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Helen Keller: Activist and Orator

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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.

“Helen Adams Keller,” Burlington Weekly Free Press (Burlington, VT), May 4, 1888, p. 10.
“Helen Keller, Most Wonderful of Girls, Graduates from College Next Week,” The Evening World (New York, NY), June 25, 1904, Final Results Edition, p. 9.











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.

“Wonders of the Fair “Seen” and Described by Miss Helen Keller,” The St. Louis Republic, October 23, 1904, Part IV, p. 1.

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.

“Helen Keller Would be I. W. W.’s Joan of Arc,” New York Tribune, January 16, 1916, Special Feature Section, p. 5.
“Czar, Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller: Three Most Bloodthirsty Men in the World,” The Evening World (New York, NY), January 7, 1916, Final Edition, p. 3.
“Helen Keller Riding in Great Parade of Suffragists in Boston Campaign,” The Day Book (Chicago, IL), October 23, 1915, Last Edition, p. 31.











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.

“Blue? Helen Keller Isn’t,” The Seattle Star, October 4, 1921, p. 9.

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?

Comments (14)

  1. Thanks for reminding us what a brilliant and generous person Helen Keller was! Loved all the images you show!!

  2. I either read or listened to someone read an essay ( in modern terms, it would be called a “riff”) of Helen Keller describing with real passion , being in the presence of five or six young men who had been working outside all morning & had come in to eat their well-being deserved midday meal. She decribes their scent with special relish! It was truly fascinating for it’s unencumbered joy she experienced.

  3. Good excerpt but pls add citation info!

    • We are not sure what citation you want so please contact us through Ask a Librarian, if you want to follow-up.

  4. Uh, I want citation for my work! Duh, what else would I want!?

    • Here is a citation for this blog:
      Olivia Adams, “Helen Keller: Activist and Orator,” Headlines & Heroes (blog), Library of Congress, July 31, 2018,
      This citation follows the format given in Chicago Manual of Style. If you need to follow a different style manual, you can check in that for how to cite blog posts.

  5. This really helped with my Helen Keller project!!!

  6. I think that this was a good site to read thank you

  7. Hi Nick

  8. Hello.

  9. wow this was NOT helpful lol XD

  10. Enjoyed this, lots of new info. I realize the text won’t be revised but this line makes it seem as though one can’t be anti-war and pro-veteran when, of course, one can: Yet despite her opposition to the war, Keller aided blind veterans.

  11. I wrote two books about Helen Keller in 2021. I am the only person with a background in blind rehabilitation to explore Helen’s cognitive evolution. The one thing that is always missed is Helen’s devotion to Swedenborgian Christianity. It is as important as her “radical” socialism and feminism. She had a mission in life, driven by love and service that helped her ignore her deafness and blindness and concentrate on issues impacting all of humanity.

  12. This was so sus I loved it. Moreover, this helped me win the intergalactic history competition, I did mine on Earth and found out about Helen Keller. Thank you Earthians.

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