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Helen H. Gardener


Country:United States

Lifetime: 1853 - 1925 Passed: ≈ 98 years ago

Helen Hamilton Gardener born Alice Chenoweth, was an American author, rationalist public intellectual, political activist, and government functionary. Gardener produced many lectures, articles, and books during the 1880s and 1890s and is remembered today for her role in the freethought and women's suffrage movements and for her place as a pioneering woman in the top echelon of the American civil service.

Alice Chenoweth, best remembered by her pen name, Helen Hamilton Gardener, was born near Winchester, Virginia, on January 21, 1853. She was the youngest of six children born to Rev. Alfred Griffith Chenoweth, an Episcopalian minister who had become a Methodist circuit rider, and his wife, the former Katherine A. Peel. The Chenoweth family traced its American antecedents back to a certain Arthur Chenoweth who had arrived in the fledgling Province of Maryland in 1635 to receive a grant of land for honorable service to Lord Baltimore.

The Chenoweth family subsequently made their way to Virginia, where Alice's father had inherited slaves. As objectors to the institution of slavery, the Chenoweths manumitted their slaves in 1853 over the existing legal obstacles to that course of action. The family moved to Washington, D.C. shortly thereafter. This was followed in 1855 by a move to Greencastle, Indiana. During the American Civil War, Chenoweth's father served the Federal cause, returning to the enemy state of Virginia to serve as a guide for Union troops there.

Alice Chenoweth received an excellent education and showed an interest in and aptitude for science and sociology. She associated with older people as a girl and read extensively on serious themes. She studied with tutors and attended various local schools, moving to Cincinnati, Ohio in her late teen years, where she graduated high school. After leaving high school Chenoweth enrolled in the Cincinnati Normal School, from which she graduated in June 1873.

Chenoweth worked as a schoolteacher for two years, giving up the profession (as was generally the case in the day) when she married in 1875. Her first husband, Charles Selden Smart, was nearly two decades her senior and served at the time as Ohio State School Commissioner. The couple moved to New York City in 1880, where Charles entered the insurance business while Alice attended biology courses at Columbia University, albeit not in pursuit of a degree. Chenoweth-Smart also lectured on sociology as part of the adult education program at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and tried her hand at writing for local newspapers under a variety of masculine pseudonyms.

In 1907, Gardener returned to Washington, D.C., where she took up the suffrage cause. In 1913 she was appointed a position to the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, becoming, six years later, its vice-chairwoman; she was elected as one of NAWSA's vice-presidents as chief liaison under the Woodrow Wilson administration, in 1917.

In 1920, Wilson appointed her to the United States Civil Service Commission, the first woman to occupy such a high federal position.

Gardener died in July 1925 in Washington, D.C. of chronic myocarditis. Keeping with her interest in the topic, Gardener's brain was donated for scientific study before her body was cremated and its ashes interred at Arlington National Cemetery beside the grave of her second husband.

Gardener's papers are housed at the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University at Cambridge, Massachusetts as part of its Woman's Rights Collection. An online finding aid of this material, which is encompassed in eight archival folders, is available. This material has been microfilmed by University Publications of America.

Gardener's brain is part of the Wilder Brain Collection at Cornell University.


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