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Poetry: An Anthology|
John Lee Clark, Editor
Agatha Tiegel Hanson (1873–1959)
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, uneasy distinctions were drawn within the Deaf community between “deaf-mutes” and “semi-mutes.” The latter group tended to have more residual hearing, and the very term “semi-mute” meant they could speak to some degree, either because they had received oral training or simply had retained the skill after becoming deaf. Because the oralism movement forced people in the signing community to take a stand, such people had to choose between consciously becoming a “full mute” or shifting their identity.
The oralist philosophy espoused by Alexander Graham Bell and other hearing teachers convinced mainstream society that deaf people should use whatever hearing they had and should develop their speaking ability as much as possible. This is why Agatha Tiegel Hanson speaks of deafness as a “burden” in her poem “Semi-Mute,” something that deaf-mutes definitely did not say about their deafness. Hanson’s sentiments might never be justified according to the “Deaf strong,” but they can be explained. She contracted spinal meningitis and became deaf at the age of seven. This was especially traumatic for her because she came from a musically inclined family and showed promise as a musician herself. And, save for two years at George M. Teegarden’s Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, she was educated in public schools, an early and rare case of what would later be known as mainstreaming. That “there is no standing still” was, and is, a familiar state of mind for those who attempt to balance living between two clashing worlds.
Agatha Mary Agnes Tiegel Hanson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She entered the National Deaf-Mute College (Gallaudet) in 1888. She was elected the first president of O.W.L.S., today the Phi Kappa Zeta sorority at Gallaudet. Tiegel graduated first in the Class of 1893, and was the first woman to receive a bachelor’s degree from Gallaudet. She then secured a teaching job at the Minnesota School for the Deaf, where she met and married fellow teacher, renowned architect, and one-time National Association of the Deaf president Olof Hanson. When Olof was ordained a minister, they moved to Seattle, Washington. Agatha’s poetry and her influential essay “The Intellect of Woman” were collected and published privately by her daughters.