Sunday, September 25, 2011

[TSS] Interlude: The Truth About Helen Keller

I remember the first time I read about Helen Keller.  My elementary school principal, Ms. Weber, had a tradition of giving every student in school a book on her birthday.  When it was my turn to go to her office to pick out a book, I gravitated towards the one with a beautiful young girl on the cover:  Helen Keller, by Stewart and Polly Anne Graff.  The book told me about Helen, a willful young girl who was spoiled by her parents because she lived in almost complete isolation.  Before she reached the age of 2, Helen was blind and deaf and she had no way of communicating with anyone.  Until she met her beloved teacher, Annie Sullivan, who taught her sign language.  The book described how Helen went on to become a champion for blind and deaf people, helping to get children admitted to Perkins School for the Blind.  She was the first deafblind person to get her Bachelor of Arts and went on to become a very good author.  She became a national hero.  As her life coincided a great deal with the women's movement, teachers often teach about her around the same time, with some sort of brief accolade:  She was an amazing woman who stretched her boundaries and accomplished so much.  And she had a wonderful teacher that helped her do that.

What people often neglect to mention is that Helen Keller, in addition to being ambitious, intelligent, stubborn and successful, was also very, very active in the political sphere.  She spoke out against war, argued for women's rights and wanted workers to earn a fair wage.  She was, in fact, an extreme leftist and socialist.

Why is this glanced over when we learn about her?  Teachers don't want students to have to deal with the messy idea that their heroes also had strong opinions about society?  We don't want to besmirch what has become a sterling reputation?  We just don't have time to go through the nuances of every historical legend's real personality?  We don't want to think of a woman as an agitator

But like it or not, Helen Keller was an agitator.  She helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, and was a sound supporter of the working class.  In talking about her path to socialism, she said:
I had once believed that we are all masters of our fate - that we could mold our lives into any form we pleased. I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life's struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.
Keller was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a leftist organization that wanted to free workers from the shackles of corporations and employers and was very supportive of the immigrant community.  When WWI hit, Keller and the IWW came under attack for their pacifist views and many IWW workers were arrested, beaten, jailed or killed.  Keller spoke out against these procedures, demanding to know why the government was allowed to ignore its own rules and mete out lynchmob justice.

While she was so popular for advancing the cause of the blind and deaf, once people learned of her socialist leanings, they began to draw attention to the "manifest limitations of her development" and blamed her radical thinking on those handicaps.  How did she respond?  By being awesome:
At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him...Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.
Helen Keller believed quite strongly that corporate and industrial greed often led to physical disability.  She spoke out for the rights of workers to have safe and clean work environments, limiting the potential for a life-changing accident.   She also believed in a fair working wage, believing that many women were driven to prostitution and subsequently, disease, in their desperate quest to make ends meet.  Part and parcel with this, she was a huge supporter of women's rights and campaigned for universal suffrage and birth control.  She much preferred the more militant and action-oriented British form of suffrage to the more conciliatory and timid manner the Americans employed.

Helen Keller is best known for her work against the disenfranchisement of the blind and deaf in America.  But she didn't stop with them- she sympathized with all disenfranchised and powerless people, from immigrants to women to war veterans.  She was an extreme leftist who learned to speak, and speak publicly, so that she could share her views and hopefully inspire others to share them.  You need not agree with her opinions, you may not approve of her methods.  But glossing over her very real and strong personality and her tightly-held beliefs is unfair to her and to all of us who learned about her.  It is quite possible for a woman to be a hero.  It is quite possible for a blind and deaf woman to be a hero.  And that woman is no less an inspiration, her accomplishments no less impressive, just because her views don't align perfectly with your own.
It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.


  1. I did a feature on Helen Keller last year as part of my Alabama tribute. I think she just such a fascinating person to learn about. So inspirational. I could only find a small book about her at the time, but this one is fabulous.

  2. Oh, this isn't a book review, Vivienne! Just a biography based on some research I did. What book did you read?

  3. Thanks for sharing! I like knowing these aspects to Helen Keller's life.


  4. Helen Keller is absolutely one of my heroes. I learned about her much the same way when I was a kid - the focus was on her overcoming her disabilities, not any of the social justice work she did. It wasn't until high school or college I think that I learned about her activism for workers - or even for women's rights!

    The early biographies I read of her definitely focused on what seem like "acceptable" activities for a blind and deaf woman in the early 20th century. I remember learning that she advocated for education and care for blind and deaf children. That's totally non-threatening after all - can anyone in this day really argue with those? But focusing on that aspect of her activism, to the elimination of everything else, is truly a disservice. Thanks for highlighting this amazing, complex woman!

  5. I went through a time in fourth grade where every visit to the school library ended in an autobiography or biography of someone. Helen Keller was one of those people. Even as an adult I still love to read about real people.

  6. This is some fascinating and very new information to me, Aarti! I think almost everyone knows about Keller's capacity for overcoming her handicaps, but to hear about this other very strong and intelligent side of her really amazes and uplifts me. This was such a wonderful exploration of a woman who I have always admired, and who I now admire even more. Thanks for shedding so much light on Keller today for us!

  7. I've seen the film but only knew a tiny bit about Keller's thoughts on the world, so this is very interesting. It's usual that people would focus on overcoming difficulties - which of course is important especially in her case - but with her work added, it's surprising it's been neglected. Thank you for such an informative post!

  8. Laurel-Rain - I'm glad you appreciate it :-)

    Angela - Yes, she's so awesome, isn't she? It's sad that as kids, we don't realize JUST how awesome she is.

    Jill - While I don't read too many biographies, I do enjoy them when I read them. Mostly :-)

    Zibilee - Yes, I think she would be such a formidable woman to know and interact with. So strong-minded.

    Charlie - Yes, it's sad that it's neglected, isn't it? But hopefully more and more people will come to know her as she really was. I think even Mark Twain was very liberal and that has been glossed over through history.

  9. Her views, well at least the did things, and considering what she could have ended up as, good for her. She went out into the world

  10. I didn't know this large part of Helen Keller's personality and life - it really should be included in every bio.

    Aarti - do you still have that book that you were given as a child? What a treasure - I have only a handful of books from when I was a kid :(

  11. What an amazing post, Aarti! We need to start doing justice to our heroes and show every aspect of our lives. We live in a time where we can know pretty much everything about our celebrities whether we want to or not. I would rather that focus be put on the people who have helped to make our country greater.

    On a personal note, how's school? What have you been up to?

  12. I have always been a bit fascinated by Helen Keller. She lived an amazing and inspirational life.

  13. GREAT post! I had no idea she was THAT awesome. Thank you.

  14. Again, awesome historical post, good-to-know information.

    My only theory on why this would be glossed over (other than people being thoughtless jerks) is that politics, especially leftist politics (because they tend to be those of the disenfranchised, i.e. those with no power) are so controversial in the classroom that I would imagine a teacher would avoid mentioning too much about it for fear of being seen as pushing their own agenda on their students.

    Have you heard of Carola Woerishoffer? I did a brief post on her a couple months back:

  15. Fantastic post, Aarti. I'm going to share it with my daughters!

  16. Blodeuedd - Yes, she most certainly went out in the world :-)

    Dawn - I am not sure if I still have it. Maybe? I hope so! It had a sticker with balloons on the inside cover, with a "Happy birthday, Aarti!" note inside.

    Vasilly - That is SUCH a good point. We know far too much about Paris Hilton and not nearly enough about Helen Keller.
    And school is good- I will email/tweet you soon to catch up :-)

    Kelly - Yes, she definitely didn't let any handicap hinder her progress towards her goals.

    Care - Haha, I know! So great :-)

    Alice - Yes, you make a good point. I think you're right- teachers aren't really allowed to talk a lot about anything that might seem a little controversial. Even though, clearly, most political debates are controversial. Sigh. It would make class much more interesting!

    Col - Oh, that's so nice! I'll be sure to keep them coming every week.

  17. Wow, I did not know that and I thought I knew all about Helen Keller! She's one of my heroes. I'll have to read a more current bio of her - or maybe even one of the older ones and see if it was me or them. (It could be me. I have these weird lapses in Things I Think I Jolly Well Should Have Known About and yet.....don't.)

  18. This is such a great post, Aarti. I only know the very basics of Keller's story, but you made me want to seek out a book about her, preferably one that acknowledges her full complexity. I love what you said about women as agitators.

  19. Carrie - I think we all know that feeling ;-)

    Nymeth - Yes, I think it's sad that so many biographies ignore such a MASSIVE part of her life. I hope there are some accurate ones out there.

  20. Thanks for this informative post. Like many others, I knew the bare bones story of Keller's childhood, but didn't know anything about her political activities as an adult.


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