September 24, 2014

Women of Doubt: Helen Hamilton Gardener waged a battle of brains

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Every once in a while, I read a story...and I am like, how have I never heard this before?

Such is the case with Helen Hamilton Gardener, a woman from Virginia and a force to be reckoned with in the early days of the women's rights movements.

She was a curious individual, with an insatiable mind.

And she had an even curiouser request after death.

Let's take a look.

On January 21, 1853, an Episcopalian minister turned Methodist circuit rider and his wife welcomed their sixth and last child, Alice, just outside of Winchester, Virginia. 1

The Chenoweth family had moved to Virginia to claim her father's inheritance, a number of slaves, which he released, and then they moved to Washington, D.C. It wasn't long before the circuit sent them on to Indiana, although they returned to Virginia to guide Union troops during the Civil War. 1

In the midst of this, Alice received an excellent education, showing an aptitude in and passion for science and sociology. 1

In 1873, she graduated from the Cincinnati Normal School.2

She taught for two years after leaving school, but then left the workforce to marry Charles Selden Smart in 1875. 1

The couple moved to New York City in 1880. There, Alice attended biology classes at Columbia University and lectured on sociology at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. 2

In New York, Alice made the acquaintance of Robert G. Ingersoll, in the infamous agnostic lecturer. Ingersoll encouraged her to give public lectures, which she did, extolling the ways in which religion subjugated women. 1

In 1885, these early lectures were collected in a book titled Men, Women, Gods, and Other Lectures. 2  It was in this work that she adopted her pseudonym, Helen Hamilton Gardener. Later, she would even have her name legally changed to match it.1

She kept the name and rose to fame as one of a vanguard of Freethinkers among American feminists of the second half of the 19th century. Gardener traveled through thirty countries as a lecturer, especially on social issues: in her Facts and Fictions of Life (1893), she blasted the popular neurological fancy that the female brain is inherently inferior to the male brain.4

Her interest in feminism grew throughout the 1880s as she published a number of short stories and essays in leading magazines. 1

In 1887, she would begin one of the greatest debates of her life, a "Letter to the Editor" war with former United States Surgeon General William A. Hammond, who had claimed that there was a neurological basis for feminine inferiority.1

This changed the course of her life:

She came to wide attention among feminists in 1888 with her carefully researched refutation of a widely publicized claim by a leading neurologist that the female brain was inherently and measurably inferior to the male brain.

In From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America, the debates are described as:

Helen Hamilton Gardener read [Hammond's] address and picked up her pen. She responded to Hammond in the pages of Popular Science Monthly, sparking several months of back-and-forth debate in the letters to the editor section. Their exchange highlights the contested status of nineteenth-century science and the high stakes for women in determining how science would ultimately be defined and practiced. Much like Mary Putnam Jacobi's response to Clarke, Gardener objected to Hammond's methods as much as to his sexist findings--findings that she suggested were based on "assumption and prejudice" rather than "scientific facts and discoveries." To Gardener, Hammond's arguments were particularly dangerous because they carried the cultural authority of coming from a nationally respected scientist: "the writings of such a man, aided by the circulation and prestige of the leading journals of the country, which publicize them as authoritative, must inevitably influence school directors, voters, and legislators and go far to crystallize the belief that facts are well known to the medical profession, with which it would be dangerous to trifle." But trifle she did. (82-3) 3

To refute Hammond, Gardener struck up a friendship with Edward C. Spitka, who was a prominent neurologist. She used this relationship to find information:

In particular, Gardener asked Spitzka if brain anatomists could identify the sex of individuals simply by looking at their brains (Hammond worked the opposite way--he knew the sex of the brains he studied and then asked what were their distinctive features). Since Hammond placed such emphasis on the size and structural differences between male and female brains, Gardener thought this would be a logical test of his theory. (83) 3

Gardener found this to be an unbelievable assertion based on her knowledge of brain development in lower animals--nowhere else did she see such incongruous development in the brains of mammals of the same species. She also asked whether the brains of infants could be distinguished according to sex. She was not disappointed. 3

Spitzka and the other experts informed her that they could not determine the sex of an infant's or an adult's brain simply by looking at it. (83) 3

While Gardener took issue with a number of Hammond's arguments, it is perhaps her brain challenge that is most notable:

To give him a chance to prove his point once and for all, Gardener proposed a challenge: if Hammond could successfully determine the sex of twenty brains she provided for him, borrowed from the collections of her brain anatomist friends, she would forever rest her case. Hammond replied that this challenge was preposterous and suggested, instead, that he provide her with twenty thumbs and ask her to identify the sex of the person from whom they came. The editors of the Woman's Tribune cheered Gardener from afar, declaring that if Hammond did not accept her challenge "we want to hear nothing more from him on the subject of women's inferiority." (83) 3

After this point, Gardener was a fixture in the women's rights movements.

She was perturbed by what she saw as a dissymmetry in the quality of female brains available for scientists, so she issued a challenge:

"I sincerely hope that the brains of some of our able women may be preserved and examined by honest brain students, so that we may hereafter have our Cuviers and Websters and Cromwells. And I think I know where some of them can be found without a search-warrant--when Miss Anthony, Mrs. Stanton, and some others I have the honor to know, are done with theirs." (86) 3

This was the start of a  lifelong friendship between Gardener and a feminist great:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton heeded the call. After hearing Gardener's "Sex in Brain" speech, Stanton declared, "The paper read last night by Helen Gardener was an unanswerable argument to the twaddle of the scientists on woman's brain. The facts she gave us were so encouraging that I started life again this morning, with renewed confidence that my brain might hold out a few years longer." This meeting solidified an intimate and sustaining friendship between Stanton and Gardener, two outspoken freethinkers. They supported each other's agnosticism and remained close friends and allies until Stanton's death. (86) 3

The friendship included close working relationships too:

...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! Helen 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. 5

She returned to Washington, D.C., in 1907 to devote herself to the cause of suffrage. She was appointed to the National American Women Suffrage Association's Congressional Committee in 1913. 1

She was uniquely suited to the role:

Her contacts, notably with President Woodrow Wilson and Speaker of the House Champ Clark, along with her wit and tact, made her a central figure in the practical business of maneuvering the federal suffrage amendment through a maze of obstacles. 2

She was made vice-president of NAWSA, as a liaison with Woodrow Wilson's administration in 1917. 1

In 1920, she was appointed by Wilson to the United States Civil Service Commission, making her the first woman to occupy such a high federal position.1

She served with the civil service until her death, on July 26, 1925.

But Gardener's story doesn't end there. You see, back in her days with Stanton, they'd come to an agreement:

They also took an important oath together: Stanton and Gardener pledged to each other that upon their deaths they would donate their brains to science so that, for the first time, researchers might compare the brains of eminent women with those of eminent men. (86) 3

And yet, Stanton's heirs rejected the deal. Her brain was not donated.

However, Gardner would have better luck:

When Gardener died in 1925, she was a widow without children or other meddlesome heirs to derail her plans. Within hours of her death at Walter Reed hospital, Army Major Frank D. Francis packaged her brain and shipped it to Cornell's brain collection, where it remains on display today. In her will, Gardener explained that in 1897 Burt Wilder, the founder of the Cornell brain collection that bears his name, had invited her to submit her brain as a "representative of the brains of women who have used their brains for the public welfare" and that after having spent her life "using such brains as I possess in trying to better the conditions of humanity and especially of women" she was happy to grant this request." (87-9) 3

It was dissected by Dr. James Papez, who found the brain highly developed. Papez found the differences in the brain to be more cultural and social than biological--he believed that race, class, and circumstance influenced brain development far more than anything else.

The significance of her act echoed:

As Gardener hoped, her brain did what her pen could not: it established once and for all that her intellect had not been handicapped by her sex. (91) 3

In the end, she had the last word.


It teaches that a man may have any number of wives; that he may sell them, give them away, or swap them around, and still be a perfect gentleman, a good husband, a righteous man, and one of God’s most intimate friends… It teaches almost every infamy under the heavens for woman, and it does not recognize her as a self-directing, free human being. It classes her as property, just as it does a sheep: and it forbids her to think, talk, act, or exist, except under conditions and limits defined by some priest.

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. 

There is no book which tells of a more infamous monster than the Old Testament, with its Jehovah of murder and cruelty and revenge, unless it be the New Testament, which arms its God with hell, and extends his outrages throughout all eternity. 

The most fatal blow to progress is slavery of the intellect. The most sacred right of humanity is the right to think, and next to the right to think is the right to express that thought without fear. 

This religion and the Bible requires of woman everything, and give her nothing. They ask her support and her love, and repay her with contempt and oppression.


1 "Helen H. Gardener". Wikipedia. <> Accessed 23 September, 2014

2 "Helen Hamilton Gardener". Encyclopedia Britannica. <> Accessed 23 September, 2014

3 Hamlin, Kimberly A. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2014) 79-93.

4 Meyer, Ronald Bruce. "January 21: Helen Hamilton Gardener". Freethought Almanac. <> Accessed 23 September, 2014

5 Gaylor, Annie Laurie. "Helen H. Gardener". Freedom from Religion Foundation. <> Accessed 23 September, 2014

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