Talking About Women’s History: Three Questions and an Answer with Kimberly Hamlin
Kimberly A. Hamlin is an award-winning historian, author, and professor specializing in the history of women, gender, and sex in the United States. She grew up outside of Syracuse, New York, not far from the historical homes of many of the women she writes about today. After graduating from Georgetown University, she worked for women running for office and on Capitol Hill. In 2000, Hamlin left Washington to pursue a PhD in American Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. Hamlin has also written on the origins of the Miss America Pageant, the history of the Girl Scouts, bearded ladies, women running for President, Darwin in America, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition, she has worked on several public history projects focused on women and contributed to various PBS documentaries, including “Troop 1500.” She is currently helping to organize national and local efforts to commemorate the 2020 centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and she serves as historical consultant to the Bearded Lady Project. Hamlin lives with her family in Cincinnati, Ohio where she co-hosts the Mercantile Library’s “Women You Should Know” Book Series and teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio
Hamlin’s most recent book Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (March 2020, W.W. Norton) tells the fascinating story of the “fallen woman” who reinvented herself and became “the most potent factor” in Congressional passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the highest-ranking woman in federal government. Free Thinker centers both sex and race in the history of women’s rights and in the long struggle for the vote. This project received both the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Public Scholar Award and the Carrie Chapman Catt Award for Research on Women and Politics.Hamlin contributes to the Washington Post’s “Made by History” column and other media, and she regularly speaks to audiences across the country about women’s and gender history. She is a member of the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer Bureau and the Ohio Humanities Council Speaker’s Bureau. Her research on women, gender, science, and politics has been featured in various media outlets including NPR and CBC radio, Vice, and qz.com.
Take it away, Kimberly!
Writing about a historical figure like Helen Hamilton Gardener requires living with her over a period of years. What was it like to have her as a constant companion?
HHG, as I have come to call her, has been a wonderful companion for these past six years. She is brilliant, prescient, funny, and confounding, giving me much to puzzle through over the years. For example, she had the courage and intellectual bravery to dismantle all the prevailing ideologies of her day, except for racism. Why could she violate nearly every taboo in talking openly about sexual assault but not see her way through racism and white privilege? That is a central question in Free Thinker.
What I love most about HHG – and what so many of her peers loved most about her — is that she is such good company. She has a great sense of humor, she writes so movingly about her hurts and hopes, and, unlike other 19th-century women I have researched, HHG seems very modern. If she were to be reincarnated in 2020, I think she would fit right in, as if she were trying to get here all along. From the 1870s on, she pioneered an autonomous life for herself (making her own money, making her own rules in terms of sex, devoting herself to her female friends, charting her own career). She did this when there were few, if any, positive female role models for doing such things. Unlike other women who dared have sex outside of marriage or attempt to live by their own code, such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Margaret Fuller, HHG did not die a horrible death or become a cautionary tale for other women. Instead, she continuously reinvented, charmed her way inside the Wilson White House, and died as the highest-ranking woman in federal government. She weathered storms and tragedies few of us can imagine today; she persisted and she triumphed.
Another aspect of HHG that has made her such a good companion is that she is full of surprises! When I began this project, I took her word on key elements of her life – such as the fact that Charles Smart was her husband for 25 years, as it states in all the “who’s who” biographical entries about her. Turns out Charles Smart was not her husband at all, not for one day, much as she might have felt like he was. I didn’t find that out until a few years into my research when I was working with a local librarian with an expertise in Ohio history and genealogy. This revelation allowed me to read her fiction in new ways because I came to believe that, in living such a big lie in her actual life, HHG turned to fiction to tell the truth.
During this project, I also fell back in love with letters. What an art it was to write and receive letters, to express your inner most hopes, hurts, and frustrations on the page. HHG has many beautiful, humorous, and gut-wrenching letters. My only regret on this score is that when she died, she commanded that her letters be destroyed – so only a fraction of them remain. I can only imagine what secrets and surprises might have been revealed in the rest. And who knows, maybe someday soon more of her letters will come to light—I certainly hope that is the case.
In addition to writing about women, sex, and gender in history, you teach a variety of classes about those subjects. What aspects of women’s history surprise your students most? What outrages them?
My favorite classes to teach are “U.S. Women’s History” and “Sex and Gender in American Culture.” I teach them on a rotating basis at Miami University (OH) and see them as companion courses. Nearly every aspect of women’s history surprises my students. This past fall, several students wrote on their course evaluations that they most enjoyed learning about “bad ass women.” So, I think that sums up what I aim to do in the classroom: teach about bad ass women. I have been joking that I am going to update my business cards to read “Professor of Bad Ass Women.”
Regardless of whether I am teaching women’s history or the history of gender/sex, my students are surprised and outraged about two main things each semester. First, students express outrage at how little they have learned about women’s history in all their previous classes, especially in high school. Even today, high school history textbooks still sidebar women. As much as I love women’s history month, in part I think women’s history month is inadvertently to blame for this, as I wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. The popularity of women’s history month somehow allows well-meaning educators and state school boards to feel as if our national stories have been revised to include women, when in fact they have not, as this 2017 report from the National Women’s History Museum documented in detail.
This past semester, my women’s history class engaged in thought experiments and assignments to press the question: what would the country look and feel like if women’s experiences were centered? Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s essay “City of Women” and the related New York City subway map in which each stop was named for a woman, students reimagined our campus and their hometowns with buildings, streets, monuments, and parks named for historical women. Several students were so inspired by this research and by how awesome it would be if more public spaces were in fact named for women, that they are now actively working to implement their naming projects.
The second theme that has emerged over the years in my classes on the history of women/gender/sex is the persistence of rape and sexual assault as shaping forces in history (in our case U.S. because that is what I teach, but obviously the same could be said globally). Every semester, students are shocked and outraged to learn how long it took for rape/sexual assault/sexual harassment to be recognized as crimes, by the extent to which these crimes shaped not only women’s lives but also key aspects of U.S. history, and by the extent to which rape/sexual assault/sexual harassment continue to shape their own lives, especially on college campuses. The personal is the political is the historical.
Each semester, students also share their own painful stories of rape and assault. This is deeply troubling to me and something that I think we – as parents, educators, historians, administrators – need to do much, much more to tackle. As a small step, in fall 2020, I am teaching a new course called “#MeToo: A Cultural History” that I hope will help us not only understand the long, intersectional, and nuanced history of women’s resistance to sexual assault but also how we might do a better job eliminating sexual assault in the present.
What’s your next book about and when will we see it?
My next book will be a retelling of the temperance movement centering sex, sexual assault, and sexually transmitted disease. I will highlight women from Carry Nation to Frances Willard to Mabel Walker Willebrandt. Willebrandt began her legal career in LA as a public defender for prostitutes and then succeeded HHG as the highest-ranking woman in federal government when she became the Assistant Attorney General in charge of enforcing the Volstead Act, even though she herself did not fully support prohibition.
In researching Free Thinker, I became convinced that the prevalence of syphilis was a highly motivating factor in the women’s rights and temperance movements. I also learned a lot about the 1880s and 1890s campaigns – mostly led by temperance activists, but also by HHG—to raise the age of sexual consent for girls. In 1890, it was twelve or younger in 38 states. In Delaware, it was seven. I have come to believe that what turned temperance activists into suffragists, in large part, were their unsuccessful efforts to lobby state legislators to raise the age of consent so that it would have become illegal for grown men to have sex with girls and say it was “consensual.” That it was so hard to legislate such an obvious fix to a horrifying wrong politicized thousands of women. Learning about age-of-consent campaigns and the daily fear women had about contracting venereal disease from their husbands forced me to view temperance in a new light – as something more akin to the #MeToo movement of the 19th century. Those are the stories I want to tell in my next book. Free Thinker was just released on March 17, 2020, so maybe circle back in a few months to ask me the “when” question again.
Question for Pam: Your two most recent books have put you on the battlefields, in one way or another, what is next for you?
I’m currently revising a proposal for the next book for what I hope is the last time, so I’m not ready to reveal the topic. But if everything goes according to plan, I’ll be battlefield adjacent in the next book.
Want to know more about Kimberly Hamlin and her work?
Check out her website: http://www.kimberlyhamlin.com/author/
Follow her Goodreads author page: Kimberly A. Hamlin
Check out her Amazon author page: Kimberly A Hamlin
Follow her on Twitter: @ProfessorHamlin
Here’s the link to Free Thinker: https://wwnorton.com/books/9781324004974
And, as a lagniappe, here’s an article by Helen Hamilton Gardiner, introduced by Kimberly Hamlin: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/silly-novels-lordly-novelists
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This is the last post for this year’s Women History Month series. (Unless I get inspired and have something to add tomorrow.) Thanks to everyone who participated, and to all of you who have followed along. I’m already plotting who to ask next year.
Fascinating and intriguing and a chance to learn. Not only is Dr Kimberly Hamlin a fascinating authority of women’s issues but I bet her classes are filled with humour and knowledge far beyond the text
Her ability to pull together several important issues on women and their struggle as well as their heroes is stunning
I agree 100%!