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Women and Deafness:
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.