Thursday, March 9, 2017

Helen Keller on the fight for women's liberation and socialism (1912)

If we women are to learn the fundamental things in life, we must educate ourselves and one another. For instance, why in this land of great wealth is there great poverty? Any intelligent young woman like those who write to me, eager to help the sightless or any other unfortunate class, can learn why such important work as supplying food, clothing, and shelter is ill-rewarded, why children toil in the mills while thousands of men cannot get work, why women who do nothing have thousands of dollars a year to spend ... There is an economic cause for these things.

It is for the American woman to know why millions are shut out from the full benefits of such education, art, and science as the race has thus far achieved ... We must know why 150 of our sisters were killed in New York in a shirt-waist factory fire the other day, and nobody to blame ... why our fathers, brothers, and husbands are killed in mines and railroads.

I am surprised to find that many champions of woman, upholders of 'advanced ideas,' exalt the intelligence of the so-called cultivated woman. The woman who works for a dollar a day has as much right as any other human being to say what the conditions of her work should be. It is just this, I am sorry to find, which educated women do not always understand.

Throughout the ages, man has drilled woman in morals, that she might not deceive him; he taught her obedience, that she might be his slave. He made her laws, constituted himself judge, jury, jailer, and executioner. He had entire charge of her prisons and convents, or her house, her church, and her person. He burnt her, tortured her, gave her to wild beasts and cast her forth to be a pariah ... Through all times he granted her the privilege -- of bearing his children.

A woman opens a can of food which is adulterated with worthless or dangerous stuff. In a distant city a man is building himself a palace with the profits of many such cans. If a petty thief should break into her pantry, and she should fight him tooth and nail, she would be applauded for her spirit and bravery; but when a millionaire manufacturer a thousand miles away robs her by the peaceful methods of commerce, she has nothing to say, because she does not understand business, and politics is not for her to meddle in.

In the hospital wards where the nurse [works], there are men unnecessarily laid low by the accidents of trade ... from the battlefields of industry come the wounded, from the shambles of poverty come the deformed. What enemy has stricken them? How much of all this disease and misery is preventable? Shall the wise nurse stand by the bed of pain and ask no questions about the social causes of ill health?

It has been found that you must feed your child before you can teach it, and that the poor home defeats the best schoolroom. Behind the free school we must have a free people. What profits it to provide costly school buildings for anemic, under-fed children, to pass compulsory education laws and not secure a livelihood for the families whose children must obey them? What is the common sense of free text-books without wholesome food and proper clothing?

Countless mothers of men have no place fit to be born in, to bear others in, to die in. Packed in tenements forgot of light, unheeded and slighted, starved of eye and ear and heart, they wear out their dull existence in monotonous toil -- all for a crust of bread! They strive and labor, sweat and produce; they subject their bodies and soul to every risk, lest their children die for want of food ... [all this] has but served to herd them in masses under the control of a growing industrial despotism.

Many young women full of devotion and good-will have been engaged in superficial charities. They have tried to feed the hungry without knowing the cause of poverty. They have tried to minister to the sick wihout understanding the cause of disease. They have tried to raise up fallen sisters without knowing the brutal arm of necessity that struck them down. We attempt social reforms where we need social transformations.

The greatest change is coming that has ever come in the history of the world. Order is evolving out of the chaos that followed the breaking up of the old system in which each household lived after its own manner. By using the physical forces of the universe men have replaced the slow hand-processes with the swift power of machines. If women demand it, a fair share of the machine-products will go to them and their families ... They will no more give their best years to keep bright and fair the homes of others while their own are neglected. They will no more consume all their time, strength, and mental capacity in bringing up the rosy, laughing children of others while their own sweet children grow up pitiful and stunted.... We know that there is plenty of room in the world and plenty of raw material in it for us all to be born right, to be brought up right, to work right, and to die right.

We shall not see the end of capitalism and the triumph of democracy until men and women work together in the solving of their political, social, and economic problems.

[The above is excerpted from two articles written by Helen Keller: "The Modern Woman," Metropolitan Magazine, 1912, and "Why Men Need Women Suffrage," New York Call, 1913.]

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