Helen Keller’s fame is such that every school child knows her name and has learned about her life.

Helen Keller’s Story

As an infant, Keller contracted measles. Though this wasn’t uncommon during the time, the disease left her both blind and deaf. The loss of two primary senses while still a baby meant that as young Helen grew older she didn’t learn to speak or communicate in any meaningful way. Keller herself says that she had no real thoughts at this time, just animalistic wants. As she continued to age, her devoted parents began to fear for her future.

Consequently, when Keller was six her parents employed Annie Sullivan, known to history as “the miracle worker.” Sullivan arrived at the Kellers’ estate and took complete charge of Helen’s care. She cut her off from her indulgent parents and their servants, moving her to a small guest house where teacher and unwilling pupil lived together. The best-known part of Annie’s teaching was manipulating Keller’s fingers to form letters and words in sign language.

The Miracle Worker

The most famous moment in Helen Keller’s life is, of course, when Sullivan signed the letters “W-A-T-E-R” into Helen’s hand while running water over it. It was in this moment that Helen had the realization that these finger movements were names, and that all things around her had them.

She writes:

As the cool stream gushed over one hand [Annie Sullivan] spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.

This is the miraculous story that nearly everyone knows. The story of a teacher and child who achieved what none had ever done before. But there’s so much more to Helen’s incredible life.

Helen Keller’s Secret Engagement

One of the lesser known chapters of Keller’s life came years later when she was an adult. While attitudes toward the differently-abled continue to slowly change for the better, at that time people as severely disabled as Keller generally did not marry or have children. Though Keller gained remarkable independence, she still relied on translations from Annie Sullivan to understand the world around her. Braille and sign language where more obscure then than they are today, so few people had the means to communicate with her directly.

One of the minority of people who could communicate with Keller was Peter Fagan. Fagan was hired as a temporary secretary to Helen while Annie Sullivan vacationed. The two fell deeply in love, and planned to marry. Fagan even applied for a marriage license. But it was the license, sadly, that brought about the end of their relationship.

Keller and Fagan planned to elope, but though Helen arrived at the appointed time and waited, Peter never showed up at their rendezvous. The press had found out about their marriage license, and published a sensational article about it. Keller’s mother read it, and forbade Fagan from ever returning or seeing her daughter again.

Why Helen Keller makes the list

In light of all this, it may seem odd to put Helen Keller on a list of Top 10 Spinsters, particularly at number 5. After all, Keller’s spinsterhood was not by choice. She even said that if she could see, the first thing she would do would be to marry. However, it is this very fact that makes her all the more inspiring to me.

Despite being devastated by her loss of her true love, and the unfairness of discrimination against the blind, Keller persevered. Rather than become a bitter recluse, (a la Miss Havisham), she carried on. She continued to learn and to speak out against societal wrongs. Though she realized that as a blind and deaf woman she would never be permitted to marry, she didn’t simply accept her lot and despair. She owned her spinster life. Helen Keller did more as a single woman than many people accomplish in a lifetime. Even though it wasn’t her first choice, she lived a truly amazing life as a single, childfree woman.

Top 10 Real-Life Spinsters: Helen Keller

See the full list of Top 10 Real-Life Spinsters here.

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