Helen Keller in the winter of 1913 sent $87 to help immigrant textile workers on strike in Little Falls, N.Y.
In a letter accompanying the $87, Helen Keller wrote, “Their cause is my cause. If they are denied a living wage, I also am denied. While they are industrial slaves, I cannot be free.”
Helen Keller was a much more interesting and complex person than the sanitized image projected by her publisher and the American Foundation for the Blind.
In the popular mind, she is either the nice lady who traveled around the world promoting peace or the virginal young girl with a Braille book in her lap. The latter image was cemented in 1957 with the play The Miracle Worker, made into an Oscar-winning film in 1962, then remade twice again for television.
Helen Keller was actually a card-carrying union member who marched in suffrage parades, kept a large red flag in her office and refused to cross a picket line to see the premiere of a movie about herself. She helped found the NAACP and the ACLU. She advocated strikes and window smashing and above all hated child labor.
Girl at the Pump
There is a statue of 7-year-old Helen Keller standing at a water pump in the U.S. Capitol.
The statue represents the most well-known anecdote about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan: Helen was a wild child who didn’t understand Annie’s efforts to spell words into her hand. One day Annie pumped water onto one of Helen’s hands and spelled w-a-t-e-r into the other. Helen suddenly understood and said ‘wah-wah.’ From that moment on she would absorb learning until graduating from Radcliffe College magna cum laude.
Helen Keller was born June 27, 1880 on a plantation in Tuscumbia, Ala. Her father, Arthur Keller, was a former Confederate officer and a newspaper publisher. Her mother, Kate Adams, was a descendant of John and Abigail Adams and the daughter of Confederate Army Col. Charles W. Adams.
At 19 months she contracted a fever that left her deaf and blind. She could communicate with her family with some rudimentary signs, but was difficult to control as she grew older. She was lucky to have been born into a family of means, otherwise she would have been sentenced to an asylum.
The Perkins School arranged for a 20-year-old instructor, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, to tutor Helen at home.
Not So Lucky
Anne Sullivan was nearly blind herself, but she was not so lucky as Helen Keller. Her parents, working-class Irish immigrants, sent her and her younger brother to an institution. There, disabled children were abused by staff and mentally ill adults. Her brother, like 20 percent of the inmates, did not survive childhood.
For 49 years Annie Sullivan lived with Helen Keller, from 1888 when she began to attend the Perkins School in Boston, through two decades in Wrentham, Mass. Then they lived together another two decades in Forest Hills, N.Y.
In 1905, Annie married John Macy, a magnetic Harvard instructor who was also a Socialist, and the three lived together in a home Annie and Helen bought in Wrentham. It was in Wrentham that Helen Keller became a feminist, a pacifist and a Wobbly — that is, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union.
She discovered the poor had a greater chance of going blind than the rich. She connected the abuses suffered by blind people to the oppression of workers and women.
In Why I Became an IWW, she wrote,
I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers.
In 1917, Helen moved to Forest Hills, N.Y., with Annie and John Macy. There she worked on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. She also wrote a dozen books and several articles. She willed her papers to the AFB, which has since cultivated an image that did not include Socialism, the Wobblies or window smashing.
Annie Sullivan died in 1936, and in 1939 Helen Keller moved to Easton, Conn. From Easton she traveled the world. She raised money for the American Foundation for the Blind and campaigned for peace.
Toward the end of her life, a college student asked her what could be worse than losing her sight. Keller replied, “Yes, I could have lost my vision.”
In 1924 she expressed her frustration with the criticism of her radical activities in a letter to Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.
“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,” she wrote.
“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! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”
As for the Little Falls, N.Y., strike: It pitted unskilled textile workers — mostly Polish, Slovak and Italian women — against a company that controlled the local police force. Though mounted police beat the strikers with clubs and smashed up their union hall. In the end, the strikers prevailed, gaining their jobs back with a pay increase.
Helen Keller died June 1, 1968.
With thanks to Helen Keller A Life by Dorothy Herrmann. This story about Helen Keller was updated in 2023.