Feminist Icons

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 Workeranother 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.

25 thoughts on “Feminist Icons

  1. You know, I think Keller is the only person with disabilities that I learned about in school. And, like you point out, it was done in a way to say ‘look what she overcame, now you know you can do anything you put your mind too!’ I went to a school for kids with learning disabilities as well, so Keller’s story was even more useful to bash us over the head with.

  2. i didn’t know any of that about helen keller! which kind of proves your point, of course. but also, makes me very happy and excited, because well, helen keller was a badass!

  3. I also didn’t know any of that, which definitely proves your point. What an awesome woman!!

  4. Thanks for writing this post! I actually did know a lot of this information, but that’s because I grew up in a Wobbly family.

  5. I knew some but definitely not all of this. I went through a period in about the second grade where I devoured every book I could find about Helen Keller and/or Anne Sullivan, and I was always much more interested in the parts of their lives that are the least talked about, the what happened next as it were. To me it seemed obvious that Helen’s learning to communicate was the beginning not the end of the story. It wasn’t until I picked up her autobiography that I learned anything about her life at Radcliffe and her adult life.

    That said, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with your casual and sarcastic dismissal of the other PWD in this story in order to emphasize the ways in which Helen’s life and accomplishments are sanitized and dismissed. The same way Helen’s accomplishments get dismissed, Anne Sullivan’s own blindness tends to get sanitized out of the popular narratives because it conflicts with the heroic able-bodied woman brings hope to the poor disabled girl narrative.

  6. Oh, hey, good point FairestCat, although I would note that Anne Sullivan had received corrective surgery in 1881 and wasn’t considered blind when she met Keller. (Whether or not we would consider her blind is, of course, a topic for a different day.) Prior to that she had very blurry vision, and attended the Perkins School for the Blind for a year or two.

    Her vision was considered corrected until she became “completely blind” in 1935, IIRC. So, for most of her life with Keller, she was Sighted, and considered herself to be Sighted. At least, this is how I recall it – I admit to not looking too closely into it.

  7. 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

    She did WHAT? I had no idea. (Which I realise was the point, but seriously, wow.)


    Like FairestCat, when I was that age I devoured biographies of Helen Keller. And none of this was in them! I guess socialism isn’t appropriate for children…

  9. Anna,

    From what I remember reading, Anne’s vision varied rather a lot over her lifetime. Each new operation would give her better eyesight temporarily, but the degeneration always returned. Wikipedia is entirely unhelpful on this subject, only saying that she was “completely blind” when she died in 1935, but I believe iirc her eyesight had been degenerating without correction for quite a while at that point.

    (errgh, I wish I had all my books with me, I could look this up)

  10. Helen Keller is one of my few “teroes” (teacher-heros) and I have always viewed her as an inspiration, so I’m glad to see you highlight her. Also, I’m a fan of Loewen, so it was nice to see some of his work quoted here.

  11. I am ridiculously fond of Loewen.

    FairestCat, the only way to sort this is MORE RESEARCH!!!! YAY! (Wait, I mean… booo! Boooo!)

    Seriously, though – I shall look it up, too. *yay!*

  12. I didn’t know much of what you wrote here, either, but then again I never read much about Helen Keller. I hate “overcomer” stories, and that was most I knew about her. The bits I knew about Helen Keller always made me feel like I somehow wasn’t good enough for not being such an “overcomer”, given the fact that I am not even deafblind. I wonder sometimes whether many deafblind individuals consider Helen Keller somehow “inspirational”, or whether they get the same why-am-I-such-a-failure-for-not-reaching-the-same-goals feeling I tend to get.

  13. Helen Keller—both her greeting card qualities and her louder, social justice opinions—was my introduction to disability studies.

    Just finished a lovely biography of Annie Sullivan (Macy), who definitely deserves her own book. She was an “overachiever” who never had much joy of it—her upbringing was hideously painful and sad, and she was continually reaching for the next thing. That a penniless, basically uneducated Irish girl was recommended to Helen Keller’s Southern aristocrat father, and succeeded with a novel pedagogic method, is stunning.

    One doesn’t need to know anything about Helen to enjoy this book, which explores the life-long romantic friendship between Helen and Teacher, their international travels, their battles with the literary establishment, and more.

    Beyond the Miracle Worker: the remarkable life of Anne Sullivan Macy and her extraordinary friendship with Helen Keller

    As far as Annie Sullivan’s disability status: she had life-long problems with depression as well as eyesight issues. She worked hard at passing as sighted, since her employment depended on it. However, none of the many operations she had seemed to help that much. She had “trichoma,” which caused her eyelashes to scratch her corneas. Corneas, and eyelashes, regenerate during one’s lifetime, so as FairestCat mentions, her vision did vary greatly.

  14. @astrid – I hadn’t given much thought to the downside of “overcomer” stories. Well, maybe that’s not true. My other tero is Frederick Douglass, another “overcomer.” Now I’m wondering if overcomer stories do more harm than good.

  15. Thanks for this post. I knew some, but not all, of the information about Keller.

    This next comment is more related to academic women’s history than popular women’s history, but this seemed like an appropriate place to put it: Women’s/gender historians need to start thinking about disability, and not just in the sappy, “overcoming disability”-type ways. Disability is woefully absent from the rather large body of academic women’s history–even when it is relavent. I recently attended a talk by one of the leading historians in the field who discussed her recent work on a particular historical figure, a fairly well-known woman. This historical figure had a disability, albeit one which many might consider “minor.” This lauded historian did not engage with disability issues in her presentation except to present the historical figure as having “triumphed” over her disability through strength of character and will. While the historical figure said a fair bit about how influential acquiring and living with a disability was for her, her biographer’s disability analysis was very shallow in comparison to the analytic depth with which other issues are treated. Ignorance about disability and disability theory leads to writing incomplete histories.

  16. I think a lot of it for overcomer stories depend on how they’re framed. Helen Keller was an amazing woman who did amazing things. What makes her history (and the history of Anne Sullivan! – thanks, Jesse & FairestCat) interesting isn’t Deafblind girl learns to do stuff – let’s all feel good! – because otherwise we’d all know about Laura Bridgman. (“The original deafblind girl” – for a… not really horrible but from the point of view of someone who thinks that disability is So Sad Omg!, check out The Imprisoned Guest, by Gitter.)

    I think the problem with the way Keller’s lifestory is presented is it’s often “Look! Look at how much she accomplished DESPITE! her handicap!” Whereas what Keller accomplished in her life is interesting in and of itself.

    I’m trying to say something about how we (the collective “we” of Canadian & American society) don’t consider histories of women like Hilary Clinton or Amelia Erhart to be overcomer stories, but whenever you add disability to the mix, it’s “overcomer!!” And that’s just part of the inherit ableism in the system.

  17. Yeah, I’d only ever heard the “mainstream” version of this story up until sometime this year, I can’t remember exactly when… Wait, yes I do! We were discussing monuments in my Gender and Visual Culture class! And there was a monument for Helen Keller (I want to say, in Canada?) and the artist chose that scene from The Miracle Worker, with her as a little girl holding her hand under the water. I think it was classmates of mine who brought up why they would do this: because the grown woman Helen Keller was political and awesome, and therefore too controversial a figure to memorialize apparently.
    .-= whatsername´s last blog ..Ways you can help in Haiti =-.

  18. “I think the problem with the way Keller’s lifestory is presented is it’s often “Look! Look at how much she accomplished DESPITE! her handicap!” Whereas what Keller accomplished in her life is interesting in and of itself.”

    Very true.

  19. I loved her commentary on systematic oppression. I also learned about her radical nature from LMTTM. I wish Howard Zinn would do some “writing PWD back into history”. Someone correct me if he or someone else has published work of that tack.

  20. Oh I loved Lies My Teacher Told Me! That is where I, too, learned about how badass Helen Keller is. Maybe that’s the only place that even talks about it, sheesh. I wonder if the ACLU does a lot of trying to promote how it was hers. Helen Keller is seriously seriously badass.

    “I’m trying to say something about how we (the collective “we” of Canadian & American society) don’t consider histories of women like Hilary Clinton or Amelia Erhart to be overcomer stories, but whenever you add disability to the mix, it’s “overcomer!!” And that’s just part of the inherit ableism in the system.”

    That’s really interesting! Of course historically race and gender have both been things that we looked at successful women/POC as “overcoming,” but it’s not true so much now, is it? I thought of this line from othello:

    Duke of Venice [to Brabantio]:
    And, noble signior,
    If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
    Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

  21. I really appreciate this post. As an anarchist I am thrilled to see socialism and disability discussed together. I also didn’t know about Keller being a radical until I read another of Leowen’s books that had a chapter on how Keller’s home town celebrates her every year and tourists come to see where she lived and NOTHING acknowledges her politics. Talk about insulting! Like a disabled woman isn’t allowed to have a savvy political analysis and do meaningful community organizing?

    That “overcoming hardship” narrative is of course demeaning as other folks have commented, but also serves to rewrite history in the interest of those in power. Radical leftists have had our history written out of the official history. If we learned about Keller’s critique of capitalism, we might get ideas.

  22. Fantastic post! I had no idea Anne Sullivan was blind at any point in her life, that makes the story much more interesting! I did learn in high school that Helen Keller was socialist though.

    I think the problem with the way Keller’s lifestory is presented is it’s often “Look! Look at how much she accomplished DESPITE! her handicap!” Whereas what Keller accomplished in her life is interesting in and of itself.

    What’s most interesting to me about what you’ve posted is that the correct narrative here is, as you suggest, the polar opposite: Look how much she accomplished because of her disability. It’s clear that Keller’s socialism was rooted in her experience of the world as a person with disabilities, that she had an empathy and an understanding of the capriciousness of fate that she might not have had if she had had her hearing and sight. Similarly, Anne Sullivan’s assistance might have been aided by her own experience with partial blindness.

    I feel like the pervasive understanding of disability as a tragedy overlooks the fact people with disabilities often have much-needed different skills perspectives from able people and can serve not as lessons-by-negative-example (which is the deservedly hated very special episode version of this sentiment) but as people who can legitimately kick the asses of able-bodied people (like that guy with carbon fiber legs from a couple pages back).
    .-= Gnatalby´s last blog ..End of Time Part II– Bloated and Ridick, but not Without Charm =-.

  23. I’ve loved Helen Keller since I was about 8. As stubbornness is one of my best qualities and my mother was a teacher, I was encouraged and aided in research about this great lady. It’s past time that the world realized she was MUCH more than some sort of oddity who overcame her disabilities and realized that she was a wise, wonderful woman who truly cared for others and understood that society has to take the blames for many of the woes people suffer.

    BTW, has anyone besides me heard of Laura Bridgman? While not the activist that Ms. Keller was, she was the first deaf-blind person to be educated in the US. Helen’s mother read about Bridgman and wrote to the Perkins Institution for the Blind, which was a school for the blind in Boston, and hired another of their students, Annie Sullivan, to go to Alabama and teach her own daughter. While Bridgman never gained the success and fame that Keller did, it is directly due to her intelligence and education that Helen Keller recieved her.

  24. i too missed out on learning about the activist side of Helen Keller. I’m glad I know now. She’s definitely one of my new sheroes. Do you or anyone else know of any other significant women with disabilities? email me at mizztcasa at gmail dot com. or follow me @mizztcasa.

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