Cover image for The radical lives of Helen Keller
The radical lives of Helen Keller
Nielsen, Kim E.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York ; London : New York University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xiv, 178 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV1624.K4 N54 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Several decades after her death in 1968, Helen Keller remains one of the most widely recognized women of the twentieth century. But the fascinating story of her vivid political life--particularly her interest in radicalism and anti-capitalist activism--has been largely overwhelmed by the sentimentalized story of her as a young deaf-blind girl.

Keller had many lives indeed. Best known for her advocacy on behalf of the blind, she was also a member of the socialist party, an advocate of women's suffrage, a defender of the radical International Workers of the World, and a supporter of birth control--and she served as one of the nation's most effective but unofficial international ambassadors. In spite of all her political work, though, Keller rarely explored the political dimensions of disability, adopting beliefs that were often seen as conservative, patronizing, and occasionally repugnant. Under the wing of Alexander Graham Bell, a controversial figure in the deaf community who promoted lip-reading over sign language, Keller became a proponent of oralism, thereby alienating herself from others in the deaf community who believed that a rich deaf culture was possible through sign language. But only by distancing herself from the deaf community was she able to maintain a public image as a one-of-a-kind miracle.

Using analytic tools and new sources, Kim E. Nielsen's political biography of Helen Keller has many lives, teasing out the motivations for and implications of her political and personal revolutions to reveal a more complex and intriguing woman than the Helen Keller we thought we knew.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Helen Keller is readily remembered as a poster-girl for sign language, but few people know that, as an adult, Helen Keller was also a socialist, suffragist and supporter of birth control. According to historian and women's studies scholar Nielsen, "the sentimentalized story of the young deaf-blind girl has trumped" the history of the radical activist. Nielsen describes how Keller joined the Socialist Party at the age of 29, and "criticized World War I as a profit-making venture for industrialists." But Nielsen also highlights the fact that Keller's radicalism, ironically, did not extend to the rights of the disabled; she even supported eugenics to prevent the birth of disabled children. Nielsen mines Keller's writings and speeches to illuminate this little-known side of Keller's biography, and this account should fascinate students of radicalism and those interested in the disabled and their rights. (Jan.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

This brief biography by Nielsen (history, Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; Un-American Womanhood) examines Helen Keller's radical politics and the various reasons her political views were so often neglected. As the ultimate symbol of the "perpetual overcomer," Keller proved to be the perfect emissary for the United States during the Cold War but only because, to her frustration, everyone ignored her own relatively radical politics. On the other hand, Nielsen points out, Keller's positions with respect to disability were conservative. She advocated trying to make the blind and deaf "perform" as if they were sighted and hearing-hence her replacing her own eyes with glass eyes and her support of finger-spelling rather than American Sign Language. Thus, she did nothing to destigmatize disability. Though she offers a different view of Keller, Nielsen's description of Keller's politics and beliefs is sometimes unclear. For specialized collections, particularly in disability studies.-Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.