Helen Keller – Notable Women in History Series

Helen Keller is best known for her ability, with the help of her tutor, Anne Sullivan, to excel despite deafness and blindness, such that she not only graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe, but went on to publish a number of important texts on social issues. What’s less known is her efforts on behalf of the underprivileged and the rights of women. Read on as we explore the lesser known story of Helen Keller’s life.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her father served in the Confederate Army, and after the war became the editor of a local newspaper. Her mother was an educated young woman from Memphis. Keller lost her sight due to an unknown illness, possibly meningitis or scarlet fever, when she was just 19 months old. The unruly behavior she exhibited in her newfound plight prompted her parents to seek a tutor and mentor for her.

Enter Anne Sullivan, aged 20, newly graduated from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, MA. After a week in Keller’s home, attempting to deal with Keller’s tantrums, Sullivan requested that the two be removed to a small cottage on the property. In this environment, and through considerable patience, Sullivan was able to earn the trust and confidence of the young girl. They found a way to communicate, through tracing letters on palms, and ultimately formed a lifelong bond.

Keller fervently wished to attend university, and after considerable time spent studying, was admitted to Radcliffe. With the help of her friend and educator, Anne Sullivan, Helen graduated magna cum laude in 1904. This essentially comprises what is most known about Helen Keller’s life, but as you will see, she contributed so much more to society.
Helen’s first publication, her autobiography, titled The Story of My Life, was published in 1903, while she was still in school. Five years later she published her second book, The World I Live In. Yet she didn’t stop there: the Helen Keller archives contain over 475 speeches and essays concerning topics such as faith, blindness prevention, birth control, the rise of fascism in Europe, and atomic energy.

The topics of the aforementioned essays are the likely result of her experiences visiting sweatshops and slums, where she learned about the struggles of workers and immigrants. At the suggestion of Anne’s husband, John Macy, Keller read H.G. Wells’ New Worlds for Old, which is purported to have influenced her views about radical change. After continuing to read other simialar material, Keller embraced socialism and its values and goals.
From an early age, Keller championed the rights of the underprivileged, and used her writing skills to share her beliefs with the world. As a pacifist, Keller protested U.S. involvement in WWI. As a staunch socialist, she campaigned on behalf of worker’s rights. She was also a committed advocate for woman suffrage, and served as a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She traveled extensively, campaigning for what she felt was right, the result of which were state commissions for the blind, by which rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to those with vision loss.
Not satisfied by her efforts at home, and realizing that there were poor and underserved members of every population, Keller was prompted to complete a world tour, continuing her tireless work. During 7 trips between 1946 and 1957, she visited no less than 35 countries. She met with many prominent world leaders including Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Golda Meir.
Though previously universally praised for her courage in the face of her physical disabilities, now serving in the public sphere as a champion of socialism, Keller found herself facing media criticism. In fact, the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle attacked her radical ideas, attributing them to “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations on her development.” Despite newfound yet growing opposition against her for her beliefs, Keller continued to advocate for those she felt needed it most.
Keller has been lauded in historical archives for her crusade to address causes of blindness. Yet she also deserves recognition for her progressive social vision, and efforts to highlight the many prominent social wrongs and injustices faced by the underprivileged. This women’s history month, we salute Helen Keller for her achievements and efforts on behalf of society.