Helen Keller never ceased to demand that women, the poor, and the disenfranchised be afforded an equal chance to live a full life. The digital Helen Keller Archive holds a rich collection of her writings agitating for women’s suffrage. These letters, articles, and speeches reveal the breadth and depth of Helen Keller’s advocacy for women’s voting rights, including the intersection of her beliefs about suffrage and economic justice.
In August 2020, in celebration of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, AFB commemorated that event with a talk hosted by the Planting Fields Foundation. AFB archivist Helen Selsdon shared images from the digital Helen Keller Archive—including letters, photographs, articles, and speeches—to investigate the breadth and depth of Helen Keller’s advocacy for civil rights and social justice. Keller fought for women’s voting rights, but she also demanded workers’ rights and economic equality for the poor and disenfranchised.
MARIANNE WEBER: Hello, everyone.
How are we all doing this evening? It is so nice to have you all here, gathered in this virtual space to talk about such an important and inspiring topic this evening.
We're so happy that you are able to join us for this wonderful discussion that we are going to have. And thank you for being a part of our program tonight.
So with that being said, my name is Marianne Weber. I am the community engagement coordinator with the Planting Fields Foundation.
I am just brand new to the team. I started about three weeks ago. So I'm very happy that you are trusting with me your time and your enriching and educated minds for this evening.
And what I promise is that this evening is going to be an educational and enriching experience for you all. Welcome to Panorama, which is a virtual gathering that explores multiple perspectives, and tonight's program is titled “A Women's Suffrage Centennial Celebration: Exploring the Activism of Helen Keller."
And it will entail the exploration of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf author, educator, and activist of the 20th century.
We'll learn about her advocacy and activism for women's rights, people with vision loss, suffragism, and her triumph over adversity in a far from accessible world at the turn of the who's going to be speaking on the aforementioned topics, is Helen Selsdon, who is the archivist of the Helen Keller Archive at the American Foundation for the Blind.
And she will be sharing a presentation and archive material from the hand, head, and heart of Helen Keller that will educate and enrich us on the context of her advocacy and activism of the aforementioned topics.
Many of you are friends and members and volunteers of the Planting Fields, and some are just connecting with us for the first time. So we welcome you all to this wonderful virtual gathering. And again, thank you for participating with us this evening.
Planting Fields is a beautiful 409-acre? historic park and is located in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Planting Fields was created and inhabited by William R. Coe and his second wife, Mai Rogers Coe, who is the heiress and daughter to the Standard Oil partner, Henry Huttleston Rogers.
Our site offers visitors countless opportunities to engage with the natural, historic, scientific, and cultural world. Now, if you didn't know, Helen Keller happened to be friends of the Coe family and a beneficiary of Mai Coe's father, H.H. Rogers. Helen Keller kept close ties to the family in her adult life and is reflected in a written correspondence of hers that is in our Planting Fields archives.
And the letter that Helen Keller wrote was to Mr. William Coe, dating back to the 1950s. And in her letter, Helen Keller writes, quote unquote, "The years pass, but one's heart does not grow old that cherishes friendship."
So with that being said, it is only fitting to highlight a powerful and pivotal friend of the Coe family and celebration of the centennial of the women's suffrage, which happens to be on this very day, August 18th. So with that said, I'm now excited to turn it over to Helen Selsdon from the American Foundation for the Blind. Thank you, Helen.
[HELEN SELSDON:] Thank you, Marianne. Thank you so much to the Planting Fields for having me part of your wonderful Panorama series. And it's thrilling to be able to be, to take part, in this way, with the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment.
Today I'm going to focus on Helen's activism and aspects of her life that are frequently overlooked.
And I'm going to also show how her activism and her compassion formed a natural path to her working at the American Foundation for the Blind and her champion, uh, our champion, um, for vision loss. I'm going to use images from the digital archive-the amount of images that I'm going to use are tiny in comparison to the volume of digitized images in the collection. And if we have time at the end, I'm also going to do a little demo, maybe, of how to use the digital archive. So I am going to turn this over if I can, to my screen, to my actual presentation screen.
Can we all see that? Yeah. I hope that yeah, we can see that Marianne? Excellent. That's what I like. All right. So let me get rid of myself so I don't have to see myself. And here we go. All right. So, Helen was born in 1880 and came of age in the early demands for equal rights for women were gaining greater traction. She eagerly joined the struggle to, to create a more equitable and just society. But you don't just become an activist. So my, what I'm going to discuss, is how did her activism and her work evolve. And I specifically chose this beautiful image of Helen--she's in the front. She's wearing a flouncy dress. And there are women with parasols behind her, because this is from 1916 when she was at her most sort of strident as a suffragist. So you don't get anywhere without discussing the education of the lady. So I want to take a moment to review her early childhood and her experiences as a young adult. As many you might know, at the age of 19 months, Helen became deaf and blind as a result of illness, possibly scarlet fever. Her mother, Kate Keller, sought help for her daughter. Kate was a descendant of well-educated families from the Northeast, and Kate have the ability and the wherewithal to seek help for her young daughter. Kate had connections to Alexander Graham Bell, and Bell in turn recommended a 21-year-old, Anne Sullivan, a student at the Perkins School for the Blind, to go to Tuscumbia, Alabama, and help Helen Keller. Annie arrived in Tuscumbia on March 3rd, 1887. Helen was six, almost seven years of the age. And Helen sees this as sort of her soul's birthday; this is a very, very important day in her life. In this image. We see Helen on the left and Anne on the right, Helen has her hand placed on Anne's lips and she is reading Anne's lips, and this is called Tadoma method of communication.
Okay. So Anne was a very atypical teacher. She used very modern approaches to education to teach Helen. She was guided by the educational theories put forward by Maria Montessori; both Helen and Annie corresponded with Maria Montessori later in life.
Annie took Helen outdoors to study. It was a very sensory way of learning. It was a tactile way of learning. Helen smelled the nature and air around her. And she touched the objects around her in nature. This image was taken in 1904 of Helen sitting in a tree. Again, it's a very sensory way of learning. Many of you probably know that within just a few weeks of Helen's, uh Annie’s arrival in Tuscumbia, Annie had taught Helen how to communicate and had rapidly taught her to finger spell and to write basic words and other ways to communicate.
But this was just the very beginning. Education was pivotal to Helen's success. The education that she received, both with Annie and later in college, enabled her to be part of the conversation, which was key for Helen. And it was as key now as it was back then.
Another important thing is, education cost money. Kate made early connections with sort of the wealthy New York and Boston philanthropists. And these connections were fostered by Annie and then, and then, Helen. Helen was something of a prodigy. News of her sort of extraordinary rapid learning experience traveled fast and she became a bit of a press sensation. Just as we know, Henry Rogers, the gentlemen associated with the Coe Hall, who was the owner of Standard Oil, he at one point, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers would give Helen a hundred dollars a month to pay for her studies, to take the college entrance examination. So the, the... Mr. and Mrs. Rogers were very important in Helen's life. And I found in the digital archive, I found a document that said, that Helen wrote, “That I have not missed my small part of usefulness in the world, I owe to Mr. Clemens and Mr. Rogers.” Mr. Clemens, of course being Mark Twain, who was also a very good friend of Mr. Rogers, as well.
Okay. So here’s the certificate of admission that Helen received entering Radcliffe College. This was in 1900. Women were entering universities in greater numbers of the turn of the century than ever before. She was accepted to Radcliffe. She couldn't get into Harvard, right, because it wouldn't accept women. So Radcliffe was her best option.
She was the first deafblind person to enter a university and she was a woman to boot. Annie had to manually sign all the lectures into Helen's hand. So I like to think that Anne was as much a part of, sort of she deserved a degree, an undergraduate degree, as much as her pupil did. Helen wrote about the importance of education throughout her life. She had this to say about a college education: "It is to college graduates that this nation has a right to look for intelligent sons and daughters who will return to the state tenfold what the state has given to them." Okay. All right. So one second.
Here is The Story of My Life, the autobiography that Helen wrote in 1902, when she was actually still in college, imagine that. She was only 22 years of age.
This autobiography first appeared in serial form. And it has since been translated into over 50 languages. This was a very important book and kids still today actually still read it. All right.
So this leads me to John Albert Macy, the editor and assistant on the autobiography, this man in the center of the image. On the left, we have Helen, in the center, we have John, and on the right, we have Anne Sullivan Macy. John was a lecturer at Harvard University.
He was the associate editor of A Youth's Companion.
He was an up-and-coming literary critic with strong socialist views. John and Annie were romantically involved.
They married in 1905 and separated in 1914. John Macy provided a huge amount of intellectual stimulation. He, and as well as a connection to left-wing radicals, he was really the catalyst for Helen Keller's activism and her involvement in socialist politics.
All right. So socialism. I want to talk a second about Helen's socialism, because it was so very important to everything that she, her ethos, and everything that she came to work on. So she joined the Socialist Party in 1909. She received a great deal of flak and disdain from the media when she announced in 1910 that she had joined the Socialist Party.
We can read in the Helen Keller Archive, how hard it was for Helen to be taken seriously as a political activist and a woman with an opinion of her own. So as a young, beautiful, and famous deafblind woman, she was embraced by the media and encouraged to write inspiring, uplifting narratives about overcoming difficulties, but at the age of 29, when articles she wrote were published—and that's not exactly young, is it?—about women's rights, workers' rights, pacifism, and her own socialist politics, she was sort of increasingly criticized as unfit to join the discussion. Her gender and disability disbarred her from the conversation.
But we know this didn't stop her. And here on the screen, you can see, the front and back of one of her party cards, So, here this says, this is from 1908. This is a letter that she wrote published in The Retail Clerk's International Advocate. It says, I quote, "...I hope the Association will not cease its efforts until every woman who toils for her bread shall receive a living wage and be protected from the poverty which enslaves..." Keller spoke a lot about the financial disparity between classes. She does discuss disenfranchisement and the erosion of America's democratic principles.
And so much of what I've read in Helen Keller's archive and sort of surrounding her activism, revolves around this idea of this understanding of the economic inequality between classes and between men and women. It was the core issue that sort of is at the root of everything we see going forward. Helen spoke at public meetings, articles she wrote were published in the media, demanding equal pay for equal work for women.
So it comes as no surprise that she was a suffragist. She spoke out strongly in favor of votes for women and equal pay. Okay. So her socialist politics sort of formed the basis of her early arguments around voting, but equality could never come when help was in the hands of a few men and the upper classes. Keller spoke and wrote about the economic inequality between classes. As much as she discussed inequality between men and women, she focused on economics and financial inequality, [inaudible], enfranchisement as a democratic right that women should have. So the principles of democratic rights, the sort of the philosophy that basically, it's a democratic right, and we all should have it, that also comes a little bit later. Above all, it was an economic and financial disparity argument that she was using. And here we write "The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their lives and their livelihood—are set at naught, we can have neither men's rights nor women's rights." But this was early. This is 1911. And this has taken them from a letter that Helen wrote to Rosa Leo Grindon, a British suffragist in Manchester who she corresponded with.
And the quotation goes on to say, “The majority of...,” sorry, have I got that bit right? Hold on. It goes on to say "The few own the many, because they possess the means of livelihood of all. In our splendid Republic, where at election time, all are 'free and equal,' a few Americans own the rest. Eighty percent of our people live in rented houses. And one half of the rest are mortgaged. The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, for the bankers, for the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. Surely we must free men and women together before we can free women."
And she goes on to continue, she continues by expressing her concern that women demanding the vote in Britain is like putting the cart before the horse. Nothing will change for men or women until sort of class, attitudes of class and the upper class, actually don't hold so much of the wealth in their hands.
All right, so. This fabulous image. It's from the suffrage parade that took place in Washington, D.C., on March 3rd, 1913. In it, you can see a procession of women in white behind a float, with the text that says, “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” And in the front is a woman on a white horse, dressed in white.
Helen took part in this march, and the archive contains a speech that she was set to deliver at the parade, but that was not actually eventually delivered.
An excerpt from this speech reads, "I would not belittle the value of political power of legislation for women, but our effort to enfranchise women is only part of the mighty work, which shall free all mankind. That means freedom for every man and every woman to earn the sweet bread of life and eat it in content."
Again, Helen's argument is that enfranchisement is just one method of gaining true social equality. The implication, again, financial equality is the key to changing society. And fascinatingly, the following day, many of you might know this already, was March 4th, when President Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated.
She strongly opposed his politics. And she wrote, subsequently wrote about the suffrage parade.
She wrote, "The woman's suffrage pageant yesterday was in some ways more significant than the inauguration today. It symbolized the coming of the new, not the passing of the old. Owing to some misunderstanding, I was caught in a jostling throng and never took the part, which was assigned to me in the The stupid inefficiency of the Washington police allowed the people to block the streets and the parade was broken. A failure as a spectacle. Today, of course, many of us women are indignant and disappointed, but it is only our artistic sense, that is hurt. We are inclined to be ironic when we behold the incompetence of men in the capitol city of our great free nation. Police and soldiers are very capable when it comes to protecting a factory against striking mill workers."
Okay. So we believe she could not deliver the speech because she was rattled by the sort of the crowd and the sort of chaos of the day. But this was not—far from the last time she attended a rally. She attended many. Okay.
So here we have, she was always in the thick of it. This is 1915. She took part in a parade that was in Massachusetts. She was a part of a cavalcade, and she took the opportunity to have a car that she was in, stop in front of the governor of Massachusetts, who was also in attendance. And she had a messenger hand deliver a letter to the governor.
And just so as you know, the governor was a gentleman called David Walsh. He was the first Irish Catholic Democratic governor of Massachusetts and an active supporter for the fight for women's suffrage. And in it, it's interesting, she... the tone of the way she goes about demanding women's suffrage changes. She writes, “Your Excellency— I am glad to learn that you are going to vote for women's suffrage. ... The struggle for the extension of suffrage to women means more than mere political power. The vote is a symbol of the larger outlook upon life, the new position that women are gaining in the world. … The parade which you will witness today will soon be over, but the march of women along the highways of progress shall not cease.”
She's not focusing on, really on economics anymore. And the journalist, you can see her letter was published in the local paper, and the journalist beneath her letter writes, “Helen bowed, graciously.” The tone’s gentle and courteous and not strident. As I hope we'll see, Helen was incredibly savvy when it came to her audience. She knew how to change the message and the tone for the audience.
It must have taken sort of, quite a bit of engineering really, to, it really was a performance. She had this letter that she wanted to give over to the governor.
She was in a car cavalcade. She obviously figured it all out in advance. So hopefully we'll see that that actually goes on for the rest of her career. She was amazing at gauging her audience and getting the most out of them.
All right. So, the following year, it's June 1916. Five months before the upcoming general election of November in Chicago. The New Woman's Party, what she's referring to is the National Woman's Party. This was a political party that was created the same year, in 1916. And their goal was primarily, well actually, it was entirely focused on suffrage. After they achieved suffrage, they actually ended up working towards the Equal Rights Amendment, which is also very interesting. But Helen wrote here, again, this is changing again.
"Democratic government is a failure, and we have but the shadow of a free country. Today, with the power of the vote, men shape the civil and legal affairs of the state and administer the laws they make, while women—one half of the people—are not represented, and have no voice in the appointment of those who shall rule over them. In such a man-made state, the laws are apt to be one-sided and antagonistic to the interests of the other half.
Now we believe that it takes both men and women to run the world and run it right. The New Woman's Party is an expression of this idea, but until political equality is secured, we must put women's interests first. The same wiseacres who argue against women's suffrage argued against higher education for women 60 years ago. They solemnly asserted that education would unfit women to be wives and mothers, and they hinted at the possible extermination of the race.
They insisted that the majority of women were content with their lot in life. Only a few strong-minded women wanted to go to college. Today, they declare that women do not really want the vote; that only a few mannish women are clamoring for suffrage. Such arguments are always used to resist the march of progress."
So she's changed, right? She's directly advocating for the democratic right of women to vote. She's not focusing on economic problems. These are straight-up demands for the equal rights of women.
And also, what you'll notice, she argues against a classic argument at the time that enfranchised women would somehow disrupt the traditional family life. It would also remove power from men, which is probably why they're terrified.
Okay. And I love this image. This was taken, actually, during the parade in 1916 in Chicago, where Helen spoke. It shows this wonderful line of automobiles filled with women suffragists.
All right. Okay. And then to just to throw a sort of a spanner in my own argument, which I can't resist, but do, I found a letter written on April 4th, 1917. Okay. Helen wrote this from Montgomery, Alabama, to Annie. Annie was, actually, had to go to Puerto Rico. She was ill and she was recuperating.
It's actually awesome because Annie kept her voice very quiet in everything. This is one of the rare occasions where the two women wrote backwards and forwards to each other, and we have a record, which is fantastic for historians. Anyway. So in the letter, Helen wrote to Annie, and imagine this is going to be a lot more personal. She writes, this is 1917:
"As to the woman's suffrage article, I think I shall have to give it up. It involves too much, and I don't want to bother with it now. I'm not greatly interested in the ballot for women—or for men either for that matter. There are many problems before the nation, and their solution calls for many other weapons beside the ballot. You'll be thunderstruck to hear what I've been asked to do. Ms. Lulie Jones of Florence has asked me to write a petition for the Teachers’ Association of Alabama, urging the legislature to pass a law whereby the eyes of newborn babies shall be treated with nitrate of silver. Oh, the joy and satisfaction I feel in being able to save the children of my beautiful state from a foe more terrible than war itself!"
And at the end of the letter, there's a PS. It reads, "Be sure and tell them to forward promptly any letters that may miss you in Puerto Rico. The surprise will be launched, so to speak, in a day or two.” Before I talk about that, so what do we make of this? What ...I mean, what we're wondering is, is this Helen's reverting back to the idea that actually economics are more important than actually, the fact that women are...the democratic rights of women... interestingly later on, when she's working at AFB, the American Foundation for the Blind, she makes a similar argument against Talking Books. She sees Talking Books as a luxury for people who are blind and visually impaired during the Great Depression.
So this is the first sort of its spanner in the works. Or was she demoralized because her teacher was not with her? It could be as simple as that, or as personal as that. And the PS, because two days later, the U.S. entered the First World War. How on earth did she know? Or was it common knowledge that America was going to enter the first World War? Okay. I'm, I'm creating more questions that I'm answering, but it's fascinating.
And here she is. This is, this is at Red Cross Institute for Blinded Soldiers. This is 1919. On the left, on the far left, is Helen. She has her arm through a wounded veteran, maybe blinded in one eye, that wouldn't be surprising. And behind her, standing, Polly Thompson, her companion as well, Anne Sullivan Macy, and two other gentlemen. What I love about this, nothing is straightforward. There's no black and white. There's only gray. You know, history. We read as much as we can in the archive when we make deductions, but she's a normal human being and her, maybe her own opinions changed and wavered over time.
Now this is the wonderful quote that is on the website, introducing the lecture. It says, “There are no such things as ‘divine immutable, inalienable rights. Rights are things which we get when we are strong enough to make our claim to them good. Today, women are asserting their rights. Tomorrow, nobody will be foolhardy enough to question them."
Oh yeah, really? But anyway, okay. So this is a fantastic image. And that quote is like, can we believe this is not 1920, and that we're in 2020? But anyway, so her fight for female suffrage enables us to see how her thoughts changed over time.
And for me again, it's how her appeal was targeted to her audience. Before this section, she argues that we are not a democracy. She argues, "We demand the vote for women,” in the same speech, “because it is in accordance with principles of a true democracy. Many labor under the delusion that we live in a democracy. I have to smile—several ways—when I read that ours is ‘a government of the people,by the people, and for the people.’ We are neither a democracy nor a true representative republic. We are a government of parties and partisans and lo, at least half the adult population may not even belong to these parties!"
Okay. And then she goes on to say, to talk about how democracy is indeed supposed to function and why, as things stand, we won't succeed.
“Political power intelligently used, enables the citizen to direct and shape the legal affairs of the state and determine what shall be the relations of human beings to each other." And then she goes on to say, "Legislation concerning the age of consent is another proof that the voice of woman is mute in the halls of the lawmakers. Surely women are not isolated beings, puppets in the world to be manipulated by men." And the ask, here is the ask, okay, that we will see later on, which is demanding money. "We do not want a woman's world or a man's, but a human world no longer cursed by misery, ignorance, disease, and crime. We want a world where there is fair play in every relation of life, an equitable distribution of human comfort and happiness." And then that leads into the quotation on the screen. She's just referred as well to women being unable to hold property. She thoroughly understood that the system was failing due to inequitable share of power and resources. The women were puppets and voiceless second-class citizens and suffrage was the way to move things forward and in this case, to change things. Okay. So we've learned a little bit about her work and her thoughts about women's suffrage, but I want to take a moment to review other issues,
if you'll bear with me, that she was involved with, and to sort of see Helen as a modern woman. This, the term "modern woman" was actually bandied about a lot in the 1920s, and we'll see this. So modern woman. So, I remained sort of fascinated by her constant push against sort of traditional ideas of what a woman could and could not do, and very importantly, what a woman with disabilities was deemed capable of. Helen's activism continued for another 35 years. The energy of the woman was astounding, and sort of I'll get into that shortly. But I wanted to take a quick look at the attitudes that she faced early on in her career, as well as the progressive issues she championed early on. All right. So this is from LIFE Magazine, 1913. It reads, I'm reading a lot here, but it's worthwhile. “She has been taught to be a Socialist and has been used by Socialists, as now by suffragists, as a political advertisement. Perhaps it keeps her interested in life. It is excusable on that ground, but it is not suitable. In spite of all the wonderful things that have been done for her, her knowledge and experience of life are necessarily limited, and to her political opinions can hardly be valuable.” Okay? So this is seriously condescending and it's inconceivable to this writer, that she was capable of independent thought. You know, her disabilities disqualified her, as did her gender. Perhaps, just perhaps, the writer was unaware, that from the age of six, information was constantly, and I mean text. She, the archive shows, that an extraordinary, she sort of consumed an extraordinary amount of information. Anne Sullivan Macy did not censor anything, but she taught Helen, via braille, via tactile finger spelling, via Tadoma, in other words, Helen's hands on Annie's lips. Many people learned braille simply—and tactile fingerspelling— simply to be able to talk to Helen. So she was well aware of everything that was going around, going on around her. She was a voracious, voracious reader.
All right, so. I used to have this one up in the Helen Keller exhibition, because I, in our gallery, because it's, sort of insulting, but funny at the same time. It says, "Modern girl isn't bad; just restless, blind genius declares—give her freedom and sympathy,
and she will make the world proud of her.” Okay. The press clippings in the archive from the ‘20s all talk about the modern woman. I think there was a general sort of consternation surrounding women's independence, and they also thought that women were, like, way too sassy and flamboyant. Help! Help! You know, sort of, hence, anxiety over flappers dancing, which Helen refers to here.
They were basically just alarmed by women as a whole. this sounds patronizing to the reader. It also brings up an issue that I, as the archivist, have struggled with since starting working on the collection and like, I dunno, 2002, 2003. See here she's, calling her a genius, elevates her to such a place that is impossible to be reached, but others who are blind, deaf, and deafblind, you know, that you're putting her on a pedestal. It's not, she's no longer flesh and blood. She's no longer real. Modern, actually, modern historians really take issue sometimes with Helen Keller,
because she is seen as sort of too beyond the world. But actually, I hope it'll be obvious that she worked extremely hard and then she was anything but sort of
ethereal. She was a woman made of real flesh and blood, but unfortunately, the press only reinforced the idea that she was otherworldly. Okay. Okay. So, I am hoping it’s becoming clear that she fought as much against negative perceptions of gender and disability as anything else. And I just want to also put out there a definition of what a modern woman is. In Western society—and I'm just saying Western society— it is a woman who is granted, perhaps, and enjoys equal opportunity in society to earn a salary and live on an equal social footing as a man. This right— this is me speaking—this right that so many of us have taken for granted, has a really, really short history.
And Helen Keller was very much part of that history and the fight for equality. Here, the quotation is "I really care for nothing in the world but liberty in all the departments of life—liberty to grow mentally and spiritually, untrammelled by tradition and arbitrary standards."
Helen was about the disturbance. She witnessed, and was part of, enormous cultural, social, and political change in America. I don't know, there's a modern word, a “disruptor,” we again argue at the end, whether or not she was a disruptor. I love to hear other people's opinions.
All right! The Fighting Bobs. So by the first World War, Helen was disillusioned with the Socialist Party, really a bubble in many ways because of its entry into World War One, as she saw the Socialist Party was having too much infighting.
She was a pacifist and, so entering World War One was totally against everything she believed in. So she left the Socialist Party and joined the progressive movement in She was a supporter of Robert La Follette and his Fighting And again, I want to read how you can see how hard it is for her to be taken seriously. She, this is what she wrote. Sort of, she's concerned, that La Follette will be lambasted by his political opponents if she joins the argument and joins the discussion. She wrote, “I hesitate to write to you, because I know the newspaper opposed to the Progressive Movement will cry out because of the ‘pathetic exploitation,’” this is a quote, “‘of deaf and blind Helen Keller by the [inaudible] elements who support La Follette,” unquote.
“It would be difficult to imagine anything more fatuous and stupid than the attitude of the press towards anything I say touching public affairs. So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch-priestess of the blind,’, ‘wonder-woman,’ and a modern miracle,’ but when it comes to discussion of poverty, that is a different matter.” Okay.
So this is what she was up against. Always. But it didn't stop her. She was always a fierce supporter of the underdog and her natural compassion led her to support other causes as well.
And I don't know if you remember earlier on, I discussed, I mentioned nitrate, silver nitrate drops. Well, what she was referring to was treatment for ophthalmia neonatorum, which was a sexually transmitted disease that left newborn babies blind. This disease was caused by syphilis and gonorrhea. In 1909, at least two bits of all blindness in the U.S. was attributable to the disease. The archive, Helen Keller Archive, contains materials that date from 1907 until 1953 on this subject, so reflecting the longevity of her interest in this issue.
She, Helen, corresponded with doctors, politicians, and health and blindness organization. In 1907, as early as 1907, she writes, “It is always painful to set oneself against tradition, especially against the conventions and prejudices that hedge about womanhood. False delicacy and prudery must give place to precise information and common sense.”
She was out there in the press trying to get rid of the stigma of of this disease. She wrote about it in the press, she... Unfortunately, doctors often could not write about it in the press. It's fascinating that she was such a force in the media. Actually, she was in the media from the age of eight, and she leveraged this connection to fight for all the things she believed in. With ophthalmia neonatorum, she advocated for education and communicating scientific knowledge to the general public. And this image here is actually from a journal called The Nurse, and in it were printed an article that appeared in The Kansas City Star in 1914. And in the newspaper, she asked the readers to donate to the mercy hospital where 20,000, quote “20,000 treatments were given on the free days to the children of the very poor.” This is classic Helen Keller. Again, she's demanding we deal with the problem head on. The knowledge and education, such as the education she received, is important, is absolutely essential for an enlightened society. Do not sweep uncomfortable topics under the carpet. Okay.
And I just chose these images because they're wonderful, to give you a little visual here. On the left, we have a middle- to upper middle-class woman holding a gorgeous, naked baby. And on the right, we have a woman in the tenements holding her baby. Two shots of very, women from two very different classes.
Helen was a powerful advocate for poor women of the tenements. Okay. So, here we go.
She advocated for birth control. This is a letter that she wrote in 1916 to a [inaudible], that was published. You know, she's worked in the [inaudible] magazine, the New York Call. And she's asking actually for Emma Goldman, who was an anarchist, a famous anarchist, to not be incarcerated for distributing leaflets about birth control to tenement women on the Lower East Side. What's awesome is, “Does anyone suppose,” this is Helen, “that the infrequency of the stork's visits among them is caused by,” in other words, among the wealthy, “is caused by the superior moral restraint of the well-to-do?” In other words, birth control is easily available to the rich and not available to the poor.
And I think this is just marvelous.
So she was a fan of Margaret Sanger. Helen respected Sanger because Sanger was willing to confront difficult issues that impacted women's lives. The two women corresponded and were very enamored of each other. In 1952—so Helen never stopped, right?
How many dates have I given you? Helen wrote to Sanger, “What a glow of gratification was kindled in my heart when Polly,” that's Helen's companion, “read last week, the wonderful news that you have founded the Planned Parenthood Association in India! As you teach, mankind has through ignorance often destroyed the sweet joy of childhood. Now, a tide of enlightenment, slow but sure, shall lift its healing waves from one end of the world to the other until every child has a chance to be well born, well fed, and fairly started in life. Affectionately I salute you, Margaret Sanger, as the prophet and the woman Prometheus of humanity's highest physical and mental welfare.”
But she didn't stop there. She was also one of the earliest members of the ACLU, and she was a supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And in 1916, she wrote, we have this lecture in the archive, but she wrote to the vice president of, the vice president of the NAACP, Oswald Garrison Villard, and she writes, talk about relevant, "Truly no nation can live and not challenge such discrimination and violence against innocent members of society as your letter describes. Nay, let me say it. This great Republic of ours is a mockery when citizens in any section are denied the rights, which the constitution guarantees them. When they are openly evicted, terrorized, and lynched by prejudiced mobs, and their persecutors and murderers are allowed to walk abroad, unpunished. My spirit groans with all the deaf and blind of the world. I feel that...I feel their chains chafing my limbs. I am disenfranchised with every wage slave. I'm overthrown, hurt, oppressed, beaten to the earth by the strong, ruthless ones who have taken away their inheritance."
So she's understanding what it is to be a minority, to be disenfranchised in every single, you know, whether you're deaf or blind or your race or your gender or your disability.
And I'm hoping sort of these slides reflect the breadth of her activism. This is just 1909 to 1920. And if I haven't worn you all out, I'm going to keep going with her work as AFB's champion, to give you a sense of all that she achieved for the American Foundation for the Blind.
So, Helen had fabulous instincts and diplomatic skills that she brought to bear on every cause she supported. She brought these skills to a very young, not yet really formalized, blindness field. And her ability, she brought her ability to connect with the average citizen, as well as her very useful connections to very rich and famous people, such as the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and indeed Mrs. Coe's father, Henry Huttleston Rogers.
She sought funding from wealthy capitalists and she was a strong supporter of left-wing ideals. And amazingly, she managed to walk that line and she did it very brilliantly.
She joined AFB, the American Foundation for the Blind the same year that she campaigned for Robert La Follette, in 1924. AFB had been founded three years earlier, and I have to say, everybody out there, we were founded; 2021 we'll be also proud to say, it will be our centennial.
So AFB centennial is next year. So look out for that.
Okay. So, here she is in her home in Forest Hills, in Long Island. She's seated at this fabulously old-fashioned typewriter. She's working at her typewriter and behind standing, just so as to make this a point of interest, is this massive box. And that is a free-standing radio. And Helen would listen to the radio, believe it or not, by placing her hand on the sort of the mesh, the round part, you can see it on the front, and she could feel the vibrations on the radio.
So she would let, she actually listened to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, by the way, listened via the radio. She loved Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
So by 1927, Annie Sullivan, who also joined Helen at AFB, that was the deal, Helen and Annie had addressed 250,000 people by then, at 249 meetings in 123 cities.
The campaign, unfortunately, was not the fundraising success that they hoped for, but it was a fabulous public relations success. And it brought the issue of the blindness to the awareness of more Americans across the nation than any time before.
All right. So here we have an example of one of the many speeches she gave. Helen traveled across the U.S. as a lobbyist, really, for AFB from the 1920s to the 1940s.
She traveled and wrote and spoke in front of at least, personally spoke, in front of at least 13 legislatures. State commissions' work for the blind were created, rehabilitation centers were funded, and education again, education was made accessible to those with vision loss. In this particular speech, this is 1927, in front of the Iowa state legislature, she writes, "You are asked to appropriate $25,000 to carry on this work for two years. That means about $12,000 a year. Gentlemen, that is not enough. You should double it." She was really cheeky. "Please remember, there are 2,000 blind people in this state, the majority of whom can, through training and special aid, become self-supporting citizens. It seems to me, the civilization of the state should be measured by the amount of suffering it prevents and the degree of happiness it makes possible for its citizens." Okay. She was tugging on people's heartstrings, but she was not, and I mean not, asking for charity; she was demanding money so that those with vision loss could help themselves.
This is the important part, you know, give us funding so that we can create state commissions for the blind, so that we can help create rehabilitation centers for soldiers blinded in the first World War, and then ultimately in the Second World War.
All right. And one of the most famous things that you might already know, she was famous for, was pushing for the Talking Book. The Talking Book was an audiobook that could be heard by people who were blind. Of course she was deaf and blind, so she could not actually enjoy the Talking Book, but still, and originally it's a, it's actually very interesting.
She was not automatically keen on the Talking Book.
She was quite convinced by AFB to become keen on it. Because she was wondering—this is the Depression, right? This is the 1930s, and Talking Books were a luxury. And she thought, the more people who were on the breadline. And that actually, I don't know how many, she thought, maybe I don't know how many people it will help, but in the end, she was convinced and actually came around to understanding the Talking Book is a fantastic way to bring literature, plays, and information about the art world to people who are blind and visually impaired around the country. This was, this was sort of, this was extraordinary. This was truly pioneering.
And to get her money, she often contacted the presidents of America. We have quite a lot of correspondence in the archives from, most were, actually, she knew every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson. And here's a letter she wrote to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she had a fabulous friendship with.
She writes, "It is wonderful, with a stroke of the pen you have released the blessing of the Talking Book, the most constructive aid to the blind since the invention of braille, which opened to them the doors of education."
So it's actually kind of interesting how convincing she can be, even when her own opinions might not have been quite aligned with AFB to start with. When she got on board, she really, really got on board.
So, here we go. All right.
What I should say, and I don't know if many people do know this, The Story of My Life, she wrote that in 1902. She actually wrote 14 books in her lifetime and hundreds, actually over 475 articles are in the digital archive. She, this is the one she wrote, "Blazing the Trail," again about modern women.
She wrote many articles actually for a magazine called the Home magazine in the where she was sort of trying to be uplifting about faith, family, self-reliance, independence, the women's...the classic sort of uplifting...it's almost like, anyway, very Depression Era articles. And again, she often wrote about the importance of education.
All right, moving right along.
In the 1940s, she turns her attention to the war effort. And between 1944 and 1946, she'd visited over 90 military hospitals delivering her message of strength in the face of adversity. She visited, actually, she visited injured and maimed servicemen from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
And we've got film footage from her visiting servicemen during the Korean War. And the impression she made on people is sort of staggering. We have in the archive, lots of little correspondence saying thank you to Helen for coming to visit them. And this is actually from 1955.
This is a Colonel Robert Hardaway from Bushnell General Hospital in Brigham City, Utah. And he writes, "You have no idea the effect your visit to the gymnasium made. A number of the double amputees, after seeing and hearing Helen, remarked, 'We have no worries now.' The impression that Helen gave, that she was the one who was gaining strength and comfort by visiting with the patients, made a profound impression on all of us." So she was, and she successfully lobbied state and federal agencies, demanding that more relevant rehabilitation centers be created.
Okay. And here she is.
She's taking it around the world, as if she hasn't done enough already.
So after the second World War, she travels to 39 countries around the globe. Helen was something called a Swedenborgian, actually. She was actually very religious. It's a sort of, it's a Christian group that believes, it's almost Quaker like, that this world is a pale reflection of the next, and you have to do good in society. And she really, she certainly, her life sort of exemplified that. Her trips were three-month affairs and her schedules were punishing. In a single day, she'd visit civic bodies, government bodies, blindness organizations, as well as museums and cultural institutions.
What's fascinating to me is she'd politely compliment her hosts on the work they'd done and immediately, she'd then tell them what they hadn't done. You know, like she'd say you've done X, Y, and Z, but now you really haven't done enough for your blind citizens.
One of my favorite letters is a letter that, it's sort of 1952, from Lebanon. In a report written later about her visit to Beirut, it was noted, the master of the blind school has found, as he goes about the city, very many people who still speak about that visit.
It seems that they had not thought before of what could be done to help handicapped people to overcome their limitations. We believe that the establishment of a Lebanese Society for the Blind and the interest of the Lebanese government in such work has been largely due to Ms. Keller's visit." So she, she was really just extraordinary. I mean, I have letters like this all over the globe, the amount of which she affected change. And you've got to think about it, okay.
When she made her trip to Lebanon, she was 70, she was 72 years of age. The Cold War was consuming the U.S., okay. And American women, sort of, were being relegated to the kitchen.
And there's Helen, who's in her seventies. She's circumnavigating the globe, she's politically engaged, she's deaf, she's blind. And she's a woman. And I think sort of, this sort of almost wraps it up because at the end of the day, Helen's credo was freedom of speech and the ability to live one's life in peace, and without fear of persecution.
She gave a wonderful speech about freedom of the press in Paris, between, sometime between 1948 to 1950. And there she writes, "The press, tremendous importance as a channel of reliable information. And there has never, and there was never a period of history when citizens so vitally needed as today to be informed correctly about what is happening throughout the globe. information, which the press imparts courageously without prejudice, social, racial, religious, or political, is a beneficence that cannot be measured."
It's sort of extraordinary. You miss how she could be writing this today. You really do.
And then I always sort of finish on this text because it is so very, very powerful. This is a letter that Helen wrote in 1933. Her book on socialism was burned as part of the book burning in Nazi Germany. And I'm going to read the full text here.
"History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds. I gave all the rights of my books for all time to the soldiers blinded in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and compassion for the German people. Do not imagine your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His judgment upon you. Better were it for you to have a millstone hung round your neck and sink into the sea than to be hated and despised of all men."—Helen Keller.
So that's my Helen. Here we go. Fearless in life, a risk-taker, as she said, "Never bend your head, always hold it high, and look the world straight in the face."
That's it. But if we've got time, I'm happy to do all. Should we do a little talk first, Marianne, or should I do a little tour of the archives? Should we open it up? You tell me.
[MARIANNE WEBER:] Hello. You can do a quick tour of the archive. So you can guide our participants on how to find....
[HELEN SELSDON:] Sure
[MARIANNE WEBER:] material.
[HELEN SELSDON:] And here is the digital archive. This digital archive is the result of a great deal of funding raised from the National Endowment for Humanities. American Express has been fantastic. [Inaudible] MES organization, loads of organizations have made this digitization possible. We now have lesson plans. We're launching a lesson plan shortly about women's suffrage, but right now I'm going to do a little simple search. See if I can get it right. So we are going to do...
I'm going to just put in actually a simple search, right? I'm going to do Henry Huttleston Rogers, because he is the gentleman associated with Coe Hall. And I think it is this one.
Well, anyway, you'll see, this is an example of Helen writing to Mrs. Rogers about Mr. Rogers's death.
So this is just an example of one of the items, and we have to clean up the, sorry. We have to clean up the transcription there, but you can search for so much in this digital archive. And let me do, let me clear that search. Let me do one that I love, as well. You do Mark Twain.
Okay. And I'm going to look for a decade. You can do, let's say 1900 to 1909, and a letter from Helen.
This is just another example, wishing him a 70th, 70th birthday, and they're all digital images in the collection.
So this is the first of the image. This is a type [inaudible]. So he, she addresses him as Dear Mr. Clements Here, but often it's Mark Twain.
So that gives you an idea of how to search the digital archive.
And I encourage as many of you as possible to take a look at this incredible resource. I should also say, my goodness, I'm not doing my part properly. Please do go ahead and contribute to the American Foundation for the Blind. I almost forgot that part.
I am very proud to work for this wonderful organization and everything we do to create an equal existence for those who are blind and visually impaired, to bring education and employment to all those who are blind and visually impaired. So there you have it, Marianne.
[MARIANNE WEBER:] Thank you so much, Helen.
We all can unmute ourselves and give Helen a lovely round of applause
[CLAPPING]. That was spectacular, Helen! Man, that makes me want to vote tomorrow. [RACHEL:] [SMILING], [MARIANNE WEBER:] Wow.
Helen, you have to unmute yourself? Actually, I can do that for you, I think.
[HELEN SELSDON:] Here we go.
[MARIANNE WEBER:] Here we go. Wonderful, wonderful presentation. You are filled with such knowledge and insights, and most importantly, you can tell that you yourself are very passionate about the issues and the advocacy and the activism and the legacy of Helen Keller. So it just makes your participation in this presentation even more sweet. So I thank you so, so much, and it has been a pleasure being able to collaborate with you to make this program happen tonight.
[HELEN SELSDON:] Thank you so much for having me.
[MARIANNE WEBER:] You're welcome.