Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Helen Keller

Episode Summary

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was an author, lecturer and political activist, who relentlessly proved society wrong and paved the way for disability rights around the world.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s legend was an author, lecturer and political activist, who relentlessly proved society wrong and paved the way for disability rights around the world.

 Let’s talk about Helen Keller.

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Due to a childhood illness, Helen became blind and deaf at the age of around 19 months. When she was 6 years old, Helen was examined by  Alexander Graham Bell who  sent her to Anne Sullivan, a 20-year-old teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. 

After only a few months of instruction with Anne, Helen learned how to associate objects with finger-spelled words on her palm. She could read raised words on cardboard, and communicate by arranging words in a frame. From 1880 to 1890, she learned Braille at the Perkins Institution. In 1890, Helen learned of another deaf and blind girl in Norway who learned how to speak. She immediately told Anne that she also wanted to learn.

Anne turned to Sarah Fuller, a teacher at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Helen eagerly learned how to speak by feeling her teacher’s mouth, and she could even pick up on Sarah’s accent by detecting which syllables were longer than others. She also learned to lip-read others’ speech by having words simultaneously spelled into her hand.

When she was 14 years old, Helen enrolled at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. Two years later, she enrolled in the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts. She was admitted to Radcliffe College in 1900 and graduated with honors in 1904.

Helen grew up in an era when deaf people were deeply misunderstood and mistreated. A new movement of teachers believed sign language was primitive, so they suppressed teaching sign and pushed speech training as a way to assimilate deaf people into society. Deaf people were seen as inferior and many were thrown into asylums.

She broke taboos by writing about her blindness for women’s magazines, like the Ladies’ Home Journal, The Century, McClure’s, and The Atlantic Monthly. Anne shared her story in several of her own books written over the course of fifty years, including titles like “The Story of My Life,” “Optimism,” “The World I Live In,” and “The Open Door.”

In 1913, Helen started lecturing with an interpreter at her side, and traveled around the world several times . She mostly spoke in support of the American Foundation for the Blind, and she later established a $2 million endowment fund for the organization.

In 1920, Helen co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union alongside Roger Nash Baldwin and other advocates. Helen’s pioneering advocacy for the rights of deaf and blind people helped lead to the release of disabled people from asylums. She also encouraged 30 states to organize commissions for the blind. Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the presidential medal of freedom.

While she is often depicted as such, Helen was not apolitical. 

She was an advocate for birth control and a staunch socialist and was watched by the FBI who at the time kept files on people associated with communism. 

She, perhaps surprisingly, was also a vocal proponent of eugenics. While the belief and practice was far more normalized by the scientific community at the time, her support for the issue remains a highly-complicating aspect of her legacy. 

Anne Sullivan was Helen’s faithful companion until her own death in October of 1936. 

Helen Keller continued to be an advocate and speaker until she passed away on June 1st, 1968.

Helen once wrote, “My life has been happy because I have had wonderful friends and plenty of interesting work to do ... I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad.”

It took until around the 1960’s for sign language to be rediscovered in research circles as a beautiful language and vital tool. While today deaf people still face societal barriers, Helen Keller helped pave the way for advancements in both disability rights and education.

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 Tune in tomorrow to hear the story of another famous Maverick or Legend!

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