Helen Keller: Activist and Orator

The following is a guest post by Olivia Adams, an intern from the University of Georgia Public History Program. She has spent her summer creating Topics Pages for the Library’s Chronicling America Website. 

While most children read about Helen Keller’s childhood triumph over the difficulties of her deaf-blindness under the guidance of miracle worker Annie Sullivan, many are unaware of her second act as an activist and orator. Throughout the 1910s, Keller gave speeches all over the United States advocating socialism, suffrage, and disability rights, and later co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.

Born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller became deaf-blind from an illness in infancy. The Kellers later sought help from the Perkins Institute for the Blind, which had previous success with cases similar to Helen’s, and in 1887, teacher Anne Sullivan moved in with the family. Soon after, reports surfaced on young Helen’s reading success and her expansive vocabulary. By 1890, she had learned how to speak by modeling Sullivan’s lip movements.











Keller excelled as a student and won a spot at Radcliffe College where she became class vice president in 1900. While Mark Twain was widely quoted as saying that the two most interesting characters of the nineteenth century were Helen Keller and Napoleon, popular fascination with Keller continued after her graduation in 1904 (see here, here, and here) and well into the twentieth century.

By 1910, however, a new activist Helen Keller, campaigning for the prevention of blindness, emerged. Around 1912, Keller began to involve herself in socialist politics, even enjoying an appointment to a public welfare board in Schenectady, New York. With the assistance of former teacher Sullivan, Keller lectured nationwide on the issues of the day. In Terre Haute, Indiana, for example, she expressed her opposition to prohibition, saying that poverty was the cause of drinking rather than the reverse. While speaking in Los Angeles, she said that being a member of the working poor was worse than being blind. In Boston, she rode in a suffrage parade.











As the Great War raged on in Europe, Keller increasingly called for peace (see here and here). Yet despite her opposition to the war, Keller aided blind veterans.

In 1919, Keller starred in Deliverance, a film based on her life, along with many of her friends and family. Continuing her entertainment foray, Keller began a vaudeville act in 1920. Also in 1920, Keller and other contemporary visionaries, including Jane Addams and Roger Baldwin, founded the American Civil Liberties Union. Over the next few years, Keller continued her advocacy work, donating to strikers at Christmastime in 1921 and meeting with the President on behalf of the blind in 1926.

Does anything about Helen Keller’s story surprise you? Had you previously been aware of her activism? Why do you think so much of her life is so often overlooked?

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