Not long after her arrival in Manhattan, Helen Hamilton Gardener tried to register for science classes at Columbia University, not far from her apartment on 82nd Street. But in the 1880s, women could enroll only in the special Collegiate Course for Women, not in the University’s science classes. For the rest of her life, she proudly claimed to have done postgraduate work in biology at Columbia, but in reality she would have had to sit silently in the back of the class as an auditor.
In the long tradition of Thomas Paine, 19th-century freethinkers viewed science as the apotheosis of rational thought. Gardener, a voracious reader and autodidact, joined them in enthusiastically championing science. Atheists and agnostics had long dismissed biblical literalism, and the new science of evolution promised to substantiate their critiques with evidence. At the same time, the broad-based acceptance of evolutionary theory helped bring the freethought movement comfortably into the mainstream.
Freethought conventions and publications regularly celebrated Charles Darwin—especially upon his death in 1882—and discussed the latest scientific and technological developments. Religion could not explain modern marvels like electricity, photography, or the telephone. Science could. Freethinkers believed that such advancements heralded the eventual triumph of a secular worldview.
For Gardener and other female freethinkers, evolutionary theory offered the additional benefit of debunking the Adam and Eve creation story. For generations, the lessons drawn from this myth circumscribed women’s opportunities, justified their ill treatment, and diminished their self-confidence. Eve was created from Adam’s rib to be his helpmate; thus, it was preordained that women should be subservient to men. Eve introduced sin into the world by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; thus, women were not to be trusted and sin was their fault.
For her transgression, God cursed Eve and all women after her to suffer painful childbirth and be “ruled over” by their husbands. But as Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed in the freethought periodical Lucifer the Light-Bearer, “What would be the tragedy in the Garden of Eden to a generation of scientific women? . . . Scientific women [would] relegate the allegory to the same class of literature as Aesop’s fables.”
Despite feminists’ expectations that evolutionary theory would revolutionize thinking about the supposedly preordained differences between men and women, scientists did not welcome women into their ranks or have encouraging things to say about their capabilities. To the contrary, science was enlisted to explain why women were “naturally” unfit to enter college, the professions, and public life.
The contrast between what science offered women in theory and how it was deployed by some male scientists inspired Gardener to probe the nature of science itself. Just a few years after she had challenged the (mostly) all-male preserve of the church for its foundational misogyny, she went on to the second most powerful all-male preserve—science—and confronted the masculine bias at its core.
In seeking admittance to Columbia University, Gardener entered the most heated women’s rights debate of the late 19th century: should women go to college? After the Civil War, more and more women had begun enrolling in colleges because there were no longer enough men to fill the seats or enough men to marry. But educators and medical experts feared the consequences of this unprecedented social experiment. In particular, they worried that higher education would “unsex” women.
The debate over whether or not women should go to college was shaped by the best-selling book Sex in Education, or a Fair Chance for the Girls (1873), written by Harvard professor and physician Edward Clarke. According to Clarke, the physical strain of menstruation was so taxing that it should preclude higher education. Women who dared to go to college while menstruating risked becoming infertile.
Pioneering doctor Mary Putnam Jacobi debunked Clarke’s thesis with what was then the largest and most comprehensive study of menstruation, but Clarke simply shifted tactics and began arguing that women should not go to college because of the structure of their brains. Women’s brains, he asserted in his next book The Building of a Brain (1874), were fundamentally different from men’s and thus not suited for higher education or careers.
To substantiate his arguments about sex differences in brains, Clarke turned to the work of William A. Hammond, the former surgeon general of the U.S. Army and past president of the American Neurological Association. Hammond claimed to have treated scores of young women who had had their nervous systems “woefully disturbed” in the effort to master subjects that “could not possibly be of use to them,” such as “algebra, geometry, and spherical trigonometry.” Hammond came to believe that teaching women the same subjects as men—especially science and math—overtaxed their delicate systems and led to mental breakdown.
After years of study, Hammond claimed that there were nearly 20 physiological differences distinguishing the brains of men from those of women. Male brains, he declared in Popular Science Monthly, weighed more, had higher specific gravity, and had better developed frontal regions. These distinctions supposedly revealed why men excelled in intellectual and professional pursuits and women did not. As a result of their differential brain structure, women, according to Hammond, should stick with subjects relevant to their job as mothers—such as music, painting, and literature.
Gardener was an avid reader of Popular Science Monthly, and she puzzled over Hammond’s article, “Brain-Forcing in Childhood,” published in the April 1887 edition. She had repeatedly asserted that science had propelled women’s gains thus far, and here science (like the Bible) was being used to naturalize women’s permanent inferiority. Something did not jibe. Hammond cataloged sex differences in brains as if these were well-known, established facts.
But Gardener believed that Hammond worked from the unquestioned assumption that women were naturally inferior to men and based his research on substantiating this premise, rather than interrogating the premise itself. In other words, Hammond had his own Garden of Eden story. What was new in this retelling was the claim that female inferiority could be measured by scales and microscopes. Fine, Gardener demanded, let’s measure.
Undaunted by Hammond’s superior status in the scientific community, Gardener decided she would set the record straight. As a woman, she lacked a degree, a laboratory, and the ability to study brain specimens herself. So she wrote down a list of 20 questions—Do the brains of infants differ by sex? If so, were these differences observable by sight? If yes, did these differences increase with age? Was there “unanimity of opinion” among scientists about these questions?—and sent them to the leading neurologists and brain anatomists in New York City.
She then queried the man she had heard was the nation’s premier neurologist, Edward C. Spitzka, the former president of the New York Neurological Association and the man who would soon found the American Anthropometric Society, to collect and examine the brains of accomplished individuals. Having “previously discovered that even brain anatomists are subject to the spell of good clothes,” Gardener put on her “best gown” and went to meet the esteemed doctor.
Though Spitzka did not support women’s rights, he was committed to modern scientific methods. His office was filled with all sorts of specimens, microscopes, and journals to which most people lacked access. According to Gardener, Spitzka, unlike Hammond, was “too thoroughly scientific to allow his hereditary bias to color his statements of facts on this or any subject.” Spitzka confirmed that, contrary to Hammond’s assertions, it was impossible to differentiate brains by sex. Gardener and Spitzka became lifelong friends.
After having collected a wealth of data and immersed herself in the subject, Gardener rebutted Hammond’s findings with a letter to the editor in the June issue of Popular Science Monthly. Hammond’s theory about sex differences in brains, she charged, was based on “assumption and prejudice,” not “scientific facts and discoveries.”
Gardener challenged Hammond to a public test. She would provide 20 brains from Spitzka’s collection, and if Hammond could distinguish them by sex, she would concede. Hammond refused. He countered, smugly, that calculating averages, not examining individual brains, was the way “all such determinations are made by those who know what they are about.” He dismissed Gardener’s challenge as resulting from the “defective logical power” so “characteristic of most female minds.”
Not only would a sample of male brains always weigh, on average, more than female brains, Hammond dared Gardener to find just one female brain that exceeded 53 ounces, a mark of greatness met by several eminent men. Gardener and Hammond sparred in the pages of Popular Science Monthly for the next several months. In October, the editors declared the debate over and granted Hammond the last word.
Gardener’s brain essays attracted international attention. Even scientists took note of her research and intellectual creativity. The Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Investigator republished her findings “with pleasure,” boasting that this “talented young woman has bearded the lion in his den . . . the investigations set on foot by Miss Gardener open up an entirely new field, in which we hope she will continue her work.”
At the same time, Gardener’s Men, Women, and Gods continued to sell so well that it had recently appeared in a new edition. Yet the unrelenting stress of life as a reforming lecturer and writer with no steady paycheck drained Gardener. Since settling in New York, her husband Charles Smart’s income and health proved even more unstable than Gardener’s, exacerbating the couple’s struggles.
What’s more, her brother Alfred Chenoweth died in November 1887, leaving Gardener with just one remaining sibling—Kate, with whom she was not in contact—to link her to the long chain of ancestral Chenoweths. In late 1887, Gardener, now 34 years old, suffered a health breakdown. This one lasted several months. The physical and emotional strain of becoming and performing Helen Hamilton Gardener had overwhelmed her.
In December, the conclusion of her first full year in New York, The Truth Seeker reported that Gardener was “too ill to respond to invitations to lecture, or to conduct correspondence.” The paper proclaimed that “her heart is in the cause of liberty, but her body is too feeble to bear her to the front.” When she recovered, the editors promised, “her voice will again be heard throughout the land.” And indeed it would. Not six months later, Gardener would deliver the speech that defined her career.
Gardener spent the winter of 1887 as “an invalid confined to her room in New York,” according to one colleague. But in early 1888, an enticing invitation from her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she had come to know on the freethought lecture circuit, hastened her return to the podium.
Born in 1815, Stanton was nearly the same age that Gardener’s mother would have been. Gardener revered her as a role model and lovingly referred to her as “Mother Superior.” Stanton had been active in reform work since before Gardener was born—famously co-organizing the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, and drafting the meeting’s Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which demanded, among other reforms, women’s right to vote.
Long considered the century’s most prominent feminist thinker, Stanton’s fearless writings about the misogyny undergirding marriage, religion, and social customs shared much in common with Gardener’s. But by the late 1880s, Stanton’s outspoken critiques of the Bible met with increasing resistance within the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), the group she cofounded and led with Susan B. Anthony. Stanton was looking for new allies, and she found an enthusiastic one in Gardener.
Together with Anthony, Stanton was planning a historic international gathering of leading women from western Europe and North America—the biggest ever held in the United States—to take place during the spring of 1888 in Washington, D.C. For what they called the International Council of Women (ICW), Stanton and Anthony aimed to bring together “all women of light and learning . . . all associations of women in trades, professions and reforms, as well as . . . those advocating political rights.”
Ultimately, women representing fifty organizations and eight countries converged in Washington on March 25th for the elaborate eight-day event. President Grover Cleveland welcomed the group, and a number of senators held receptions in their honor. Many attendees stayed on an extra day to address legislators in Congress, emphasizing that suffrage was the ultimate goal of the proceedings and of the women’s rights movement.
The ICW was organized under the auspices of the NWSA, one of two national suffrage groups competing for priority in the 19th century. In organizing the ICW, Stanton and Anthony hoped to shore up their preeminence by celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, a decision that obscured the movement’s earlier roots in abolition and the accomplishments of their rival group, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). As savvy organizers, Stanton and Anthony believed that for their cause to prevail, they also had to shape their own legacies, even to the point of compiling the movement’s history themselves.
Stanton, Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage had just completed step one of this mission by writing the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, which detailed the accomplishments of the NWSA and marginalized the AWSA (which worked for the vote on a state-by-state basis and was headquartered in Boston). Stanton and Anthony saw the ICW as the next phase of their legacy project.
According to historian Lisa Tetrault, the ICW “worked to bring the women’s movement in line behind the story Stanton and Anthony had given ten exhausting years to constructing” in the History of Woman Suffrage. The two aging leaders hoped that a shared origins narrative would move female reformers, who by then disagreed on many issues and strategies, toward the singular goal of securing a federal suffrage amendment.
Stanton had an additional motive. She also wanted to use the ICW to entice women to join her Woman’s Bible Revising Committee, a project to compile and provide commentary on all sections of the Bible that mention women. Stanton had long voiced anticlerical and anti-orthodox sentiments, and after finishing the suffrage histories, she turned her full attention to The Woman’s Bible. Believing this to be her most significant contribution to women’s rights, Stanton had begun inviting women to her Bible project as early as 1882, but she was having a hard time securing Revising Committee members. Most of the women she approached over the years turned her down, their rejection letters producing, in her words, “a most varied and amusing bundle of manuscripts.”
The Woman’s Bible was very similar in scope to Gardener’s Men, Women, and Gods, and Gardener was one of a small handful of eager Revising Committee members. When Stanton first approached her in the summer of 1886, Gardener gladly accepted, declaring, “I consider this a most important proposal.” If the two busy women could “ever stay on the same side of the Atlantic long enough,” Gardener promised, “we will join hands and do the work.” Gardener agreed to chair the historical committee, and she provided regular updates about the project to interested readers of The Truth Seeker. But she understood that her true job was to “bring the wit” to The Woman’s Bible.
Stanton’s hopes of securing a large cadre of Revising Committee members at the ICW never came to fruition. What the gathering revealed instead was that the vast majority of female reformers remained deeply religious even though they held divergent beliefs about denominations and doctrines. Foreshadowing the book’s later reception among suffragists, The Woman’s Bible generated only controversy at the ICW.
From Free Thinker. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Kimberly A. Hamlin.