View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

Women and Deafness: Double Visions

Previous Page

Next Page


Commentary on Deaf beauty pageants in the Deaf and mainstream press reveals an intimate connection between women’s beauty and oralism (as both a symbol and practice of “normalcy” in the period before DPN). Articles from the 1920s on deaf dancer Helen Heckman epitomize this. One entitled “Overcoming the Handicap of Deafness” asked readers whether they had ever witnessed a deaf girl play the piano compellingly or sing and dance eloquently. Praising Heckman’s ability to perform musical numbers—via instruments, her voice, and her body—the article alludes to the many obstacles overcome by the deaf prodigy: her “handicap of deafness,” the loss of her mother at a young age, and her physical awkwardness. Repeatedly citing Heckman’s ability to speak and dance as the means as well as the symbol of her success, the author instructs readers to learn from her example: “The results in this direction may be taken as a convincing demonstration not only of the value of the training of the body, but of the possibilities in the way of development of the mental faculties through the training of the body.”11 In other words, a beautiful, fit body reflects a beautiful, fit mind. The article originally ran in a mainstream publication (Physical Culture Magazine) and thus instructed presumably hearing women to take note from Heckman’s experience, but its placement in the prominent Deaf magazine the Silent Worker takes on added meaning. Presenting Heckman as the model of a successful deaf woman specifically encouraged female deaf readers to emulate her physical beauty and poise as well as her efforts to speak vocally. The general absence of articles explicitly describing women who could not voice articulately or perform like Heckman (and hearing women) compounded the powerful message sent by the essay on the oral “overcomer”: deaf female beauty required oralism. Other articles echoed this point.


Three years later, the November 1922 cover of the Silent Worker displayed a profile of Helen Heckman under the banner “Our Beautiful Deaf Women.” Heckman had placed second in a mainstream national contest of beauty of face and figure. The extended article on Heckman not only celebrated her good looks but also highlighted her strict oral training and complete separation from Deaf people and Deaf culture. The newspaper again praised and embraced her “overcoming” story. Later, writing from Italian Switzerland in 1928, Heckman spoke directly to Deaf readers of the Silent Worker. Contrasting her deaf childhood with her oral adulthood, she said, “I think of myself at the age of twelve, a fat, lazy, ignorant girl, without speech or learning, using signs in lieu of words, deficient in the sense of balance, unable to eat without smacking or to exert myself at all without making unnatural sounds.” With oral training she could “converse freely with hearing persons through the natural medium of speech; read the lips of others so easily that I do not sense the absence of hearing . . . [and] move about in the hearing world as a normal, happy being without the finger of pity being pointed toward me.”12


Previous Page

Next Page