Gardener, Helen Hamilton (1853–1925)

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Gardener, Helen Hamilton (1853–1925)

American author, feminist, suffragist, and federal civil service commissioner . Name variations: Alice Chenoweth; Alice Smart. Born Alice Chenoweth in Winchester, Virginia, on January 21, 1853; died in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 1925; third daughter and youngest of six children of Reverend Alfred G. and Katherine A. (Peel) Chenoweth; attended high school in Cincinnati; graduated from the Cincinnati Normal School, 1873; studied biology at Columbia University; married Charles S. Smart (school commissioner of Ohio), in 1875 (died 1901); married Colonel Selden Allen Day (a retired army officer), on April 9, 1902 (died 1919); no children.

The daughter of an abolitionist and itinerant Methodist preacher, Helen Gardener was born Alice Chenoweth in Winchester, Virginia, on January 21, 1853. She grew up in Washington, D.C., Greencastle, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio, where she attended high school and graduated from the Cincinnati Normal School. A brief career as a schoolteacher was followed by her marriage in 1875 to Charles Smart, then school commissioner of Ohio. In 1878, the couple moved to New York, where Smart entered the insurance business and Gardener studied biology at Columbia University, lectured in sociology at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, and contributed articles on sundry subjects to newspapers (using various masculine pseudonyms). At this time, her friendship with the renowned agnostic Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll and his wife had a great impact on her life, and at Ingersoll's urging Gardener began giving a series of freethinking lectures which were heavily influenced by her new mentor. In 1885, the lectures were published as Men, Women and Gods, and Other Lectures (1885) under the name Helen Hamilton Gardener, a mysterious pseudonym that Gardener eventually adopted as her legal name.

Gardener came to the attention of feminists in 1888 with her famous essay "Sex in Brain," a refutation of a widely publicized claim by Dr. William A. Hammond, a New York neurologist and former U.S. surgeon general, that female brains were inherently and measurably inferior to male brains. Gardener's well-researched rebuttal argued that Hammond's findings were invalid because all of the male brains he had studied were from intelligent, accomplished men, while the female brains in his study had come from indigents and criminals. To provide a suitable specimen for future research of this sort, Gardener magnanimously bequeathed her own brain to Cornell University.

Gardener achieved her greatest popularity with her novel This Your Son, My Lord? (1890), an outspoken attack on legalized prostitution, and the ridiculously low legal age at which girls were considered to be at the age of consent, told through the melodramatic story of a young girl's demise at the hands of seemingly respectable men. The book sold 25,000 copies in five months and was a source of shock and controversy among critics and readers alike. Gardener's next novel, Pray You Sir, Whose Daughter? (1892), with which she hoped to repeat her earlier success, dealt with the inferior status imposed upon married women. Gardener digressed somewhat in her next book, a fictional biography of her father, An Unofficial Patriot (1884), which is considered by some to be her best work. In 1899, it was successfully dramatized by playwright James A. Herne as Griffith Davenport, Circuit Rider. In two collections of short stories, A Thoughtless Yes (1890) and Pushed by Unseen Hands (1892), she returned to challenge the status quo, and her articles on social issues, which appeared in numerous journals, were collected in Facts and Fictions of Life (1893). A long-time contributor to the reform magazine Arena, Gardener was its co-editor in 1897. (Her husband Charles Smart served as Arena's business manager for several years.)

After the death of Smart in 1901, and her second marriage to Selden Allen Day, a retired army officer, Gardener spent five years in world travel, during which time her interest in reform cooled somewhat. The couple settled in Washington in 1907, after which Gardener was called upon by suffragists to use her wide social contacts with government figures to advance their cause. In 1913, after members of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association resigned to back Alice Paul 's militant Congressional Union, Gardener was appointed to reorganize the association. She became its vice president in 1917, and through her personal contacts with President Woodrow Wilson and Speaker of the House Champ Clark, she was a central figure in steering the federal suffrage amendment to eventual ratification in 1920. That same year, at age 67, Gardener was appointed by Wilson to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, thus becoming the first woman to hold so high a federal position. Serving in the post until her death in 1925, Helen Gardener remained the consummate feminist, constantly finding ways to make federal service a more accessible and equitable career for women.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.


The Helen Hamilton Gardener Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts