Helen Hamilton Gardener was a Badass.
Every March, the same stories about the awesome, amazing, powerful, superhero women are rolled out for Women’s History Month. Rosa Parks. Harriett Tubman. Susan B. Anthony. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Alice Paul. Their stories are important, but is that it? Wherefore art everybody else? It’s the same for Black History Month. Both deserve much celebration and it’s better to have them than to not, but some wonder if they keep us from having a deeper understanding of how women and people of color have and continue to shape U.S. history.
Textbooks barely scratch the surface of the broad-based, multi-ethnic, coast-to-coast campaign for women’s equality that resulted in the ratification of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago this year (nor do they address the 19th’s lack of enfranchisement for women of color). To be fair, it’s a lot to cover in just one month. As we honor the ongoing work of women to gain equality citizenship, it’s time to integrate women’s stories more fully into our national narratives and civic memories.
Right. So. We’re inspired to feature some of those women that they don’t teach about in school.
Helen Hamilton Gardener (born Alice Chenoweth in 1853) was an American writer, freethinker, lecturer, reformer, public official, and a strong-ass force in feminism and the fight for women’s suffrage.
What she’s most known for:
She made a splash among feminists in 1888 with her refutation of a widely publicized claim by a leading neurologist that the female brain was inherently and measurably inferior to the male brain. By 1913, she was the vice president of the Congressional Committee of the National Woman's Suffrage Association, and was a central figure in maneuvering the 19th amendment through a maze of obstacles. In 1920, Woodrow Wilson appointed her to the U.S. Civil Service Commission, the highest federal position occupied by a woman to that time. She was kind of a big deal.
What we want to share about her:
You guys, in 1890 the age of sexual consent for girls was 10. Let that sink in. Our friend Helen Hamilton Gardener and her friends at the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (yep, the Prohibition ladies) did not like that. They led a successful campaign to convince states to raise the age of consent, which was 10 (it bears repeating). They subverted the lack of women representation in legislatures with propaganda about female purity and the dangers of vicious men, especially city-men. Fears about the corrupting influence of modern urban life to white womanhood spurred many to action, and, by 1895, 31 states had raised the age of consent to between 14 and 17, which is clearly better than 10.
Some states refused to budge, arguing that raising the age of consent would be a slippery slope toward outlawing alcohol. They weren’t wrong: another badass woman leader, Frances Willard, president of the WCTU, linked alcohol and degradation of women as “the Siamese twins of vice.” Others expressed concern that raising the age would encourage nefarious teenage girls to “lay traps” for “inexperienced boys” as a way to force them into marriage. Meanwhile, reformers focused on the plight of white women, few making the glaringly obvious connection between their fight and the generations-long sexual violence against enslaved women and girls that continued post-emancipation.
Gardener argued that the real impediment to change was that men were making these laws without the input of women. Reader, she was right on target. By 1895, only two states had succeeded in raising the age of consent to 18 — Wyoming and Kansas. These happened to be states where women could vote. Coincidence? By 1920, nearly every state in the United States had raised the age of sexual consent to 16. Getting these laws on the books paved the way for women’s federal enfranchisement in 1920 and established women as political operators.
But here’s the sad truth: these laws did not undo men’s readiness to wield sex as a form of power over women. IT IS STILL HAPPENING. Although we’ve come a long way toward equality, we’re not there yet. Women have a voice in laws, but we don’t have equality when it comes to holding positions of power. There’s hope, though. Movements like #MeToo are a continuation of the work of Helen Hamilton Gardener and the many others whose names have been lost to history.