One of the fastest ways to make women with disabilities seem pathetic and worthless is to erase or ignore their lives. Why should the Feminist movement celebrate women like Helen Keller, when everyone knows that Keller’s entire contribution was she learned how to talk – and that was entirely Anne Sullivan’s work, after all.
This is, of course, completely untrue [1. Well, not the bit about the water, but that it’s the sum total of Keller’s accomplishments], but there was a concentrated effort to ensure that Keller’s accomplishments were ignored. “Radical Marxist” isn’t as nice a story as “deaf-blind woman overcomes”.
If you learned about Helen Keller in school at all, you probably learned the same pablum-esque story I did: Keller was a horrible brat of a child who screamed and kicked and was bad. Then, Anne Sullivan, that angelic woman, came along and, through her virtuous patience, finally got Keller to learn. She stuck Keller’s hand under the well water, and spelled “water” into her hand. And suddenly, Keller learned that “water” meant this stuff pouring over her hand. And then many years later she graduated from Radcliff College, and this is why all the students in my class should try their hardest, because look at how much Helen Keller accomplished, The End. [1. I think I’ve just described the plot of The Miracle Worker – another reason why I’m irritated that the show’s being put on. Ooh, let’s perpetuate the idea that Keller’s life began and ended at that water pump!]
This idea of Keller is so pervasive that even books written about Keller in her lifetime – books that she wrote the introduction for – include the same story. To be vain and quote an essay I wrote last semester:
The only blind person who is given any voice or agency within the work [Ishbel Ross’ Journey Into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind] is Helen Keller, who wrote the forward for the book, and is presented as “[rising] above her triple handicap to become one of the best-known characters in the modern world.” … [D]espite dedicating a whole chapter to Keller, Ross makes no mention of Keller’s politics or activism, instead describing Keller’s grace, “agelessness”, and book collection.
No mention of her membership in the Wobblies [1. Industrial Workers of the World. They’re still around.]. I guess that didn’t fit the narrative.
I learned about Helen Keller’s actual life story by reading the book Lies my Teacher Told Me. [1. Loewen, James W. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: Touchstone, 1995.] It’s a book that’s a bit hard for me to evaluate properly because I went to school in Canada and it’s focused on American education and teaching. The section Keller appears in (cleverly titled “handicapped by history”) talks about hero-building and erasing things that add complications in our respected leaders. About Keller, Loewen writes:
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.”
At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity – this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input, and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitation of her development.”
Keller recalled having met the editor: “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” She went on: “On, 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.” [1. LMTTM, 22-23]
Among other things, Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, donated money to the NAACP, supported birth control, was part of the women’s suffrage movement, and spent time in Halifax. [1. What? I like my city! She spoke at the closing ceremonies of the Nova Scotia School of the Deaf and Dumb. I’ve read her letters to the principal. I get kinda wibbly. Helen Keller was here!]
When we talk about Women’s History – and I understand Women’s History month is in March in the US[1. It’s October in Canada.], so that’s not too long from now – we are doing something wrong if we do not include the lives of women with disabilities. Helen Keller isn’t the only woman with disabilities who has been ignored, erased, or sanitized for public consumption – it happens over and over, to queer women, to women of colour, to women who are ‘marked’ as ‘not-mainstream’.
I think we can do better than this. I think we’re brave enough to not only confront that important women of our past participated in and encouraged others to participate in abuse, neglect, genocide of certain groups of women, but also brave enough to celebrate histories outside the mainstream.