Writing Deaf Women Back into HistoryMarch 18, 2010
I was driven and ambitious as a young girl. I had big dreams; I wanted to be a journalist or an attorney. Clair Huxtable, Geraldine Ferraro, “Career Barbie,” and even Madonna had promised me I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. However, I was born with a hearing impairment. I knew I had to be “normal” and live in the hearing world to follow my dreams. Deaf women rarely made headlines or changed the world, other than Marlee Matlin or Helen Keller, and I had no desire to be an actress or one of the most pitied little girls in history.
I wish I had known then about some of the smart and accomplished deaf women who had come before me.
I wish I had known who Laura Redden Searing (1839–1923) was; I think she would’ve been my idol. After losing her hearing in childhood, Searing became an author, poet, and journalist. As a civil war correspondent for the St. Louis Republican, she befriended politicians like Sen. George F. Edmunds (R-VT) and military heroes like Ulysses S. Grant. Searing published two books of poetry and a collection of biographies of members of Congress entitled Notable Men. She wrote for countless magazines and newspapers and traveled widely in the United States, Cuba, and Europe. Searing also had the audacity to marry and divorce twice, scandalous behavior at the turn of the 20th century.
I wish I had a “shero” like Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), a graduate of Oberlin College who became deaf as a young adult. While an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory, Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 variable stars, developed a standard of photographic measurements — called the Harvard Standard — and studied the correlation between Cepheid variable stars and luminosity. Other astronomers, such as Edwin Hubble, later built on her work in their own research.
I wish I had heard of women like Nellie Zabel Willhite (1892–1991), the first deaf female pilot and the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in the state of South Dakota. As one of the first woman pilots in the country, Willhite broke barriers not just for deaf women but for all women. She began taking flight lessons when she was 35 and later worked as a commercial pilot. She once said, “Even though I could barely hear the engine roar, I could tell right away if anything was wrong — just from the vibrations.”
I wish I had known about these and countless other deaf and hearing-impaired women who have almost been forgotten by history. As a girl with a hearing impairment struggling to navigate through the hearing world, I could have used a few good role models.
It’s not too late, though — for them or for me. I can tell their stories now so we will all remember.
This post contributed by Danine Spencer. Danine has a bachelor’s degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is a freelance writer focusing on politics, women’s rights, and health care.