Most people are only familiar with the story of Helen Keller as the troubled blind and deaf girl who learned to communicate with the help of her dedicated tutor, Anne Sullivan.
But Keller was much more than a girl who learned to speak with her hands. The part of her history usually omitted is her devotion to radical social and polical causes, and her embrace of the Socialist Party in 1909. As soon as she took up the cause of advocating for the poor, and taking controversial public steps such as denouncing John D. Rockefeller (after his private army killed striking coal miners and their families in a confrontation in Colorado, she called him a “monster of capitalism”), her honeymoon with the American public was over. The editor of a Brooklyn newspaper, for example, told his readers that her radical ideas came from “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.” (One presumes one of those “limitations” includes graduating Magna Cum Laude from Radcliffe.)
Her vision of social justice was all encompassing. She campaigned for women’s rights – both for voting, and for birth control. (In 1932 she wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen.”) She donated money to black civil rights organizations and spoke at anti-war rallies prior to World War I. At Carnegie Hall in 1916 she charged:
Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China, and the Philippine Islands. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines.”
In 1918 Keller helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union, and lent her support to Eugene Debs, Robert La Follette, and other prominent radical political candidates. After World War II, she spoke out against nuclear war.
In 1955, at the height of anti-Communist fervor in the U.S., she wrote a public birthday greeting and letter of support to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leading Communist activist, then in jail on charges of violating the Smith Act. (The Smith Act was the popular name given to The Alien Registration Act of 1940 that set criminal penalties for “subversive activities,” defined with very broad parameters.) Needless to add, the FBI kept Keller under surveillance for the rest of her life, and some supporters of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), for which Keller was the national face, threatened to withdraw their support.
Today, Keller is well known for being blind, but she also deserves to be heralded for her progressive social vision.
As she wrote in a letter to Robert La Follette in 1924:
So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics — that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world — that is a different matter!”
Not much has changed since then, in terms of how America chooses to remember Helen Keller. This is a typical summary of her life, found on the Web:
Helen Keller was an inspiration to all the blind and deaf people over the world. Her writings showed her interest in the beauty of things, taken for granted by those who can see and hear.”
Yes, she was that. But she was so much more.