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

Main Article Content

Mary M. Fleming
William H. Ross


Helen Keller, labor movement, American Foundation for the Blind


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.

Abstract 670 | PDF Downloads 90 Word Downloads 37 Text Downloads 75


Adams, G. J. (1966). Age of industrial violence, 1910-1915: The activities and findings of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Anonymous (1918, September). Crime at Butte. Montana Miners Magazine, 18, 1 & 6.

Anonymous. (1917, October). The I.W.W. and the Socialist Party. International Socialist Review, 18, 205-209.

Anonymous. (January 22, 1916). Joy of life are pictured. La Crosse [WI] Leader-Press, pgs. 2 & 10.

Anonymous. (January 22, 1916). Miss Keller has wonderful story; audience pleased. La Crosse [WI] Tribune, pgs. 8-9.

Betton, N. (1968, Summer). Riot, revolution, repression in the iron range strike of 1916. Minnesota History, 41, 82-94.

Bindley, B. (Jan. 16, 1916). Helen Keller would be IWW's Joan of Arc. New York Tribune Sec. 5, pg. 5.

Braddy, N. (1934). Anne Sullivan Macy: The story behind Helen Keller. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc.

Brooks, V.W. (1956). Helen Keller: Sketch for a portrait. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.

Byrkit, J. (1982). Forging the copper collar: Arizona's labor-management war, 1901-1921. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Foner, P.S. (1965). History of the labor movement in the United States, Volume IV: The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1917. New York: International Publishers.

Foner, P.S. (1966). Helen Keller: Her socialist years; writings and speeches. New York: International Publishers.

Foner, P.S. (1979). Women and the American labor movement from colonial times to the eve of WWI. New York: The Free Press.

Gibson, W. (1956). The Miracle Worker. New York: Bantam Books.

Gutfeld, A. (1969, Spring). The murder of Frank Little: Radical agitation in Butte, Montana, 1917. Labor History, 10, 177-192.

Keller, H. (1903). Optimism: An essay. New York: T.Y. Crowell and Company.

Keller, H. (February, 1913). A call for harmony. International Socialist Review, 13, 606.

Keller, H. (July 16, 1917). Contributes to New York garment workers' fund. New York Times, pg. 18.

Keller, H. (March, 1918). In behalf of the I.W.W. Liberator, Sec. 1, pg. 13.

Keller, H. (1929). Midstream: My later life. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc.

Keller, H. (1938). Helen Keller's journal. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company,

Lash, J.P. (1980). Helen and teacher: The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence.

Miles, D. (1986). Something in common - an I.W.W. bibliography. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Mills, D.Q. (1989). Labor-management relations. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company

Rayback, J.G. (1966). A history of American labor, second edition. New York: Free Press.

Sinclair, U. (December, 1918). The blind who will not see. Upton Sinclair's, 1 (18), 16.

Stineman, E., & Loeb, C. (1979). Women's studies: A recommended core bibliography. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Thomas, H. & D.L. (1948). 50 great Americans: Their inspiring lives and achievements. New York: Doubleday and Company.

Twain, M. (January 15, 1916). Quoted in an advertisement for a Helen Keller speaking engagement. La Crosse [WI] Tribune, 2.

University of Colorado (2000). Helen Keller reference archive. Available online at: http://csf.colorado.edu/mirrors/marxists.org/reference/archive/keller-helen/index.htm Accessed, March 15, 2001.

University of Colorado. (2000). The socialist legacy of Helen Keller: An introduction to the writings of Helen Keller. Available online: http://csf.colorado.edu/mirrors/marxists.org/reference/archive/keller-helen/intro.htm Accessed, March 15, 2001.

W.C.O. (2000, January 7). Socialism and Helen Keller. Available online: http://www.wco.com/~altaf/helen.html. Accessed March 9, 2001