On Behalf of the I.W.W.: Helen Keller’s Involvement in the Labor Movement

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Mary M. Fleming
William H. Ross

Keywords

Helen Keller, labor movement, American Foundation for the Blind

Abstract

The paper describes Helen Keller's role in the labor movement during the 1910s and 1920s as well as the factors that led to her deciding to cease her labor activism.  The thesis of this paper is that Helen Keller was first interested in the causes of industrial blindness. Gradually, she came to believe that the greed that caused employers to balk at installing safety equipment (the cause of many blinding accidents) was inherent in the capitalist system.  As she made sympathy speeches on behalf of factory workers, she became acquainted with the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor union.  She eventually embraced the I.W.W.'s philosophy, and actively worked for its cause.  Several factors appeared to influence her decision to leave the labor movement:  (1) The arrest of hundreds of I.W.W. leaders during the early 1920s; (2) The reaction of the public that she was being "duped" by I.W.W. leaders; (3) The failure of LaFollette's Progressive Party to do well in the 1924 Presidential election; (4) Pressure from the American Foundation for the Blind out of fear that their chief spokesman would alienate potential donors, and (5) Pressure from motion picture producers who were seeking to make a film about her life and who did not want any adverse publicity.  After this period, Helen concentrated on humanitarian work on behalf of the blind, and only rarely spoke or wrote about labor issues.

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