Writing Deaf Women Back into History

March 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.

By:   |   March 18, 2010


  1. radhakakaria says:

    dear Dannie

    Your writing is inspring one. I wish to join you in writing about deaf women back into history. i am born deaf and dumb woman aged 49 years old living at agra india and working as inspector in income tax office.

    i really appreciated ur best efforts in writing such articles.

    May FORTUNE smile on ur best endeavours…

    wishing u all the best

    from radha agra

  2. Liz Poole says:

    I am an AAUW member and retired educator. I also belong to Quota International Inc. that is committed to helping people with hearing impairments. Our local Chapter, in Waterloo, Iowa, has provided between $3000. to $5000. in scholarships each year to students in higher education that are either hearing impaired or are in a graduate program in Speech Pathology that will be serving people with hearing impairments. Most all of the scholarships we have given over the years have been for women or girls. Yours is a very inspiring story and I would like to share your story with others who have a disability and include hearing impaired women in our Women’s History Month for next year!

    Thank you,
    Liz Poole, Cedar Falls Iowa

  3. Delores Hart says:

    I was very excited to see “Writing Deaf Women Back into History” in the recent posts. Although I am not Deaf, I received my M.A. in Deafness Counseling and I have learned to sign. I have worked, off and on, in this field over the last 10 years and have come to well understand just how little the societal “mind-set” has truly changed or grown in terms of inclusion of PWDs in many aspects everyday society. It was very interesting to read about the various women with disabilities and/or deafness that you wrote about in your articles. Although, I have studied a lot of Deaf History, as you so poignantly pointed out in your writings, there were many great women of history with disabilities; and many are unsung heroines with the disability of deafness/hearing loss. Thank you so much for your work and research in this area. You do “do them justice”, as well as, yourself! I would be very interested in reading more and will try to follow your work for at least the rest of this month.

  4. Thank you, Holly! I appreciate that so much.

    I was actually really excited when I started doing my women’s (disability) history month series and realized how many awesome women there were to write about. I got frustrated because I wanted to write about one woman for every day. Then I realized that in order to do justice to their life and achievements, I should really read at least one or two books on each of them before writing about them. Not exactly feasible for thirty-one women in thirty-one days! But my women’s (disability) history project will continue throughout the year and I am super-excited about it.

    I am grateful to AAUW and other women’s organizations for working so hard to bring women’s history to the forefront. I am so proud to follow in Laura, Henrietta and Nellie’s footsteps. I hope I do them justice!

  5. holly kearl says:

    What a beautiful post. Thank you for writing it. I’m sorry you didn’t have these women as role models when you were younger. But you’re right, it’s not too late and you’ve got them now. And you’re doing your part to get their names/accomplishments out there. Bravo.

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