Helen H. Gardener
Gardener, Helen Hamilton (21 January 1853 - 28 July 1925)
Gardener. nee Alice Chenoweth, was born in Virginia, the youngest daughter of a minister. Changing her name in her thirties, Alice became a writer in New York City, studied biology at Columbia, and met "the Great Agnostic" Robert Green Ingersoll. Ingersoll wrote the preface of her Men, Women, and Gods, which was published by the Truth Seeker in book form and contained,
- I do not know of any divine commands. I do know of most important human ones. I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. . . . I do know that women make shirts for seventy cents a dozen in this one. I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun.
A friend of feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Helen was a member of Stanton's Woman's Bible Committee. Chosen by Stanton to deliver her memorial service, Gardener quipped that while most suffragists found the Woman's Bible too radical, she found it not radical enough!
Gardener also used fiction to crusade for women's rights, writing novels, for example, showing the harm of the scandalously low age of consent laws of her era. She became vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1917, working as the chief liaison with President Woodrow Wilson's administration, and credited with being a "worker of miracles" by sister suffragists. At age 67, Helen became the first woman appointed to the United States Civil Service Commission, serving with distinction for five years
Three of her novels were translated into German. She was a freethought lecturer, a quite uncommon calling in her time. With humor and a knowledge of science, Gardener refuted a current view that women’s inferiority is because of their small brain size.
Gardener, an outspoken agnostic, was dubbed “Ingersoll done in soprano” by the New York Sun and “the pretty infidel” by the Chicago Times.
Her funeral services were held at her home, 1838 Lamont Street N.W., Washington, D. C. She had requested that there be no religious ceremony. In charge was William C. Deming, President of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, who included the following memories:
- I think I have never known anyone who with so little ostentation did so much for others. She believed in the Oriental motto that "He who gives has all things, and he who withholds has nothing." To the many women of the Commission, and others who called on her, she was as a mother, sister, and friend. She devoted her public life to the cause of women and her immediate personal activities to her family and friends.
- Her selection as a member of the United States Civil Service Commission abundantly justified the precedent then set of choosing a woman to occupy a place upon that igh body.
- Her years rested so lightly upon her shoulders that she had up to her last serious illness the vigor of a woman of fifty and the enthusiasm and interest in life of a schoolgirl. Around the conference table of the Civil Service Commission she was an interesting study because when the occasion demanded she could be a stern as well as a just judge. She had little or no patience or sympathy with chronic offenders against the civil service law. It sometimes seemed to me that she could add six inches to her short stature when she lifted her shoulders and raised her head in asking a pertinent question. Withal she brought to the Commission a woman's tenderness and a woman's intuition.
- She exercised great breadth of vision, and there was an entire absence of prejudice in the discharge of her official duties. She made no distinction between North and South, East and West, or between parties or factions; but she was especially alert in seeing that no rightful opportunity belonging to women was overlooked in the service and that the under dog," regardless of his creed or color, had his day in court.
- Of her it may be said, "She lived in deeds, not words; in heart throbs, not in figures on the dial. Her courage and optimism abided through her long illness."
Denning added that her last words - said to her niece, Miss Helen Crane, her secretary, Miss Rena Smith, and our librarian, Miss Anna Holdridge, when they were leaving her - were "Goodnight, children." He added, "She said it as naturally and as happily as if she would see them again. That was her way. She always made things easy for those around her. She passed away peacefully in her sleep after a glorious sunrise."