cover image Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

Kimberly A. Hamlin. Norton, $28.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-324-00497-4

Hamlin (From Eve to Evolution), a professor of American studies at Miami University of Ohio, delivers an eye-opening biography of women’s rights activist Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853–1925). Born Mary Alice Chenoweth, Gardener became the youngest school principal in Ohio at the age of 21. When a newspaper exposed her affair with the married school commissioner, Charles Smart, she left Ohio, became a protégé of noted “freethinker” Robert Ingersoll, and delivered her first lecture as Helen Hamilton Gardener in New York City in 1884 (“Hamilton” and “Gardener” were Smart’s grandmothers’ maiden names). In speeches and writings, Gardener refuted claims that women had different brain structures than men, challenged traditional views on sexuality, and led a nationwide campaign to raise the age of sexual consent to 18 (most states had it at 12 or 14). After Smart’s death in 1901 (the couple lived together in New York, but never married), Gardener settled in Washington, D.C., where she helped to organize the 1913 women’s suffrage parade and forged close relationships with members of Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Following passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, she joined the Civil Service Commission as “the highest-ranking and highest-paid woman in federal government.” Though the book’s middle section occasionally flags, 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. [em](Mar.) [/em]