Helen Keller Day – Honoring a ‘Miracle,’ an Activist & an American Icon
June 27 is Helen Keller Day
The girl who put the work in The Miracle Worker Helen Keller later became an activist with controversial opinions on politics, feminism and the treatment of the blind and deaf that were way ahead of her time. She is celebrated nationally as an American icon on her birthday: June 27, a date which has been named Helen Keller Day in her honor.
Helen Keller was treated as a curiosity from early in her life. As Brewton (2005) wrote of the deaf-blind activist, people were more amazed that Keller had opinions than they were interested in what her opinions were. As a 19-month-old girl in the late 19th century, Keller was stricken with Scarlett Fever by some accounts, and meningitis by others, which caused her to lose her senses of sight and hearing. Her parents feared she couldn’t be taught even the most basic facets of normal life, and as a young girl, Helen Keller was extremely wild.
The family was referred by a Baltimore eye doctor to telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and he convinced them to not consider young Helen a lost cause. Bell referred the Keller’s to Michael Anagnos who was the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. If not for what he did next, it’s likely no one would know who Helen Keller was. Anagnos sent Anne Sullivan, a former student of the Perkins Institute, who had lost her vision in her youth, and had it saved by surgery. Sullivan knew the manual alphabet, which would come to be Helen Keller’s metaphoric light in her silent world of literal darkness.
The Miracle Worker
Visitors to Helen Keller’s childhood home in Tuscumbia, Alabama can still see the water pump Anne Sullivan used to spell “W-A-T-E-R” by signing the manual alphabet into young Helen’s hand, while she pumped water over it. This scene was made famous in TK’s Broadway play, The Miracle Worker, which also became a movie starring a young Patty Duke as Helen Keller, and Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan. While the play and the movie are both considered great works of theater and cinema, respectively, it portrayed Helen Keller’s story more as an escape from isolation than the awakening of an activist.
Over the years, Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller became close friends. In a time when few women actually received college educations, Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person to complete a degree, when she graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904. At Radcliffe, she befriended John Macy, who married Anne Sullivan, and she became Anne Sullivan Macy. John Macy, a socialist, would loan his books on the subject to Helen Keller, at her request. After her graduation, Keller began writing her own books, first about her life, and then about political and activist causes near and dear to her heart.
According to Nielsen (2009), much of Helen Keller’s collegiate success should be attributed to the exhausting work done by Anne Sullivan, who would translate lecture notes and textbooks to Keller by manual alphabet, while they waited, sometimes to mid-semester, for Braille textbooks to be delivered.
Helen Keller – The Socialist
In the early 20th century, before the Russian revolution, many Americans identified as socialist, Keller being one of them. In her writings, she talked about the needs to protect the workers as she lambasted capitalism. She believed that historical precedents suggested that one day capitalism would be replaced. Steel tycoon and devout capitalist Andrew Carnegie once suggested that Helen Keller needed a spanking.
The tenor at which Keller would speak about socialist causes varied from outright talk of revolutionary overthrow to more nuanced considerations taken from her role in society as a woman, and a person living with a disability. She suggested, while supporting the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), that the workers of the world must take power as the means of production in the name of democracy.
Helen Keller – The Pacifist
As well as being a socialist, Helen Keller spoke out against war as a pacifist. She held the belief that wars were fought to preserve the interests of the wealthy. Keller said WWI benefited the military industry more than anything.
Her pacifism came from her Christian beliefs that evolved from a strict Calvinist upbringing after she met Emmanuel Swedenborg, a Christian mystic who taught that religion was based more on common love than fear of damnation. She wrote a book titled Light in my Darkness which is considered Helen Keller’s spiritual autobiography.
Keller suspended her pacifism in face of the threat presented by Adolf Hitler in WWII.
Helen Keller – The Feminist
The beliefs held by Helen Keller regarding a woman’s place in society were quite radical by the standards of her era. According to Brewton (2005), she argued that doctors should get over their “false modesty” and talk to women about the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases, as they were a leading cause of neonatal blindness.
Furthermore, she saw the lack of available birth control as a capitalist plot to advance child labor, and that people needed to hold back “the power of propagation.”
Helen Keller – Activist for the Blind and Deaf
Through everything, Helen Keller fought to alter the perception that the blind and deaf were charity cases; instead, they should receive educations, and work as productive members of society. In Helen Keller’s later life, after her long-time friend Anne Sullivan Macy died, she began to travel the world to speak about the blind and deaf, in particular about those who lost their sight and hearing due to war.
Helen Keller Day – June 27
While some of Helen Keller’s views may have been controversial, her overcoming of adversity, her passion and her dedication to people besides herself are what earned her the recognition of a national commemorative day. The honor was bestowed by Jimmy Carter, but she had also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson.
Brewton, V. (2005). “Helen (Adams) Keller.” American Radical and Reform Writers: First Series. Retrieved from Academic Source Premier database.
Nielsen, K. (2009). “The Grown-up Helen Keller.” Alabama Heritage. Retrieved from Academic Source Premier database.