Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At 19 months old, after a brief illness, Helen became deaf and blind. The reactions of her family were mixed. Her uncle wanted her shut away in an institution for being “defective and not very pleasant to see”, however her aunt was convinced that “this child has more sense than all the Kellers - if there is any way to reach her mind". Alexander Graham Bell suggested they approach Perkins School for the Blind in Boston to find a teacher. It was there that Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of the school, was recommended for the job.

We are all pretty much aware of the struggles she, her family and her teachers went through at this time thanks to copious books, tv shows and movies made about this part of her life. However most of these biographies leave out a huge part of her life after she became able to communicate effectively with the world. She grew up to be an outspoken activist, a suffragette and an ardent believer in socialism.

During her college days, Helen was introduced to socialism by the lecturer and journalist John Macy (who later married Annie). She recognised “a struggle which resembles my own” and rapidly moved from an intellectual commitment into lifelong and revolutionary activism. Helen joined the Socialist Party, subsequently leaving it for the more radical Industrial Workers of the World.

She campaigned for birth control, supported civil rights for black people, defended militant women’s suffrage, campaigned with leading pacifists against the United States’ preparations for war, protested at the deportation of immigrants for their political beliefs and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union. For Helen, the root of all these campaigns lay in a fundamental drive for justice and social equality and she encouraged others to join the struggle.

Later in her life, Helen worked as fundraiser and ambassador with the newly established American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). She still attracted the press who cast her as an international figurehead for blind people. But the public image omits her scepticism about charity and her loathing of asking for money:

{"Many young women full of devotion and good-will have been engaged in superficial charities. They have tried to feed the hungry without knowing the causes of poverty. They have tried to minister to the sick without understanding the cause of disease. They have tried to raise up fallen sisters without understanding the brutal arm of necessity that struck them down… We attempt social reforms where we need social transformations. We mend small things and leave the great things untouched." (Keller, 1913) }

In 1933, her book of political essays was burned by the Nazis. From the 1930s and throughout the tide of anti-Communism into the 1950s, to the great dismay of the American Foundation for the Blind, she was kept under surveillance by the FBI for her far-left politics and support of Communism. She took risks that saw other people jailed or socially dispossessed and, particularly during her early civil rights work, “her politics for anyone else might have gotten her lynched” (Fillippeli, 1999).

{"No one has given me a good reason why we should obey unjust laws. But the reason why we should resist them is obvious… The dignity of human nature compels us to resist what we believe to be wrong." (Keller, 1914)}

These are just small parts from the life of a remarkable woman whose life has been almost completely overshadowed by her disabilities, as is the case for far too many great people.

If you want to find more about her life I can highly recommend the brilliant documentary Her Socialist Smile that was released last year. I was unable to find a link to either stream or buy the film and had to download it illegally through a torrent but if you can track it down please do, you will not be disappointed.