Only three women have been featured on United States currency other than special commemorative coins: Susan B. Anthony on the ill-designed dollar coin; Sacajawea on the better, current dollar coin; and Helen Keller on the quarter honoring her home state, Alabama.
I imagine that the way I learned about Keller was typical: she was the protagonist of an overcoming-adversity tale, cast as a mixture of victim and heroine. What that story obscures, as such stories tend to do, is the fact that her accomplishments would be remarkable regardless of her ability to see or hear. She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the bulwarks between the radical freedoms promised by our constitution and the many forces (especially internal) that seek to erode them. She worked for the vote for women, pacifism and access to birth control. She was acclaimed in her own time, but when she became an outspoken socialist, critics began pushing back and suggesting that her physical limitations made it difficult for her to reach wise conclusions about such matters.
She wrote to a British newspaper, in 1911:
Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. . . . You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land of Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40,000,000? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?
Women got the vote in the US nine years later, thanks to thousands like Keller. We have not used our millions of votes to redress that inequality, yet.
(I can see that a pleasant hazard of writing a post a day for Women’s History Month will be that I add many must-read books to my list. I have never read Keller’s autobiography, and now want to.)