She asked President Woodrow Wilson for 22 suffrage "favors." She got 21.

Free Thinker Take-Over!

I’m on vacation! Next week, Mike Duncan, host of the popular podcast “Revolutions,” will fill in for me with an original essay about what was left on the cutting room floor after he finished his new book, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolutions. (Join us for a virtual discussion at The Strand on August 24th!) But first up, Dr. Kimberly A. Hamlin! 

When it comes to “pursuing equal justice for all,” Woodrow Wilson doesn’t rank high on my list of presidents, nor does he rank highly on C-Span’s 2021 Presidential Historian Survey: In this category, Wilson comes in 37th; Richard Nixon ranks  28th and Donald Trump is 40 out of the 44 presidents ranked. But as Kimberly A. Hamlin, a professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, OH, points out, the well-known photo of women standing near a sign declaring “President Wilson is deceiving the world,” is misleading. Wilson became a great supporter of the 19th Amendment, but only because he worked alongside a woman who spoke his language. Those activists immortalized outside the White House did not, but the subject of Dr. Hamlin’s book, Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener, did. Together, President Wilson and Gardener successfully got the 19th Amendment through Congress, but they did so only by sacrificing the voting rights of southern Black women. 

Woodrow Wilson despised Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), and the feeling was mutual. He refused to have anything to do with her, especially as the NWP’s White House protests increased in intensity between 1917 and 1918.

You’ve likely seen the photographs of Paul and the NWP picketing the White House, demanding Wilson’s attention and his support for their right to vote. 

This image, and others like it, shape popular perceptions of the U.S. suffrage movement, and epitomize the “Iron Jawed Angels” version of suffrage history. Every year, photographs of suffragists picketing the White House appear at the top of articles during Women’s History Month, and especially  during last year’s suffrage centennial. I love a suffrage movie featuring Lauryn Hill songs as much as the next feminist historian, but these protesting suffragists do not explain how the 19th Amendment became law, much less Wilson’s role in the process.

These protests suggest that Wilson opposed the 19th Amendment,  when, in fact, the president helped secure public and congressional support for the measure, as well as its eventual ratification. Wilson, his top staff, and key members of his family worked closely together with leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), rivals of the NWP, to ensure that women—at least, white women—could vote in the 1920 election. 

The key to understanding Wilson’s complex and influential role in suffrage was a “fallen woman” turned NAWSA leader named Helen Hamilton Gardener.

After having lived a life worthy of her own HBO biopic—involving Civil War sacrifice, a highly-publicized sex scandal, a name change, a fake husband, cross-country lecture tours, and world travel—Gardener settled in Washington, D.C. in 1910 and joined the suffrage movement.  She even served as Alice Paul’s right-hand-woman in planning the 1913 suffrage march that coincided with Wilson’s inauguration. (Until 2017, this was the largest women’s march in U.S. history.) But their successful partnership was short-lived. Weeks after the iconic event, Gardener and Paul parted ways over tactics. Paul wanted to protest the White House; Gardener wanted to charm her way in.

Helen Hamilton Gardener’s first letter to the president’s chief of staff, Joseph P. Tumulty, 1916. (Case File 89, Woodrow Wilson Collection, Library of Congress.

To picket or not to picket? A life spent with one foot in high society and the other in poverty convinced Gardener she could do more good with her personal charms than by protesting. When Paul began “heckling” the president in the spring of 1916, Gardener wrote a charming letter of introduction to his chief of staff, including a list of congressional references, her calling card, a memo explaining the differences between the NAWSA and the NWP, and an invitation to tea for the First Lady. Gardener was invited to the White House the very next morning.

From that day on, the White House embraced Gardener and shunned Paul with equal enthusiasm. In Wilson’s archives, three women appear more often than any others: Gardener and Wilson’s two wives. 

Between 1916 and 1920, Gardener bragged to her NAWSA colleagues that she had asked Wilson for 22 suffrage “favors” and been granted 21. With help from the White House, Gardener helped steer the 19th Amendment through Congress; in March 1920, Wilson nominated her to the Civil Service Commission, making her the highest-ranking woman in the federal government and a national symbol of female citizenship.

Part of what endeared Gardener to Wilson was their shared Virginia roots. Though Gardener had only lived in Virginia for a year—her family moved to Indiana and fought for the Union— she and Wilson were born just a few miles apart. This shared heritage also influenced their understanding of voting rights, asneither expected the 19th Amendment to be enforced in the South. 

While Gardener rejected the state’s rights arguments of some of her fellow Southerners, she and her colleagues made a devil’s bargain to get the 19th Amendment through Congress. With the full support of the Wilson White House, NAWSA leaders essentially told white male lawmakers they could disenfranchise black women in the South through poll taxes, literary tests, and intimidation—just as they had been disenfranchising black men since the Compromise of 1877—so long as they passed the 19th Amendment.

Why should we care about this history on the 101st anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment? I can think of few better times than right now to remember the significant role that presidents can play in the expansion or infringement of voting rights. Gardener’s lobbying also calls attention to how racism has long limited voting rights in the U.S., and why it is vitally important that we pass comprehensive voting rights legislation at the federal level. Finally, we should remember this history because the stories we tell about our past shape what we think is possible in the present and in the future. 

Hardly anyone has ever heard of Helen Hamilton Gardener today, and yet her colleagues considered her the “ most potent factor” in the congressional passage of the 19th Amendment. What other women have we forgotten about, and what can we learn about ourselves, our limitations, and our possibilities from their stories?

Thank you, Dr. Hamlin!  See you next week! Until then, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram, and SMK titles on Bookshop and Amazon