justification for marital rape and denying women equal rights under the law. Her lectures drew large crowds, and her calls for reform convinced many states to raise the age of consent.
Yet Hamilton succumbed to the mores and expectations of her time, masquerading as a respectable married woman whose husband exemplified “the New Chivalry.” Hamlin suggests that at best, Charles Selden Smart was a flawed knight of the New Chivalry. Yet while Gardener “evaded traditional marriage, by choice or by circumstance, and she supported herself and Smart with her earnings … she still depended on Smart’s affection and fidelity for her self-confidence and for her public persona.”
In the mid-1890s, Gardener began to embrace suffrage. Women could not achieve true equality until they could vote for candidates who supported legislation favorable to women’s concerns. Beyond the vote, women needed to attain political office and thus be the authors of legislation designed to protect women and girls.
Hamlin carefully explicates a complicated life filled with triumphs, setbacks and disappointments, revealing a nuanced individual who was a behind-the-scenes powerhouse for the suffrage movement. Eventually moving to Washington, DC, Hamilton became an unpaid lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In that role, Hamilton deftly navigated the halls of Congress, used her social connections to court influential leaders, and was a frequent White House visitor. As “a Chenoweth of Virginia,” she used her father’s Civil War service to convince southern legislators to support the suffrage cause, at the same time minimizing suffrage for African American women. Socially adept and calculating, Gardener’s persistence paid off time and again, vote by vote, until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1919 and sent to the states for ratification. Upon her death in 1925, Carrie Chapman Catt wrote “She was one of the wonders of the world.”
Helen Hamilton Gardener is one of many women who should be better known. Hamlin’s biography of her is a call to action “to look for more Helen Hamilton Gardeners—of all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities—to learn from the worlds they hoped to create; to revise our national stories to celebrate their experiences and contributions; and to become familiar with their complexities, failures, and triumphs so that we might better understand our own.” Free Thinker is an important addition to the historic record of the campaign for suffrage.
Kimberly Hamlin, PhD, is a professor of history and American Studies at Miami University. She is a member of the Ohio Humanities Speakers Bureau and offers talks on women’s history, suffrage, and Helen Hamilton Gardener.