Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener
How one “fallen woman” battled religious ideology, pseudoscience, and political resistance to women’s right to vote.
Exposed in Ohio newspapers for an affair with a married man, Alice Chenoweth refused to cower in shame. Instead she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, pretended to be married to her lover, and became a wildly popular lecturer and author, brazenly opposed to sexist piety and propriety.
The “Harriet Beecher Stowe of Fallen Women,” she supported raising the age of sexual consent for girls (from twelve or younger), decried double standards of sexual morality, and debunked scientists’ claims that women’s brains were inferior. With liberal doses of feminine charm, Gardener networked tirelessly to persuade Woodrow Wilson and other male politicians to support the Nineteenth Amendment. Her effort, according to suffrage leader Maud Wood Park, was “the most potent factor” in its passage.
As more women enter politics than ever before, Kimberly A. Hamlin recovers the wildly entertaining and illuminating life of a brilliant, effective woman—all but forgotten—who paved the way.
“Hamlin provides a captivating behind-the-scenes view of the suffrage movement on the cusp of its final victory, and her eloquent account sparkles with Gardener’s sharp personality. Feminists and fans of women’s history will be exhilarated.”
-Publishers Weekly (Full Review)
“Throughout the chronological, passionately researched narrative, Hamlin captures all angles of her fascinating subject. A captivating story of yet another strong, brilliant woman who should be better known.”
-Kirkus (Full Review)
“Suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener is someone we need know. Present at critical moments in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment, she led a life of burning commitment and political savvy mixed with a heavy dose of personal intrigue. Kimberly Hamlin’s careful research, unflinching eye, and storytelling gift reveal how Gardener’s path to the ballot was paved with ideas that ran from free thought and the science of “heredity” to white supremacy. Free Thinker makes plain how suffragists like Gardener left a legacy on voting rights that was uneven at best. We live with its vestiges until today.”
-Martha Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University
“Free Thinker is as vivid and arresting as its subject. And Gardener’s insistent argument, that American women were ‘self-respecting, self-directing human units with brains and bodies sacredly their own,’ still feels as urgent and as radical as it did a century ago. ”
-Jane Kamensky, Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
“To understand suffrage fully, we must know Helen Hamilton Gardener. This eccentric, freethinking, independent woman convinced Woodrow Wilson finally to support votes for women and skillfully negotiated with key members of Congress, assuring the passage of the 19th Amendment. Kimberly Hamlin’s incisive and nuanced biography completes the suffrage picture with her deeply researched and gripping story of a woman who transgressed social and sexual rules and then rose, phoenix-like, to become the potent and irrepressible closer for the suffrage crusade. Gardener’s actions were integral to the long march toward women’s equality, and yet she remains unknown. Luckily, Hamlin has righted the historical record with Free Thinker, required reading for absolutely everyone.”
-Stacy A. Cordery, Professor, Department of History, Iowa State University, Biographer of Alice Roosevelt and Juliette Gordon Low
Free Thinker is an incredible biography of far more than a fascinating woman. This is a story about the theories and actions that not only led to the first step in securing women’s suffrage, but also the ideas and politics that still shape the ways we grapple with racial inequality, gender bias, and the limits of democracy. A must read for anyone looking for a nuanced view of the complicated legacy of the suffrage movement.
-Marcia Chatelain, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University
“Helen Hamilton Gardener lived her life in full revolt against the religious, scientific, and political constraints that treated women as second-class citizens. Kimberly Hamlin skillfully chronicles that story while also revealing Gardener’s decidedly unconventional personal life and her remarkable ability to sustain a public career despite it. For Helen Hamilton Gardener, the personal and the political were always deeply intertwined.”
–Susan Ware, Author of Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote