Eulogy for Helen Hamilton Gardener
July 28, 1925 — Memorial service for Helen Hamilton Gardener, held at Gardener’s home, Washington DC
The hardest task that any human being is called upon to perform is to stand by the side of a friend truly loved and pronounce that last, long good-bye. Ever since there has been a written language among men, the record has been preserved among all races that men have laid away their dead with tender care, and always in the belief and the expectation that they would live again. More, though the reports on men who have dug up buried cities and opened forgotten tombs, we know that for thousands of years before there was any written language, however crude, men laid away their dead in the belief that they would live on. They buried with them food, implements, clothing, and the things that had given them joy in this world in order that they might use them in the next. For thousands of years men have been thinking these things, and, in our day, the accumulated knowledge is enormous, and yet the mystery of why we are here and why we go, from whence we come and whither er go, is all unsolved. There are those who think they know, some through the revealed word of God; some who claims they have spoken with souls who have returned; and yet, after all, the testimony is too inadequate for serious people to believe that anybody positively knows.
This mystery concerning the future of mankind has made most humans afraid to die. I suppose it is the most terrible fear that any human being ever endures and it is well-nigh universal, but Helen Gardener was not afraid to die. She was an exception, I believe, to most humans, and in the fact that she was not afraid to die there was a demonstration of what has been to me her most amazing characteristic.
A few weeks ago I had a guest in my house. She was very orthodox. She believed in hell. She believed in all we have been taught concerning it, and she was taken ill, not very ill, but she spent a day in bed. She suffered a terrifying fear of what might come to her. It was at that momentI had a letter from Helen Gardener. In my reply I told her the story of my guest and said, “I am sure you are not afraid to die.” I added, “It seems to me that it is the most orthodox — those who think they know the most about what is coming — who are most afraid.” She wrote again and she said, “No, I am not afraid to die; I never was; I have lived my life as well as I could day by day, and base my future upon my past. Whenever I am called, I am ready, and I always have been ready. Whatever comes, I will accept.” No fear did she have. Why should one have fear for her? Helen Gardener was, to my mind, one of the most all-around courageous human beings I have ever know, and I believe her to have been one of the most courageous of our time.
Everyone seems to be afraid of something, and most people are afraid of a great many things. They are afraid of lightning, bugs, burglars, disease, accidents. As an Irish-woman said. “Those that don’t have big things to worry them, let the little ones sarve.”
Everybody worries. I have known strong and healthy men, veritable human lions, who could go into battle and give their lives without a tremor, so strong was their physical courage, yet they would turn and flee before a new idea. So afraid of public opinion were they, that at the first threat of opposition, they flew to cover. On the other hand, I have known men who have had enormous moral courage; men willing to stand for a cause though all the world was against them; yet these men have lacked physical courage. I knew one such man who never would go above a second fight of stairs, because he was afraid of heights. I knew another who never dared to cross the seas. I knew another who never would go, willingly, above the second floor because he was afraid of fire. Yet these were men of very exceptional moral courage, men that have won the respect of the whole community in which they lived for their daring espousal of unpopular truths.
One cannot imagine Helen Gardener being afraid of anything, neither of mice, nor caterpillars, nor burglars, nor anything else living or dead, and I am sure that whatever might have come in her life, she would have known exactly what to do and would have done it bravely. Had she lived in the long ago, she might have been a queen, and as such, fearlessly would she have led her armies, just as great generals have done. Had she lived in the future, she would have stood for whatever was then a question of the time. As it was, she lived in this century, and so she gave herself to what was, during her time, the most controversial of subjects, and that was the so-called emancipation of women.
It is not possible for you to comprehend today how stolid was the resistance to a college education for girls in her early life. One popular reason, first advanced by college professors and passed on to the man in the street, was that the brains of women were smaller that those of men. All the rest of us women answered that charge with the plea “Give us a chance; let us try. Let us see whether you are right or not.” But it was not so with Helen Gardener. I can just imagine her in that youthful spirit saying, as we heard her do so many times in later years, “Let us see about that.” She set about examining and experimenting and studying, to find out whether that charge was really based upon fact or not, and she carried to the task an open and a scientific mind. Just when she gave her conclusions to the world, that the whole theory was based upon insufficient evidence, a professor, let me call him a professor of brains, died, and it was found that his brain measured and weighed less than that of any woman that he had ever examined.
It is not often victory quite so complete ever comes, and that argument, that obstacle, in the way of girls, wholly disappeared. You, who are younger, never me that obstacle; you found the doors open and now it is a forgotten episode; yet Helen Gardener blazed that trail which finally made an open road to college educations for girls.
Mrs. Park has spoken of some of Mrs. Gardener’s earlier novels. Long before I met her in person, and I have known her for some thirty years, I had read those books. It is so long ago that I would not now dare to comment upon their literary value, but what I do know is that they appeared at a time when it required great moral courage to write and to publish them. People read them behind closed doors and were hesitant about telling their neighbors what they had been reading and thinking about. It was at a time when the whole world accepted a double standard of morals and when it was not an uncommon thing for the entire family, aided by the community, through a conspiracy of silence, to marry off a rake to an innocent young girl, who was kept ignorant of her fate.
It was in that time that Helen Gardener wrote her novels. “Is This Your Son, My Lord?” and “Pray You Sir, Whose Daughter?” and what she said stirred consciences underneath the surface from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I was amazed when I first saw her to discover how young she was. I marvelled that she dared to shock society in order to make it think. It was that kind of courage that marked her life all the way along. Always did she lead.
I have been thinking of late of that great man who has just passed, and who is to be buried in Arlington too. It is a man’s world and he had a leadership among men; and yet when I have reviewed his life — for I knew Mr. Bryan quite well and admired his great power, is sincerity, his marvelous oratory—it seems to me that he adopted every cause he espoused after someone else had blazed the trail. He then took his place with bold and confident courage and he often assumed leadership. Helen Gardener blazed her own trails, and when she found that things were moving irresistibly as she wished, she moved on an blazed another. I do not think that those who knew her in the latter years of her life realized how masterful she had been, for she was over modest about all of her achievements and said little about them. Her courage was so unusual, in either man or woman, that to me she will always be an unprecedented character, one of the truly great.
Every person, whether man or woman, ought to be born with an instinct to obey the ten commandments, and yet crime rages. When we review those commandments, one by one, we find the most fundamental ones are violated by our best friends. When I say Helen Gardener had an instinct to obey those ten commandments, you may think it is something that one might say about anybody. Oh, no! I have known so few people in my life who tell the truth! It is not because they mean to lie. It is because there is deficiency in memory, a faulty operation of the mind, something not quite alert, that makes them untruthful. Helen Gardener was absolutely truthful. For that reason, I place her as a climax of our race. She lived where we all ought to be and are not.
She was modest, as I have said. No great place, perhaps, will be given to her, but those of us who have known her well, who have known her courage, her morality, her truthfulness, recognize that hers was a majestic character.
In Jerusalem there is a curious ceremony that takes place on Easter Day in the cathedral claiming the tomb of Christ. On that day the great church is crowded with people, each carrying an unlighted candle. At a given time, holy fire is said to pour forth from a tiny window in the tomb. The priests who stand nearest light their candles there and turn to light the candles of those who are nearest them, and these turn and light the candles of their neighbors, until all the candles in the church have been lighted by this holy fire. The whole audience then goes outside where other crowds are waiting with many men on horseback. Everyone carries a candle. When the candles are all alight, the men travel home, on foot, on horseback, and probably now by automobile, in order to light a fire upon the home altars from the Holy Spirit of the cathedral, and it is said altars as far away as Russia, Armenia, and Greece are lighted from that holy flame at Jerusalem.
We may take a figure of that ceremony. Such a character as that of Helen Gardener was like the holy fire, lighting the candles of those less brave, less strong, less intelligent, less truthful, and they in turn lighted those about; and so far do such influences extend, that it is impossible to estimate the good which such a man or woman does in this world. She was not a fundamentalist. She was a liberal, but always tolerant, always progressive. What she gave to the world, no one may know. But those of us who were privileged to light our candles at her altar do know that now we must carry on. A Great Soul, a White Soul, has passed.
Source: Catt, C.C. & National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, Helen Hamilton Gardener (Alice Chenoweth Day, [Washington, D.C.: s.n], 1925, Library of Congress