Free Thinker (Hardcover)

Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

By Kimberly A. Hamlin

W. W. Norton & Company, 9781324004974, 400pp.

Publication Date: March 17, 2020

List Price: 28.95*
* Individual store prices may vary.


A story of transgression in the face of religious ideology, a racist and 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 became one of the most sought-after speakers on the nineteenth-century lecture circuit, published seven books and countless essays, supported herself, hobnobbed with the most interesting thinkers of her era, visited twenty-two countries, 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 takes active steps to unpack the racism that underpinned the women’s suffrage movement, giving readers a detailed view of Gardener’s politics and the contradictions inherent in them. 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.

About the Author

A recipient of the NEH Public Scholar Award, Kimberly A. Hamlin teaches history and American studies at Miami University of Ohio and contributes to the Made by History series in the Washington Post. The author of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America, she lives in Cincinnati.

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

Suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener is someone we need to know…Kimberly A. 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 S. Jones, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

Free Thinker is as vivid and arresting as its subject. And Helen Hamilton 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, Harvard University

Kimberly A. 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…Hamlin has righted the historical record with Free Thinker, required reading for absolutely everyone.

— Stacy A. Cordery, author of Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts

Free Thinker is an incredible biography of far more than a fascinating woman…A must read for anyone looking for a nuanced view of the complicated legacy of the suffrage movement.

— Marcia Chatelain, author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America and South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration