A Conversation with Kimberly A. Hamlin
In her latest book “Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener,” historian Kimberly A. Hamlin tells the story of an influential and fascinating woman who you likely have never even heard of. Helen Hamilton Gardener dedicated her life to championing women’s rights and pushing back against the sexual double standard. She went toe-to-toe with some of the most prominent scientists and politicians of her day. She published 7 books and many more essays. By the time of her death in 1925, Gardener was the highest-ranking woman in federal government and a symbol of female citizenship.
Hamlin examines Gardener’s accomplishments and legacy, but she also uncovers a great secret: up until she was 23, Gardener went by Alice Chenoweth. Already a successful educator, “Alice Chenoweth” was featured prominently in Ohio newspapers which carried the details of her affair with a married man. A “fallen woman,” she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, and spent the rest of her life fighting the sexual double standard.
BackStory recently spoke with Hamlin about her research on Gardener, the themes of legacy and personal identity, and the considerable amount that this once-forgotten figure has to say about our present day.
BackStory: How did you first come across Helen Hamilton Gardener, and what was about her that interested you?
Hamlin: I first met, in quotes, Helen Hamilton Gardener, in the basement of the Perry-Castañeda Library at the University of Texas at Austin when I was working on my dissertation. My dissertation explored how 19th century feminists used science to advance claims for women’s equality.
So I was sitting in the basement thumbing through pages of old editions of Popular Science Monthly, the popular magazine from the 1870s and 1880s. I don’t know if UT still has these bound copies, but it was kind of fun to leaf through them in a non-digitized way. I could just really see the whole scope of conversation.
As I was perusing these old volumes, one woman named Helen Hamilton Gardener really stood out to me. She wrote to Popular Science Monthly to challenge the findings of this guy named Dr. William Hammond, who was a pioneering neurologist. He had been the surgeon general for the Union during the Civil War, and then he went on to help found the American Neurological Association and serve as one of its early presidents
So here’s this top-dog scientist, and here’s Helen Hamilton Gardener, some woman who has never gone to college and no one has ever heard of. And she’s challenging his research in the pages of Popular Science Monthly. So I thought, “Oh my gosh, who is this bold and fearless woman?” And also, she was totally right.
Hammond had advanced all these claims about the inferiority of women’s brains. He claimed that he had found 19 distinct ways in which women’s brains were quote / unquote “Naturally inferior to men’s.” Gardener and other women’s rights activists had been reading his research and thinking, “This makes no rational sense.” What are his studies like? This does not ring true.
Hammond’s research was mostly anecdotal, what his other male scientists friends had said about women that they encountered. Gardener conducted her own research, and she consulted with other leading neurologists in New York City, where she lived. She really championed what we would consider a more modern approach to science to disapprove Hammond’s claims that women were naturally intellectually inferior.
This was a huge issue in the 1870s and 1880s, because arguments like Hammond’s were generally used to keep women from higher education. This was when women were first trying to attend college in larger numbers, and people like Hammond were arguing that they should not be able to go to college, much less have professions. So the implications of Hammond’s arguments, as Gardener and others realized, were huge. That’s why she thought it was so important to discredit them.
BackStory: How did this discovery become full biography on Gardener?
Hamlin: I wrote about Gardener in my dissertation, and then in my first book I wrote about her interest in brain science and her later contributions. She donated her brain to science when she died in 1925 to prove the intellectual equality of women.
But something about her just stuck with me. She was so interesting. And I felt like through her, you could really see the whole of the 19th century women’s rights movement. She’s like the Forrest Gump of the women’s rights movement. She’s at all the things, she’s friends with all the people.
I came to see that you could really tell this much larger story. Everywhere I looked for her, I found her. Early on in my research I said, “Gosh, I wonder if she was involved in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington DC, the huge women’s march that suffragist Alice Paul planned to coincide with the first inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.”
I went to the archives and, lo and behold, who was Alice Paul’s right-hand woman in their makeshift office in DC every day? Helen Hamilton Gardener. Who was the press secretary for the campaign? Helen Hamilton Gardener. Who got every permission that they needed to march down Pennsylvania Avenue? Helen Hamilton Gardener. She plays a pivotal role in this marquee women’s suffrage event.
And that’s just one example of places where I thought, “I wonder if she’s there?” And then not only is she there, she’s totally responsible for many of the key elements of that event.
BackStory: How did you go about recreating Gardener, especially given that she went through a major identity change? Was there a chance that you just weren’t going to uncover the person she was before she became Gardener?
Hamlin: In Gardener’s will, she decrees that her executors burn her correspondence or destroy it in some other way. I think that’s because she had had a scandalous early life and a big affair. She didn’t leave behind a set of traditional papers. Mostly it was kind of a hunting and pecking exercise to trace her comings and goings.
Because of this affair and the resulting sex scandal she had in her early twenties, she changed her name. I loved this project because I did a lot of traditional historical research, and then a lot of sleuthing, which was the really fun part.
One thing that made this book possible is the digitization of small local newspapers. I found a lot of details about Gardener’s early life, including the affair that she had in Ohio, through the digitization of small local Ohio newspapers. It would have been impossible to go to every county in Ohio and physically look through old newspapers, but because they had been digitized, I could find her.
Another source that was really helpful in finding her in these early years, was this Freethought periodical called Truth Seeker, which has been posted online and digitized and you can search it. In Truth Seeker, Gardener wrote a lot of entries and essays for Truth Seeker, but they also loved her, so they frequently profiled her comings and goings. That was another important avenue to trace her early years.
BackStory: It is fascinating how her affair was litigated in public in these newspapers.
Hamlin: Exactly. She’s this 23-year-old woman with hardly any family to support her. She has nothing really to fall back on. Yet she has this strength in herself to say, “You know what, no. I’m not going to just sneak away in shame over this. I’m going to question, why are women held to such a different standard in terms of sex? Why is a woman’s virginity considered her most valuable asset?”
She moves to New York City, changes her name and reinvents. And I just love that about her.
BackStory: That brings up another point, in how clearly you are able to link Gardener’s personal experiences with the causes that she fought for. This is especially interesting considering her lack of awareness about racial issues, especially as they concern women’s freedom and equality.
Hamlin: I think that’s exactly right. A pro and a con of Gardner’s activism, is that it was very much rooted in her personal experience.
It’s admirable to think that you can turn your personal struggles into political movements and social change. That’s what she did in terms of the sexual double-standard and her work to raise the age of sexual consent.
But then a con of drawing so closely on her personal experience, is thinking about herself as a stand-in for all women. This really blinded her to the experiences of African-American women and limited her ability to challenge the racist ideologies of her day.
Gardener was such an iconoclast. She had no fear calling out the church for its misogyny, or writing controversial articles about sex. But even she could not see her way through racism.
I think that’s in large part due to her upbringing and her experiences during the Civil War. I have this sense that because Gardener’s family had sacrificed so much during the Civil War, and to end slavery, that she felt this somehow absolved her from having to do anything more.
It is an unfortunate part of her legacy, but one that I think we really need to grapple with in terms of our larger understanding about voting rights and the history of women’s rights.
BackStory: I want to ask about this idea of legacy and historical memory, and how that ties in with the individual. Gardener was obviously very aware of her legacy. In your book, you also explain how the Suffragists held their specific coalition and movement to stand for women’s suffrage overall.
Hamlin: I have a lot of thoughts on that, and I’ve published some shorter pieces about it. Most recently, in a Washington Post op-ed called “The Problem With Women’s History Month in 2020,” I argue that the suffragists were in many ways the nation’s first historians of women.
They were the first to compile and write about the contributions of women because they thought it helped advance their claims for citizenship. And they were the first to assemble archives for women, because they realized the importance of documenting women’s contributions to American life, not just for history, but also for politics.
For example, in 1909 the National American Women’s Suffrage Association had a committee, and their charge was to investigate all the history and civics textbooks in America, to assess how women were represented. At the annual convention, the committee chair reported that history and civics textbooks basically tell the story that the world was made by, and for, men.
I would say that even though many tremendous gains have been made in history textbooks over the past several decades, that even though there’ve been generations of pioneering historians of women, our national narratives still are basically the story of old great white men.
In 2017, the National Women’s History Museum conducted a comprehensive survey of all history textbooks to see how women were represented. They found that women are still sidebarred from the larger stories of American national life.
We have a long way to go. Like the suffragists said, the stories we tell about our past shape what we think is possible in the present and in the future. It’s really important that we tell new stories and different stories about our past if we want to see change in the future.
BackStory: It’s interesting, as well as disheartening, how relevant Gardener and her beliefs are today.
Hamlin: I think Gardener is really a suffragist for the Me Too era, because her life, work and writing show so clearly the links between women’s political and bodily autonomy. So while Gardener didn’t advocate for birth control or anything – that would have been a little too radical even for her in her day – she wanted the world to recognize that women were “self-respecting human units with brains and bodies sacredly their own.”
That was really the core of her life’s mission. To see that there was a place for autonomous women who could make their own money, who could behave as they wanted to in private and in public, and participate equally in politics. I think a testament to that is, when Gardener died in 1925, she was the highest ranking woman in federal government and a national symbol of what it meant for women to be full citizens.
A recipient of the NEH Public Scholar Award, Kimberly A. Hamlin teaches history and American studies at Miami University of Ohio and contributes to the Made by History series in the Washington Post. The author of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America, she lives in Cincinnati.