Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Idella Nichols Gardner, 1862-
By Jessica Fournier and Liana Henderson-Semel, undergraduate students, Harvard College
In the year 1862, Mrs. W. H Gardner was born as Idella Nichols. At the time, her family was living in a small town within Connecticut, and throughout her life Idella would circulate through Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. Her immediate family was exclusively from the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region, with her mother, Martha A. Nichols hailing from Connecticut, and her father born in New Jersey. Idella married William H. Gardner, a minister for the Universalist Church, an early faction of the modern-day Unitarian Universalist Association. William's father was a native of New Jersey, while his mother was a first generation immigrant who had come to the United States from Württemberg, Germany. Once William and Idella had married, Idella gave birth to one daughter, Ruth N. Gardner, who, for reasons unknown, continued to live with them until the age of 27 years old. Idella's widowed mother also lived in their home in Hammonton, New Jersey.
Idella N. Gardner was a political activist during the early twentieth century, advocating for all sorts of feminist agendas, most notably, women's suffrage. She was a member of the Friends' Equal Rights Association, and attended their convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September 1916. Mrs. Gardner was called upon to speak in front of the New Jersey Board of Health, as well as the Connecticut State Legislature. She advocated for these states to adopt an amendment to their state constitutions that would allow women the right to vote. On February 27th, 1915, she was the main speaker at a convention held in Bellevue Hall, in southern New Jersey. Her speech was focused on the importance of women's suffrage, and also centered heavily on the work of female police, as she gave a shout out to a Miss Josephine Roche, Denver's first female police officer, known for cracking down on prostitution, for helping to keep the streets safe.
While many suffragists at the time were concerned solely with the concerns of upper-middle class women, Gardner was an advocate for the rights of lower-class, working women. She acknowledged working women in her talk, and cited them as a perfect example of why all women needed to be on the ballot, namely, that women presently had no say in their working conditions, their pay, or their hours, despite the fact that they were a significant part of the labor force. Idella Nichols Gardner was also very set on the concept of divine right; perhaps due to the influence of her minister husband. At that time, men were legally considered to be the guardians of their children in 32 states in America. Gardner disagreed adamantly with this law, as she believed that a mother had divine right of the guardianship of her children. She was not the first suffragist to use religion as a justification for women's rights, but it is both rare and important that she used it to justify the rights of lower class and working women, and not just women of a higher socioeconomic level.
"1920 United States Federal Census." Ancestrylibrary.com. Ancestry, 2010. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
"Josephine Roche," in Vassar Encyclopedia - accessed online at http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/josephine-roche.html
South Jersey Republican (Hammonton, N.J.). 6 March 1915, p. 1; accessed online at http://www.atlanticlibrary.org/sites/default/files/newspapers/sjrepublican/SJR03061915.pdf.
Universalist Heritage Foundation -- Universalism. Accessed online at http://www.universalistheritage.org.
Upton, Harriet Taylor, and Nettie Rogers Shuler. "Handbook... and Proceedings of The... Annual Convention," (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1916).