Today, So19 is delighted to share a chat between biographers Julie Dobrow and Kimberly Hamlin, both of whom have written vivid biographies of fascinating women, tarred with the “fallen” brush, who were born in the 1850s. Their subjects probably didn’t meet, though Julie and Kimberly like to think that there could have been a chance encounter when each attended the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Whether or not they ever encountered each other, Julie and Kimberly are sure that they’d have had a lot to talk about—and I definitely concur.
So19 readers will know Julie Dobrow from our review of her book After Emily, as well as the lively interview she was generous enough to give us on the book. Kimberly A. Hamlin is new to So19, but we'll be running interviewing Kimberly on her book Free Thinker at the time of its softcover publication this summer. You can find brief bios of both Julie and Kimberly at the end of this piece—but before that, here’s their conversation. Enjoy!
JD: It would make sense to start with a bit of background on our subjects.
KH: I agree. Why don’t you begin?
JD: Sure. To the extent that she is remembered today, Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932) is known principally for one of two things: either as one of Emily Dickinson’s first editors, or as William Austin Dickinson’s (Emily’s older brother’s) lover. For Mabel, one of whose greatest ambitions in life was to be remembered as a writer, these most-recalled parts of her identity would have been quite ironic.
After her neighbor Emily Dickinson died in 1886 and left behind a treasure trove of poems almost no one outside her household knew existed, her surviving sister Lavinia sought to find someone to edit and publish these treasures. The job eventually came to Mabel who, because of her relationship with Austin, was well known to Lavinia. But Mabel was also someone with the skills to take on the massive job of decoding Emily’s difficult handwriting and editing the poetry into a form more palatable to the 19th century reading audience; she also had the drive to get the job done. Mabel’s formidable skills as a public speaker came in handy when it came time to publicize the brilliant works that defied most 19th century poetic conventions.
Today Mabel’s legacy is hotly debated among the community of Emily Dickinson scholars and acolytes: people either love her or hate her. There is no one who is neutral. It’s both Mabel’s editing of the Dickinson poems and her relationship with the poet’s brother that inflame those who speak or write of her. My book, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet, attempts to get beyond the rhetoric and understand the amazing woman who was so much more than Emily’s editor or Austin’s lover.
KH: Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853-1925) was the most interesting and influential suffragist whom virtually no one today has ever heard of. With my book Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (W.W. Norton, 2020), I hoped to revive her story for modern readers. Gardener was born Alice Chenoweth in Winchester, VA to a slave-owning Methodist minister who, shortly after Alice’s birth, defied convention by emancipating the people he held in bondage and moving his family to Indiana in the hopes of avoiding the coming sectional crisis. From an early age, Alice knew that being a Chenoweth meant following one’s own moral compass, no matter the consequences.
Rather than slink away in shame and accept her miserable fate as a supposedly fallen woman, however, Chenoweth spent several years reading and thinking. In 1883, she moved to New York City and reinvented herself as Helen Hamilton Gardener, a popular freethought lecturer who earned the endorsement of Robert Ingersoll, who himself drew crowds of 10,000 to his lecture tours. Gardener managed to keep secret her scandalous relationship with Smith for the rest of her life—in fact, until Free Thinker was published in 2020. Smart accompanied her to New City and the couple simply told everyone that they were married.
For the next 25 years, until Smart’s death, Gardener supported the couple with her earnings as a writer and lecturer. But their affair—and the starkly different consequences they suffered for it—convinced Gardener that her life’s work would be to challenge the sexual double standard. As she explained in the preface to her first novel, “A man is valued of men for many things. Least of which is his chastity. A woman is valued of men for few things, chief of which is her chastity. This double code can by no same or reasonable person be claimed as woman made.” Her life took many unexpectedly and unusual turns but it was her status as a so-called fallen woman that compelled her to dedicate her life to women’s rights.
JD: Kimberly, if Helen and Mabel met for tea, do you think their first topic of conversation would be their disappointment over how they wished to be better known as writers, or how their relationships with married men changed their lives so profoundly?
KH: Great question! Gardener never talked openly about her relationship with Smart or admitted that he had been married to someone else for the entire 25 years that they lived together. I am not even sure that she knew he was still married to someone else. Of course she knew that she was not married to Smart, but I think she may have believed that he was divorced. So, I think she would have much preferred to talk about the trials and tribulations of being a writer. In her heart, Gardener always considered herself a writer, first and foremost. When she rode in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington (the one designed to coincide with Wilson’s first inauguration), she wore a sash that said “Writer.” And after she and her husband moved back to the States in 1907, she lamented that no one recognized her as a writer anymore. Her last novel was published in 1894 and was old news by 1907. That novel was adapted into a Broadway play in the late 1890s, but it flopped, so I think she really struggled after that to find her footing and to forge a new identity that was not centered on writing. I think she and Mabel could really bond over their writing and over their disappointment at not being better known as writers.
What do you think Mabel would want to talk about if they met? And to what did Mabel attribute her own challenges in securing a lasting reputation as a writer?
JD: Mabel would most certainly have wanted to talk about all of her many accomplishments in different fields. No one would ever have accused her of being shy, and she was, to say the least, a great self-promoter. I think she would have been sure to tell Helen about her art, her music, her civic work, her environmental work and, of course, her writing.
Mabel was mystified about why her own writing didn’t get more traction than it did. She was gifted enough to know what great writing was—she certainly recognized that in Emily Dickinson —but also to know that even though she was very good, she wasn’t a great writer.
I’m guessing that the other thing Mabel would have opened up about is her relationship with Austin, which she truly considered to be one of the greatest aspects of her life.
JD: Both Helen and Mabel were well-known in their eras as public speakers of note. What do you think this meant for Helen?
KH: Even though Helen prided herself on being a writer, her first foray into public life was as a speaker. She became known as “Ingersoll in Soprano,” which was the highest compliment for a 19th-century orator because Robert Ingersoll regularly drew crowds of ten thousand. In her very first speech, she said that many other women had their doubts about biblical stories that proclaimed women’s treachery and inferiority. But these other women, she said, were too afraid to speak. So Helen explained that her mission was to make it ok for other women to articulate—perhaps first to themselves—problems and issues that had previously been unmentionable. I think that is how she saw herself as a speaker: as the woman who was not afraid to say all the things the other women were thinking. And she did this, in part, by presenting her radical messages in a dainty, conventionally pretty package. Somehow her conventionally feminine appearance and the fact that she gushed about her (fake) husband Charles Smart made her message more palatable. What about Mabel? What did public speaking mean to her and what did it do for her?
JD: For Mabel, public speaking was initially a way of getting Emily Dickinson’s name into the mainstream. But it became more than that for Mabel, who, at the height of her public speaking career, was giving more than sixty talks a year across the country to audiences both enormous and small. She spoke on an astonishing array of topics, ranging from astronomy to the lost art of letter writing to the many places she’d traveled. Public speaking was important to Mabel to help supplement her family’s income. It was also important to her personally, because she adored to be lauded and applauded in such a public way.
Mabel and Helen both traveled far more extensively than many women of their time did. Where did Helen travel and what were some of her impressions?
KH: Yes! That is another fascinating connection the two women share. Between the 1870s and 1900, Helen traveled extensively in the U.S. mostly on the lecture circuit. A few months after Smart died, she high-tailed it to Puerto Rico to visit Colonel Selden Allen Day who would soon become her husband. Together, the Days travelled the world—twenty-two countries in all—from 1902-1907. She always considered New York City her home, but of all the places she visited, I think she liked California and Japan the best. She spent several weeks in California in 1897 and marveled that it really was the “land of milk and honey.” She loved the beach and the climate. During their world travels, the Days lived in Japan for six-plus months, far longer than they stayed anywhere else. In the States, she had occasionally employed Japanese servants, many of whom had attained high positions back home. She loved visiting with them and, in her words, “seeing Japan from the inside,” not like a tourist. The Days rented a lovely home in Japan and tried their best to learn Japanese customs, including dressing in kimonos and eating with chop-sticks, which Helen bragged she had become quite accomplished at doing. She had a lifelong disdain for U.S. missionary culture and it struck her as the epitome of hubris for the United States to send Christian missionaries to Japan. In fact, when the Days returned to the U.S. in 1907, Helen’s first plan was to make a living traveling around giving a series of lantern slide lectures called “Ourselves and Other People” in which she translated Asian cultures for American audiences. These lectures never really took off, but I have read her note cards and promotional flyers and so I have a sense for how much she loved travelling and how much she learned from other cultures, especially Japanese.
What about Mabel? Where were her favorite places? And how did traveling with her husband David compare to traveling with her lover Austin?
JD: Actually she never really traveled with Austin, and one of the peculiar things about her life is that she did continue to travel with David, even well into the relationship with Austin. Mabel made three journeys to Japan; she traveled extensively throughout southeast Asia, through South America, went twice to Tripoli, traveled across the U.S. and Canada, went to the Caribbean and throughout Europe.
Helen became a real advocate of women’s rights, especially with regard to voting. Mabel, I suspect, would not have been on board with this. Do you think Helen would want to be remembered more for this work than for other things she did in her life?
KH: Yes, one hundred percent. Helen saw her suffrage work as her life’s crowning achievement, and, indeed it was. Even though her life was comprised of several discrete chapters (including even three different names!), all of her life’s experiences culminated in her work for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). That is where her seemingly disparate experiences as a “Chenoweth of Virginia,” a freethought lecturer, a writer and editor, a sex reformer, and the wife of a Civil War hero came together in service of gaining the vote for women. She never could have planned it that way, but that is how it shook out in retrospect. Her life’s goal, she wrote, was not necessarily to win women the vote but to create a world in which women were recognized as “self-respecting, self-directing human units with brains and bodies that are sacredly their own.” She saw the vote as a vital step towards full autonomy.
What about Mabel? What turned her off from suffrage? Do you have a sense for her interactions with suffragists or whether or not this was a contentious issue in her circle?
JD: I don’t think Mabel would have ever considered herself a suffragette. Although she was unconventional in many ways, she was also conventional in many ways, too. One of those ways was that she just didn’t believe women needed to speak out for the right to vote. To my knowledge, this was not an issue in her interactions with others.
What would Helen have said if she did bump into Mabel at the Columbian Exposition…especially because Mabel was there with her husband, David, but was joined there by her lover, Austin?!
KH: Ha! That is so juicy. AND, just so you know, while Helen was at the 1893 World’s Fair giving more speeches than any other American woman there, her lover Charles Smart snuck away to visit his wife and daughter in West Virginia! While there, he wrote his will, leaving everything to his wife. Later, before their trip to California in 1897, he wrote a second will leaving everything to Helen but then conveniently lost it. When he died in 1901, this missing will created a huge probate challenge, not to mention a threat to Helen’s public image.
Helen was known as the consummate charmer and the life of the party, so despite their varying positions on women’s rights, I am sure she would have chatted Mabel right up. Her initial way of connecting was always through mutual acquaintances—Helen did not move to Boston until 1895, so she did not yet really have any Massachusetts connections—but she surely would have inquired about Mabel’s friends in New York until she identified common friends. Helen was in Chicago in May for the Women’s Congress, sponsored by NAWSA.
I am guessing that is not what brought Mabel there? What was Mabel’s experience like at the World’s Fair and how on earth did she navigate with her husband and her lover both there?
JD: Mabel came to the Exposition ostensibly to help David, who had been tasked by his employer, Amherst College, to curate the Amherst College exhibit. Mabel, of course, loved a good show, and I think being there in 1893 would have been the place to be. How she navigated the time with both David and Austin there, I’ll never know…
JULIE DOBROW is the Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Tufts University, where she also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Child Study and Human Development, the Film and Media Studies Program and the Civic Studies Program. Her dual biography of Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of—America's Greatest Poet, appeared from W.W. Norton in 2018. She’s now working on a dual biography of 19th century writers/Native American policy reformers Elaine Goodale and Ohiyesa Charles Eastman. Dobrow holds an AB in anthropology and sociology from Smith College, and MA and Ph.D. degrees from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information on Julie, visit www.juliedobrow.com.
KIMBERLY A. HAMLIN, PhD is the James and Beth Lewis Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, OH. Her most recent book is Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (W.W. Norton 2020), which was named a top ten biography of 2020 and won the Carrie Chapman Catt Prize for Research on Women and Politics. She is also the author of From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2014). Hamlin speaks about the history of women, gender, and sex across the country and regularly contributes to the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Ms. Magazine, and other popular media. She lives in Cincinnati, where she hosts the Mercantile Library’s Allgood McLean “Women You Should Know” series. For more information, visit www.kimberlyhamlin.com or follow Kimberly on Twitter.