Helen Hamilton Gardener, née Alice Chenoweth, may be the most famous suffrage activist you’ve never heard of. Her eventful experiences took her from the Civil War, to life as a so-called “fallen woman,” to a name change and political work in support of women’s issues, culminating in the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1919. In Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener, historian Kimberly A. Hamlin knits together the many strands of Gardener’s story into a compelling narrative about a woman who advocated tirelessly for the freedom to control her body, money and intellect.
A “fallen woman,” in 19th-century parlance, meant an unmarried woman who’d had any sexual experience whatsoever. Young Alice Chenoweth worked as a teacher, one of the few “respectable” professions open to single women in Cincinnati in the 1870s. She fell afoul of the sexual double standard when she entered into an affair with a married man who claimed to have left his wife. She lost her job because of the relationship; her partner, Charles Smart, did not. The situation prompted her to move to New York with Smart, change her name to Gardener and become a lifelong advocate for women’s independence.
As Helen Hamilton Gardener, she wrote books, gave lectures and became a champion for many women’s issues, including raising the age of consent and obtaining the vote. Gardener became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, but within this movement, Gardener advocated for the vote to be obtained first by white women. This strategy was intended to gain the support of Southern states, but it cruelly denied an alliance with black women for the universal right to vote.
With this biography, Hamlin has written a nuanced history of the suffrage movement through the life of a remarkable woman. Gardener wasn’t perfect, but this biography does an excellent job balancing her extraordinary achievements against her cultural blind spots.