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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Women and Deafness: Double Visions

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Her point, like her speech, was clear. Success, normalcy, and beauty depended on oral ability. Although Heckman may have pitched her message to the broader Deaf community, it resonated mostly with women. Throughout the 1920s the Silent Worker (and its peers during and since) vilified deaf men who advocated oralism, limiting Heckman’s example to female consumers. The paper, which was the premier Deaf newspaper of its time, consistently delineated success according to gender, and feminine deaf achievement was closely allied with oralism. Heckman, perhaps the most visible oral example of her time, appears to be the only deaf female to be honored twice on the front cover of the Silent Worker, the premier paper of its time.13

Other Deaf magazines echoed this message. For example, a 1935 American Deaf Citizen front page article celebrated Miss Deaf Chicago, Esther Dettinger. Repeatedly referred to as “the oralist,” Dettinger walked away with the crown from the Kansas City pageant.14 Four years later, two front covers of the popular Digest of the Deaf displayed oral beauties. The July 1939 issue claimed that Kansan Beulah Edith Harding enjoyed a “singing childhood” before becoming deaf at age ten and emphasized her speech skills. It later described her as “an excellent speaker and lip reader.” A finalist for the Miss Chicago contest in the 1930s, Harding went on to professional modeling under the name Barbara Lee.15 Marion Rene, the subject of the September 1939 issue, was a night club dancer. “Her success in spite of the critical criteria of the bright lights is yet another proof that deafness need be no bar to undoubted talent.” The article continued: “Perhaps a story of her life will bring comfort and help to other young deaf people and make them feel that there indeed is a place for each of them in this hearing world.”16 This “blonde oralist” achieved success by appearing exceptional only in her beauty and dance skills, like Heckman. Subsequent media coverage of deaf winners of mainstream as well as Deaf pageants—especially state and national ones—noted that the lovely ladies had “excellent” or “very good” oral skills.

Articles throughout most of the twentieth century continued to broadcast deaf beauties’ ability to “pass” as hearing. In the 1950s Violet Hylton bested her coworkers at the Standard Garment Company beauty pageant, startling the judges when they learned she was deaf. The newspaper report specifically emphasized that the contestants were evaluated according to their poise, personality, and, “of course, how they would look in a bathing suit.”17 The “personality” component likely involved some spoken presentation that Hylton could satisfy with demure responses, whereas the poise and bathing suit competitions allowed Hylton to be seen exactly as the hearing women were seen—posing, sashaying, smiling, and nodding at the audience. In all of these ways, silence was seen


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