This article was last modified on February 19, 2010.

Empire Strikes First: Helen Keller

Everyone recalls their grade school education featuring the inspiring story of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan. Although blind and deaf, Keller was able to make the connection between the signed word “water” and actual water, sparking a thirst for knowledge that lasted a lifetime. But what did Keller do with her life after that? Our history books have been whitewashed and most people never learn the truth: she went on to graduate from Radcliffe in 1904 and became a world-famous pacifist, suffragette, radical socialist and rabble-rouser that crusaded for human rights and opposed the so-called liberal president Woodrow Wilson. It’s important that this knowledge is available to everyone, like all knowledge, whether it’s found at or the full, uncensored biography of such an important figure in American history.

According to Kim Nielsen, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, “She was smart, extremely well-read, disturbed by economic inequalities and injustices in the United States, and saw radical and progressive politics as the best solutions. Her religious beliefs (she was a Christian, of the Swedenborgian tradition) also pushed her to action and taught her that injustices were wrong.” With those beliefs driving her, she joined the Massachusetts Socialist Party in 1909. The writings of Swedenborg had previously influenced psychologist Carl Jung, folk hero Johnny Appleseed and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, best known for the anti-conformity essay “Self-Reliance”.

Keller further joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known informally as the Wobblies, in 1912. In “Why I Became an IWW”, Keller explained that her motivation for activism came in part from her concern about blindness and other disabilities: “I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame [prostitution] that ended in blindness [caused by syphilis].”

In 1915, she and architect George Kessler founded the Helen Keller International (HKI) organization, which is devoted to research in vision, health and nutrition. Today, the HKI operates in numerous countries around the world, primarily in Asia and Africa.

Keller wrote to a suffragette in England, where the women’s vote was achieved before America, and explained her fear of the vote. Even when women received the vote, they would be voting for “dominant parties managed by the ruling classes” that “exploit the resources of the nation … for the interests they represent and uphold.” While she supported voting, she said it was nothing more than choosing between two autocrats, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”. Sadly, some things never change. Not surprisingly, she rejected the two leading parties and supported Socialist candidate Eugene Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency, including one where he campaigned from prison after speaking out against he draft.

A year before America entered World War I, she went to Carnegie Hall and demanded people go on strike to stop the manufacture of “shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder” that lead to “death and misery to millions of human beings”. The army was “an army of destruction”. She remained a constant critic of President Woodrow Wilson throughout the war, who also opposed the rights of women and minorities; she called him “the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!” At the end of the war there were 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded, for a cause that less than a century later no one can recall.

Keller donated $100 to the NAACP in February 1916, quite a feat for a woman from Alabama. In this case, her blindness made her superior to many of her contemporaries — she was blind to color.

In 1917, she praised the Russia Revolution, exclaiming that, “With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new”, and she draped a red flag over her desk in their honor. November 10, 1919, her letter appeared in Call, a New York newspaper: “Our governments are not honest. They do not openly declare war against Russia and proclaim the reasons. They are fighting the Russian people half-secretly and in the dark with the lie of democracy on their lips.”

In 1918, she went to Hollywood to film “Deliverance” and befriended Charlie Chaplin. “She met [Chaplin] … in order to help create her own film, but the friendship did not go much longer than that,” says Nielsen. I like to believe that Keller had influenced Chaplin to make “City Lights”, which revolves around a blind girl, but there is no proof of this.

Keller is credited with helping to start the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. “She was recruited as a founding member but was not part of the original discussions and organizational work,” clarifies Nielsen. The real founders were Crystal Eastman, Roger Baldwin and Walter Nelles. Yet, by attaching her name to the organization, its profile was surely elevated.

Her autobiography Midstream, released in 1929, talked lovingly of strikes she had witnessed in mill towns, mining towns and packing towns. Nielsen reflects on this decade, “She had been criticized quite a bit for her beliefs in the 1920s — by private individuals and organizations, and was the target of FBI investigations and follow-ups.”

In 1933 the Nazis burned a collection of her political essays and banned her work in libraries. Nielsen tells me that Keller was among good company. “She was one of a long list of authors whose works were burned by the Nazis.”

Keller was never a target of the mid-20th century Communist witch hunts because she “had by that time learned to keep her political beliefs relatively private,” says Nielsen. Not completely private, though, as she sent birthday wishes and encouragement to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in prison, who had been put there for leading the American Communist Party. Keller considered Flynn’s work to be “serving mankind”.

Nielsen says that in later years, Keller traveled “extensively internationally and always spoke in advocacy of blind people.” On one trip in 1952, she went to multiple countries in the turbulent Middle East, including to Israel, where she urged them to stop segregating the blind.

By the time she passed, Keller met every American President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson and was friends with many famous figures, including pioneer inventor Alexander Graham Bell and satirist Mark Twain.

What lessons can we learn today? First and foremost, the importance of friendship. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy remained close friends for nearly fifty years. Nielsen also points out that the lives of the handicapped are “as equally complex, profound and mundane as the lives of people without disabilities.” I think an important lesson Keller taught us was to think dangerously: “People do not like to think,” she said. “If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.” And lastly, the need to help others rise up. Keller wrote, “the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone.” For those who need a boost, ought we to lend them a hand?

For more on Keller’s life, particularly her political activism, please pick up a copy of Nielsen’s “Radical Lives of Helen Keller”, available from NYU Press or any public library.

Gavin Schmitt ( is a philosopher, activist and amateur historian, and welcomes all feedback and article suggestions.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

Leave a Reply