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International Women’s Day: Subverting the Narrative

The earth from space in a purple filter, with text: Blog for International Women's Day - Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity

I encourage you today to check out Gender Across Border’s Blog(swarm) for International Women’s Day. Throughout the day, the GAB editorial board (including Emily Heroy, Colleen Hodgetts, Jessica Mack, Carrie Polansky, Erin Rickard, Elizabeth Switaj and Tatiana McKinney) will be updating GAB to highlight particular posts. It’s never too late to participate!

There were two themes, and I, of course, took this one:

Describe a particular organization, person, or moment in history that helped to mobilize a meaningful change in equal rights for all.

I think it’s fairly clear that I admire Helen Keller, and resent the way what she did with her life has been reduced to parody, the subject of infantile jokes about people who are Deaf-Blind, and forgotten about. When people bother to tell bits of her story, about her learning words at a well after weeks of patient tutoring from Anne Sullivan, it becomes a form of Inspiration that’s based entirely on pity. Oh, how tragic her life could have been, shrouded in darkness and silence. And then she learned to speak! And all was well!

I’m going to interrupt this post to point you towards a previous one I wrote about Keller: Feminist Icons

[This part is actually quoted from the book Lies my Teacher Told Me.]

Keller’s commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people’s opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller’s research was not just book-learning: “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”

I think Helen Keller changed the world, or at least did an awful lot of work towards changing it. But, even with focusing on her achievements, on her work, it’s important to put her in context.

Helen Keller was a white middle-class woman from the US. She was young and pretty and very talented. Before she became famous as The Deaf-Blind Girl (because, of course, there can only be one Deaf-Blind Girl, and she is always white), Laura Bridgman was The Deaf-Blind Girl. And Bridgman was not as pretty, not as nice, and not as accomplished as Keller.

I mention Laura Bridgman because, if the whole purpose of the Helen Keller Narrative was Nice Deaf-Blind Girl Does Good (and thus you, gentle reader, should put your life in proper perspective!), then Bridgman fits almost the same bill. She learned to read and write, wrote letters to her fans, was on public display with ribbons to hide her eyes, and was just as famous as Keller. So why is our dominant narrative Keller and not Bridgman?

Well, what better way to discount someone’s radical roots than to turn them into an Inspiring Story, and nothing more?

So, for International Women’s Day, I want to remind readers that there are certain stories that we tell about certain women, and that these stories have a purpose.

Perhaps we can subvert that.

Check out Gender Across Borders throughout the day for more posts. A list of participating blogs