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

Norton. Mar. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9781324004974. $28.95. BIOG
Hamlin (American studies, Miami Univ. of Ohio) has made an important contribution to feminist historiography in this well-researched account that sheds light on radical reform movements of late 19th-century America and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853–1925) was intimately involved in these activities; indeed, as this book argues, she dedicated her life to realizing the preconditions that made the vote possible. Born Mary Alice Chenoweth, Gardener reinvented herself after a sex scandal in postbellum Ohio caused her to lose both her job and her reputation. Becoming a popular lecturer and author, she used her experiences to target economic insecurity and the sexual double standards applied to men vs. women. Her marriage to a retired army colonel eventually helped introduce her to political circles in Washington, DC, which Hamlin effectively details, particularly the infighting among suffrage groups and Gardener’s rivalry with the better-known Alice Paul. She also addresses the racial divisions of the 19th Amendment.
VERDICT Based on archival sources and Gardener’s own voluminous writings, this highly readable book should provide plenty of new insight into the period and Gardener’s fascinating life for general readers, scholars, and aspiring political activists alike.

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