It’s the birthday of Helen Keller (1880) (books by this author), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was 19 months old, she came down with an illness — possibly scarlet fever — that left her blind and deaf. Alexander Graham Bell examined her when she was six years old and sent Anne Sullivan, a 20-year-old teacher at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, to help her. Sullivan stayed with Keller until she (Sullivan) died in 1936.
Keller moved to New York when she was 13 and attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. She was admitted to Radcliffe in 1899. She published her first of 14 books, The Story of My Life, in 1902. She loved being on stage; she starred in a silent film about her life, called Deliverance (1919), and she also went on vaudeville tours for several years, which she enjoyed a great deal. Not so Anne Sullivan, however, and Keller retired from the stage when her teacher no longer felt up to accompanying her.
Though history tends to portray her simply as an inspirational figure struggling with and overcoming the adversity of her handicaps, she tended to place her battles firmly in the political arena. In 1909, she joined the United States Socialist Party, and she supported Eugene V. Debs in his presidential campaigns. She joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World in 1912, visiting workers in appalling conditions. “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums,” she said. “If I could not see it, I could smell it.” She also campaigned for women’s suffrage. She protested against World War I, and was one of the first members of the American Civil Liberties Union.