- Jan 24, 2017
Portrait of Helen Keller as a young girl, with a white dog on her lap (August 1887)
For Women's History Month, I wanted to post something about one of the most inspirational women to me of all time. Helen Keller. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan is also one of my heroes. Without her, we may never have heard anything of Helen Keller. And there is a Civil War connection, as Helen's father was a Captain in the Confederate Army. I will post a link to her story below, but here are some things from that link that stood out for me:
"Helen Adams Keller was born a healthy child in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Her parents were Kate Adams Keller and Colonel Arthur Keller.
On her father's side she was descended from Colonel Alexander Spottswood, a colonial governor of Virginia, and on her mother's side, she was related to a number of prominent New England families. Helen's father, Arthur Keller, was a captain in the Confederate army. The family lost most of its wealth during the Civil War and lived modestly.
After the war, Captain Keller edited a local newspaper, the North Alabamian,and in 1885, under the Cleveland administration, he was appointed Marshal of North Alabama.
At the age of 19 months, Helen became deaf and blind as a result of an unknown illness, perhaps rubella or scarlet fever. As Helen grew from infancy into childhood, she became wild and unruly.
As she so often remarked as an adult, her life changed on March 3, 1887. On that day, Anne Mansfield Sullivan came to Tuscumbia to be her teacher.
Anne was a 20-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind. Compared with Helen, Anne couldn't have had a more different childhood and upbringing. The daughter of poor Irish immigrants, she entered Perkins at 14 years of age after four horrific years as a ward of the state at the Tewksbury Almshouse in Massachusetts.
She was just 14 years older than her pupil Helen, and she too suffered from serious vision problems. Anne underwent many botched operations at a young age before her sight was partially restored.
Anne's success with Helen remains an extraordinary and remarkable story and is best known to people because of the film The Miracle Worker.
(Image: Annie Sullivan, Helen's teacher.)
Helen's extraordinary abilities and her teacher's unique skills were noticed by Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain, two giants of American culture. Twain declared, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller."
The closeness of Helen and Anne's relationship led to accusations that Helen's ideas were not her own. Famously, at the age of 11, Helen was accused of plagiarism. Both Bell and Twain, who were friends and supporters of Helen and Anne, flew to the defense of both pupil and teacher and mocked their detractors. Read a letter from Mark Twain to Helen lamenting "that 'plagiarism' farce."
While still a student at Radcliffe, Helen began a writing career that was to continue throughout her life. In 1903, her autobiography, The Story of My Life, was published. This had appeared in serial form the previous year in Ladies' Home Journal magazine.
Her autobiography has been translated into 50 languages and remains in print to this day. Helen's other published works include Optimism, an essay; The World I Live In; The Song of the Stone Wall; Out of the Dark; My Religion; Midstream—My Later Life; Peace at Eventide; Helen Keller in Scotland; Helen Keller's Journal; Let Us Have Faith; Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy; and The Open Door. In addition, she was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers.
The Helen Keller Archives contain over 475 speeches and essays that she wrote
Helen saw herself as a writer first—her passport listed her profession as "author." It was through the medium of the typewritten word that Helen communicated with Americans and ultimately with thousands across the globe.
From an early age, she championed the rights of the underdog and used her skills as a writer to speak truth to power. A pacifist, she protested U.S. involvement in World War I. A committed socialist, she took up the cause of workers' rights. She was also a tireless advocate for women's suffrage and an early member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Helen's ideals found their purest, most lasting expression in her work for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Helen joined AFB in 1924 and worked for the organization for over 40 years.
The foundation provided her with a global platform to advocate for the needs of people with vision loss and she wasted no opportunity. As a result of her travels across the United States, state commissions for the blind were created, rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to those with vision loss.
During seven trips between 1946 and 1957, she visited 35 countries on five continents. She met with world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Golda Meir.
Helen Keller and Polly Thomson in Japan, 1948
Helen was famous from the age of 8 until her death in 1968. Her wide range of political, cultural, and intellectual interests and activities ensured that she knew people in all spheres of life.
She counted leading personalities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among her friends and acquaintances. These included Eleanor Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Albert Einstein, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Charlie Chaplin, John F. Kennedy, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Katharine Cornell, and Jo Davidson to name but a few.
She was honored around the globe and garnered many awards.
Helen suffered a stroke in 1960, and from 1961 onwards, she lived quietly at Arcan Ridge, her home in Westport, Connecticut, one of the four main places she lived during her lifetime. (The others were Tuscumbia, Alabama; Wrentham, Massachusetts; and Forest Hills, New York).
She made her last major public appearance in 1961 at a Washington, D.C., Lions Clubs International Foundation meeting. At that meeting, she received the Lions Humanitarian Award for her lifetime of service to humanity and for providing the inspiration for the adoption by Lions Clubs International Foundation of their sight conservation and aid to blind programs.
During that visit to Washington, she also called on President John F. Kennedy at the White House. President Kennedy was just one in a long line of presidents Helen had met. In her lifetime, she had met all of the presidents since Grover Cleveland.
Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, at Arcan Ridge, a few weeks short of her 88th birthday. Her ashes were placed next to her companions, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson, in St. Joseph's Chapel of Washington Cathedral.
Senator Lister Hill of Alabama gave a eulogy during the public memorial service. He said, "She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."