Sunday, January 20, 2013

Helen Hamilton Gardener

Whoever differs with the multitude, especially with a led multitude…will find out from their leaders that he has committed an unpardonable sin. It is a crime to travel a road of your own, especially if you put up guide-boards for the information of others.
Helen Hamilton Gardener

Born this day in 1853: Helen Hamilton Gardener (orig. Alice Chenoweth, 18531925), author, feminist, social reformer, and freethinker

Alice Chenoweth adopted the pseudonym Helen Hamilton Gardener after collecting a series of freethinking lectures she had delivered in 1884 into a volume titled Men, Women, and Gods, and Other Lectures (1885). She came to the attention of feminists, however, after writing “Sex in Brain,” a carefully researched refutation of the notion that the female brain is inferior to the male brain.

Gardner continually questioned the status quo, especially in regards to sexual equality. She decried the sexual double standard and the inferior position of women in marriage. She explored these themes in several novels. Is This Your Son, My Lord? (1890) won widespread attention and succeeded in its aim of using fiction to shine a light on fact. One topic of the novel was the age of consent for girls, which was exceedingly low in the nineteenth century—as low as 7 in one state.  (Please see below for an excerpt of the preface she wrote for the second edition. It’s a very stirring defense of her choice of topic for a novel and shows what insight feminists and freethinkers had—and needed to have to challenged entrenched notions.)
In 1913, after the Congressional Committee of the National American Women Suffrage Association defected to the more militant National Women’s Party, Gardner was invited to help organize a new Congressional Committee. She served as an unofficial lobbyist to President Wilson, with whom she was very close and on whom she was very influential. She worked quietly behind the scenes to effect passage of the 19th Amendment. 
In 1920 President Wilson appointed Gardener to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. At the time it was the highest federal position ever held by a woman.

From the author’s preface to the 1894 edition of Is This Your Son, My Lord?
 The double system of morals which has legal and therefore social support—which makes of man a free and dominant human being and of woman a dependent function only and always—is not understood one whit better than was physical slavery in 1853. Race ownership with its double code of moral obligation is now illegal, and therefore looked upon as immoral and wholly pernicious. Sex ownership is still legal, and for that reason, and for that only, is it recognized as less vicious that a double standard of moral obligation should exist between the sexes. There is but one depth of degradation below that which allowed men to hold in bondage their fellow men and make of them financial dependents, and legal and social and moral pensioners because they were black; and that is the depth which is touched when, by all legal, moral, social and financial conditions the marriage altar is but an auction block upon which, for the sake of the right to live, the purity and devotion and loyalty of womanhood are sold—not on equal terms—with no pretence of fair exchange—into a perpetual servitude of body and soul that knows no limit and can hope for no escape.

The black man had his food and clothes and code of morals and duties, in which he had no voice, served to him by a dominant race from which he could make no appeal. He was a dependent mentally, morally, and physically. That was the reason of his degradation. It was not that he suffered physical hardships. He was frequently better off in that regard, than was his free brother. It was the root of the system that degraded him. He was held as an inferior with no voice in his own control and no right to his own development.

Woman stands in that position to-day. She has no voice in her own government, nor in fixing the standards by which she is judged and controlled. She is a dependent morally, mentally, financially and physically.

It is all very well—and very silly—to say that women control society and make the moral standards that govern it. They do nothing of the kind. Financial dependents and political nonentities create no standards. They receive them ready made. The merest modicum of reason will supply the proof of this.

No subject class—no unrecognized, dependent class—ever yet made public opinion either for itself or for others. It always did, and it always must, simply reflect the sentiments and opinions of its rulers.

It is true that many a woman treats with scorn the “fallen” of her sex while receiving the companion in crime as a suitable son or husband. Who makes that sentiment? Who decides what woman is “fit to be a wife and mother”? Who makes the laws that give divorce to a husband for the least fault of the wife, but places another standard upon the loyalty of the husband?

Who talks about “making an honest woman” of his companion in guilt? Who makes him “honest”? Who enacted the legal standards upon which all these social sentiments rest? A man is valued of men for many things, least of which is his chastity. A woman is valued of men for few things, chief of which is her chastity. This double code can by no sane or reasonable person be claimed as woman made. Woman has had no voice whatever in its establishment. She has the same voice and power possessed by all financial and legally dependent creatures in its continuation and reflection. She is a very good mirror; but she cannot be accused of being the creator of the original of the reflection.

The willingness to accept a degraded and subordinate status in the world, and the assertion that they like it, are the lowest depths of human degradation to which human beings can be reduced. A system which produces willing legal, moral, financial and social dependents and inferiors is one that cannot fail, as all history shows, to breed crime and vice, poverty and insanity, imbecility and moral obliquity enough to make of a beautiful world a mere den of discomfort, discord, and despair.

This lesson has been taught and learned with classes and with races; but it is yet to bear but withered fruit while the mother of these classes and races is beneath justice and outside of freedom, while she is a financial dependent (which is always a slave ) a political non-existent, (which is always a creature without defence) a moral beggar at the feet of her companion in degradation and a social echo of the opinions, expressed or insinuated, of those who hold over her not only all physical, financial, and social power, but who also sway her through the tenderest and holiest ties, and scruple not, alas, to make her the victim of her own virtue.

Freedom of religion had its novelists long ago and, in its newer, broader phase, has them to-day. Freedom of political choice and action has numbered many a romancer and poet as its champion. Labor has not failed to dramatize its cause in literature and on the stage. The cause of manhood as against kingcraft, priestcraft, or slave driver, was exploited by many a gifted soul who with the dash of a poet’s or novelist’s pen showed more people the hideousness of the old and the hope in the newer thought than could have been induced to read or made to understand dry legal argument or sociological treatise.

Shall not woman have her novelists also ?

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  1. I found this while researching my address in Washington DC. Great information to have and share :) Thank you!

    1. You're welcome! Thanks for taking the time to comment. There is no shortage of interesting and accomplished women in our history. Keep spreading the word!