Intellectual, Suffragist and Pathbreaking Federal Employee: Helen Hamilton Gardener


Courageous, risk-taking women have long led the ongoing struggle for gender equality in the United States. While Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) is most widely known as the resting place of many male military heroes, it also includes the graves of numerous prominent, pioneering women who were heroes in their own right. One such woman was Helen Hamilton Gardener (buried in Section 3 and pictured at right, circa 1920).

An intellectual, activist and champion of women’s rights, Helen Hamilton Gardner used her life experiences as inspiration for the social change she strongly advocated. Born Mary “Alice” Chenoweth, she sought independence early on by training at the Cincinnati Normal School to become a schoolteacher. At the time, teaching was one of the few acceptable paid professions for young women to pursue. She graduated in 1873 and took a position as a teacher in Sandusky, Ohio, where she quickly rose to become the principal of Sandusky’s new teacher training school.

However, Chenoweth’s success in Sandusky turned out to be short-lived, despite her excellent performance. After newspapers exposed her for having an affair with a married man, she resigned from her position. At the time, such accusations ruined a woman’s professional and moral reputation. Undeterred, she changed her name to Helen Hamilton Gardner. She refused to let her status as a “fallen woman” define her, and under her new name, she spent the rest of her life pushing against the social, sexual and religious norms that limited women’s independence.

As part of her evolution, Gardener immersed herself in the freethought movement, an intellectual movement that advocated for freedom of thought, secularism and the importance of science. She read widely, independently advancing her education, and she eventually became a protégé of Robert Ingersoll, a leader in the freethought movement who supported women’s rights. With Ingersoll’s support, Gardener emerged as a popular speaker. She steadily gained national prominence and notoriety, as well as criticism for espousing views that many found unseemly coming from a woman.

While Gardener’s speaking career included hardships and setbacks, she eventually flourished and also became a published writer of both non-fiction and fiction. Much of her writing focused on issues related to women’s rights. For example, in an 1887 letter to the editor of Popular Science Monthly, Gardener publicly sparred with William A. Hammond, former surgeon general of the U.S. Army (buried in Section 1 of ANC). She critiqued an article he had written, in which he claimed that physiological differences in the female brain made women intellectually inferior to men and unsuited to study subjects such as math. The issue escalated into a debate between Gardener and Hammond in Popular Science Monthly, and while the publication allowed Hammond the final say, the incident inspired Gardener to take a bold step. Upon her death, she willed her brain to Cornell University so it could be studied as an example of the brain of an accomplished female intellectual. According to the New York Times, Gardener believed that scientists had not had enough opportunities to study the brains of “the women who think,” and she hoped her brain would fill this scientific gap.


 Top: Helen Hamilton Gardener and Alice Paul, circa 1908-1915. (Library of Congress)
Bottom: Gardener and Carrie Chapman Catt leaving the White House, circa 1920. (Library of Congress)

But Gardener still had many years before her brain became part of a data set, and in that intervening time she used it to politically advocate for women’s rights. Among other things, she became a leader in the effort to raise the age of sexual consent for girls—in many states, it remained at ten or twelve years old. Her focus on women’s bodily autonomy, among her other pursuits, led her into the suffrage movement. She dedicated herself to the fight for women’s right to vote, working with Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Gardener provided essential support to the planning of the March 3, 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. She served as the “official press agent for the Suffrage Procession,” and the printed program for the event included her biography. Five thousand strong, the marchers encountered opposition and mistreatment from both hostile men and the police, and the parade became an iconic moment in the history of the suffrage movement. Gardener remained deeply involved with the suffrage movement through Congress’s passage of the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919, and its subsequent ratification on August 18, 1920. 

Top: Cover of the “Official Program Woman Suffrage Procession,” March 3, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Bottom: The Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. (Library of Congress)


However, Gardener’s activism did not end with the long-sought suffrage victory. She continued her campaign for women’s autonomy and advancement, this time by making inroads into federal government employment. On April 13, 1920, Gardener became the highest-ranking and highest-paid female federal employee after the Senate unanimously approved her for a position on the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Her groundbreaking position opened the door for new generations of female federal employees.

Civil Service Commissioners (left to right) George R. Wales, Helen Hamilton Gardener and William C. Deming in 1923. (Library of Congress)

After a life of achievement, advocacy and relentless pursuit of equality, Gardener died on July 25, 1925. True to her word, she directed that her brain be given to Cornell University, and she specified that Maj. Frank D. Francis (buried in Section 6 of ANC ), who had treated her during her recent illness at Walter Reed Army General Hospital, be in charge of that delicate task. The funeral service, held at her home, featured several speeches, including one by Carrie Chapman Catt. Her burial alongside her husband, Civil War veteran Col. Selden Allen Day, took place in Section 3 of Arlington National Cemetery on July 31, 1925, without ceremony but with a few friends in attendance, including colleagues from the Civil Service Commission.

Gardener recognized the importance of her burial place at ANC. In her final public speech at a NAWSA luncheon on April 23, 1925, just a few months before her death, she lamented that so many deceased female leaders were being lost to public memory. She worried about how—or even if—these women would be remembered. Gardener compared the fading memory of these female activists to the exalted male military veterans buried at places like Arlington, which she described as “the great city of the dead heroes of many wars," where "medaled commanders as well as the Unknown Soldier receive the Nation’s homage year after year for what they did to free their fellowmen.”

However, Gardener proclaimed that for her, an ardent suffragist, “Our Arlington is scattered over America in graves little recognized, where lie the great commanders of our bloodless revolution that freed womankind.” These women, Gardener told the audience, “whose very names would be new to many of you but whose deeds were mighty, whose courage, patience, and loyal achievement deserve the cross of honor, the distinguished service medal of achievement, and the hero’s wreath from us all who should worship at their shrine and keep their memory green.” By using military terminology, Gardener purposefully compared these women to military heroes and argued that they should be commemorated in much the same way. She concluded by compelling her comrades to comply with a request. “Let us not forget,” she pleaded, “and let us not allow our children and our children’s children to forget, while we continue to give our cheers for our living heroes, to also mingle our tears for our heroic dead.”

Gardener’s speech focused mostly on earlier leaders of the effort that eventually became the suffrage movement. Yet her own death helped cement the memory of that history into the very grounds of Arlington, because of her marriage to a Civil War veteran. Like several other suffragists buried at Arlington because of their husbands’ military service, Gardener’s burial counteracted some of the inequality that she bemoaned in her speech. Through her grave and the graves of suffragists—such as Anna Kelton Wiley, Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwright, Alice Thornton Jenkins, Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) and others—Gardener enabled Arlington to tell the stories of women’s suffrage. These women can now be forever memorialized as significant figures in United States history alongside our nation’s military dead. They are honored not only in little-recognized, scattered graves (as Gardener had feared), but in the very pantheon of American memory.

Selected Sources

Clark, R.W. Justin. “Ingersoll, Infidels, and Indianapolis: Freethought and Religion in the Midwest.” MA Thesis, Indiana University, February 2017.   

Gardener, Helen Hamilton. “Our Heroic Dead.” April 23, 1925. Edna Lamprey Stantial Papers. MC 733, Box 5, Folder 5.15. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Hamlin, Kimberly A. Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.

Hamlin, Kimberly A. “Woman Citizen: On This Day in 1920 Helen Hamilton Gardener Became the Highest-Ranking Woman in Federal Government.” History News Network. April 12, 2020.

Hamlin, Kimberly A. “The Woman Who Pushed the Smithsonian to Preserve the Victory for Suffrage.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 10, 2020.

Harvey, Sheridan. “Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913.” Library of Congress. June 28, 2001, updated September 6, 2018.

Helen Hamilton Gardener Alice Chenoweth Day,1853-1925.” Washington, D.C., 1925. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, Library of Congress.

“Official Program Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, D.C. March 3, 1913.” Library of Congress.

“Woman Wills Brain for Research Work.” New York Times. August 4, 1924.