At the Visitors Center to the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, there is a statue of Helen Keller as a young girl, next to a water pump. The statue depicts the famous ‘eureka’ moment when she first connects the word water that her teacher was trying to teach her in sign language, to the water itself. This is the enduring image of Helen Keller, the little blind and deaf girl who learned how to interact in the world through the patience of her teacher and overcame her obstacles to eventually go to Harvard. All of which is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Helen Keller was born in rural Alabama in 1880, and was born able to see and hear. She contracted scarlet fever before her second birthday and the illness robbed her of her sight and hearing. When Helen was 6, her mother decided to find outside help for her daughter and brought Anne Sullivan, visually impaired herself, to be Helen’s teacher.
Anne Sullivan managed to break through to Helen with the water pump incident described above, and remained her teacher companion for 49 years, until Sullivan’s death. Sullivan accompanied Keller all the way through her schooling, signing words into Keller’s hand so that she could understand the material. Helen Keller was accepted to Radcliffe College, which at that time was a separate women’s college and has since been incorporated into Harvard University. She became the first deaf blind person to earn a BA, in 1904.
Keller was already well known by the time she graduated from college, but went on to become world famous for her writings, speeches and advocacy. Many people assume that she was an advocate for persons with disabilities, which indeed she was, but what is generally left out of the narrative of Keller’s life is that she also became a radical socialist. The traditional narrative of Keller’s life becomes a bit hazy after she graduates from college, mostly because she became very controversial.
In her advocacy of persons with disabilities, Keller wanted to learn as much as she could about the causes of blindness and deafness. She discovered that blindness was not randomly distributed throughout the population, but that there was a much high concentration of blindness in the lower classes. Inadequate health care, industrial accidents, poor nutrition, prostitution and lack of access to medicine were all factors; all things that could be improved through better working conditions and better government assistance for the poor.
Through her advocacy for the blind, Keller gravitated toward socialism and became a member of the Socialist Party. She was also a feminist, an early advocate of birth control and helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union. She was a staunch opponent of both Woodrow Wilson and America’s involvement in World War 1.
Helen Keller continued her advocacy for the rest of her adult life, becoming more radical over time, supporting socialist Eugene Debs in his candidacy for President, among other things. She was criticized for her views, and many who had formerly praised her for overcoming such large obstacles, later chose to use those obstacles as an excuse for her radical beliefs.
Keller was slowed by a series of strokes in the 1960s, and died at her home in Connecticut June 1, 1968, weeks shy of her 88th birthday.
Written for Sheroes of History by Rebecca Fachner who is a writer, tour guide and self described “free range” historian, roaming freely over the landscape of the past. @rjf630
Find out more:
Helen Keller wrote about her experiences in a book The Story of My Life, which is still available to read today. Fine it here.
You can visit the Helen Keller Birthplace in Alabama and find out more about her on their website here.
You can read many of Helen Keller’s letters on this blog.
Watch this video of Helen Keller speaking: