Helen Keller: Socialist, Pacifist, Women’s & Workers’ Rights Advocate
The name Helen Keller conjures up, for many people, a deaf-blind-mute girl learning to communicate via sign language. It is a scene straight out of “The Miracle Worker,” the biographical play recounting Anne Sullivan’s role in reaching young Helen Keller. However, the amazing part of Keller’s story is not that the way she learned to fingerspell W-A-T-E-R, but what she chose to say once she could sign, read Braille, write, and speak.
Helen Keller is one of the most beloved figures in American history. Few people, however, remember her as a socialist, pacifist, and activist. Wikipedia reports, “A prolific author, Keller was well-traveled and outspoken in her convictions. A member of the Socialist Party of America and the Industrial Workers of the World, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, and other similar causes.”
Keller was celebrated as a miracle, but her intelligent and articulate views and opinions were denounced as irrational, misguided thinking that came as the result of her afflictions. Keller railed against these charges. Responding to one attack in the Brooklyn Eagle, she wrote:
“At [one] time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. … Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”
Keller was highly adept at connecting the dots between the issues, understanding the relationship of war and militarism to economic injustice and the abuse of women, workers, children, and others. She also understood the power of nonviolent struggle, noncooperation, and organized direct action.
In her famous 1916 “Strike Against War” speech, Keller said to the workers of the nation, “It is in your power to refuse to carry the artillery and the dread-noughts and to shake off some of the burdens, too, such as limousines, steam yachts, and country estates. You do not need to make a great noise about it. With the silence and dignity of creators you can end wars and the system of selfishness and exploitation that causes wars. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.”
Helen Keller Day commemorates her birth on June 27,1880. On this day, one way to honor her life and legacy is to share the story of her commitment to pacifism, ending war, equality, women’s rights, labor and workers’ rights, suffrage, and more. Remember her as a woman who understood the relationship between systems of injustice, and the challenges of being deaf, blind, or mute. Keller clearly saw that while she had lost sight and hearing through illness, many people were becoming deaf or blind through workplace injuries, poverty-related sicknesses, and lack of access to affordable healthcare. To honor and commemorate her life, find a way to work for social justice in your community, and tell her story wherever you go.