Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Free Thinker: Helen Hamilton Gardener by Kimberly A. Hamlin

Free Thinker: Helen Hamilton Gardener by Kimberly A. Hamlin
Published in America by W W Norton on the 17th March 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A story of transgression in the face of religious ideology, a sexist scientific establishment, and political resistance to securing women’s right to vote.

When Ohio newspapers published the story of Alice Chenoweth’s affair with a married man, she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardener, moved to New York, and devoted her life to championing women’s rights and decrying the sexual double standard. She published seven books and countless essays, hobnobbed with the most interesting thinkers of her era, and was celebrated for her audacious ideas and keen wit. Opposed to piety, temperance, and conventional thinking, Gardener eventually settled in Washington, D.C., where her tireless work proved, according to her colleague Maud Wood Park, "the most potent factor" in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Free Thinker is the first biography of Helen Hamilton Gardener, who died as the highest-ranking woman in federal government and a national symbol of female citizenship. Hamlin exposes the racism that underpinned the women’s suffrage movement and the contradictions of Gardener’s politics. Her life sheds new light on why it was not until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Nineteenth Amendment became a reality for all women.

Celebrated in her own time but lost to history in ours, Gardener was hailed as the "Harriet Beecher Stowe of Fallen Women." Free Thinker is the story of a woman whose struggles, both personal and political, resound in today’s fight for gender and sexual equity.

I didn't know much about the American women's suffrage movement prior to reading Free Thinker although I have a good awareness of the English fight through books such as Helen Lewis' Difficult Women and, of course, Emmeline Pankhurst's autobiography, My Own Story. Women's experiences between the two countries through the late 1800s and early 1900s have numerous similarities, but I discovered in Free Thinker the extent to which the aftermath of the American Civil War tainted the American struggle through so many white people's determination to preserve as much as possible of the social structure they enjoyed before slavery was officially abolished.

As a Southern woman who often played up her ancestry whilst hiding her more immediate personal past, Helen Hamilton Gardener was an amazingly determined fighter for women's rights and I appreciated this opportunity to discover this formidable woman. It is interesting to see how many of her contemporaries, such as Annie Paul and Elizabeth B Stanton, are still household names whereas Gardener has all but faded into obscurity. Personally, and solely influenced by the evidence given in Free Thinker, I don't think I would have actually liked her much myself, but as a template for an early political lobbyist who repeatedly became successful in her own right, Helen Hamilton Gardener should be an inspirational historical figure.

I found Free Thinker to be an informative and interesting biography both in its well-researched details of Gardener's life and in its ability to place her in the rapidly changing history of the times. One of the first female public speakers, a novelist and inspired pamphleteer, and she even rewrote the Bible! I was less enamoured with Hamlin's repeated labouring of two points - Gardener's not actually having married the man she lived with and her focus on white women's suffrage at the expense of all women's suffrage.

The lack of unified sisterhood within the women's rights movement is still a major issue now, a century after the nineteenth amendment was passed. At least today it is openly acknowledged that advances gained by one group aren't automatically granted to all - for example black women wouldn't all enjoy their basic right to vote in America until the 1960s - but for Gardener and many of her race and class it seems to have been unthinkable to delay their own advancement until they had convinced American society to grant votes to all women. I don't think that attitude is particularly of the era though as I see intersectional women today still being left to catch up on their own. Helen Hamilton Gardener was certainly a woman to forge ahead though and I would have been interested to read her speeches alongside her life story. Perhaps Project Gutenberg will have them?

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  1. I don't know much about American suffrage either and know a lot more about British suffrage so it sounds like there are some things I could learn from this one too. I also agree that unity within sisterhood is still an ongoing problem that we are trying to work on yet...

    1. I was glad to have had the opportunity to read this and would be interested in more books about the Free Thinkers of the time

  2. This sounds like something my mother would love! And a book that I could learn a lot from!

    1. A book you both coukd share!
      I found this one a fascinating read :-)