Deaf Women. The History of the Deaf.

We invite you to another episode from the "Deaf Culture" series. This time, we will introduce you to the profiles of ten remarkable deaf women who have made their mark in the history of the deaf community!

Hello! Today, I will tell you about famous women who, thanks to their work, have become important figures in the deaf community. Why did we prepare a separate episode about women? Today, it’s obvious to us that women can study and work. However, from a historical perspective, even rights like the right to vote or the opportunity to study were modern “inventions.” In Poland, the first women were legally allowed to attend universities only in 1897, and they gained the right to vote in 1918. In Saudi Arabia, women were only allowed to take driving tests starting in 2018! Women faced many challenges in obtaining education or holding respected positions, so we decided to tell the stories of a few selected women who managed to achieve this, or rather, who worked hard to earn it!

Sarah Adams

Sarah Adams lived from 1869 to 1894. She became deaf around the age of three. She was one of the first students at a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in New York. She likely learned American Sign Language (ASL) from her peers. During her time at school, the Rochester method, which involved fingerspelling every word, was used. Adams showed artistic talent in school, and to this day, two portraits painted by Sarah Adams hang in the main corridor of her school. One of them is of Mozart, and the other is of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Sarah studied art at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and worked as an art teacher at a hearing girls’ school.

Source and Image Credit: Sarah Taylor Adams: Early Deaf Artist at the Art Student League of New York

Patti Durr

Born in 1960, Patti has been deaf since birth. She grew up without sign language and did not know any other deaf individuals. She only started learning sign language when she was 20 years old. She is currently an associate professor in the Department of Cultural and Creative Studies at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. In 2004, Patti received the Eisenhart Award for Excellence in Teaching. She works as a filmmaker, directing several award-winning short and educational films, and has published extensively on Deaf culture research. She is an activist and advocate for social justice.

Source and Image Credit: Patti Durr, Mixed-Media Artist, Playwright and Filmmaker

Agatha Hanson

Agatha Hanson lived from 1873 to 1959 and was a teacher and poet. At the age of 7, she suffered from meningitis, which resulted in her losing her hearing and partial sight in one eye. Losing the ability to hear music, she turned to literature to find artistic expression. She wrote, “I have been denied the sounds of music since I was 7 years old. Perhaps that is why I wrote poetry.”

Hanson studied during a time when women were denied full access to education. She was one of the first women admitted to Gallaudet University, paving the way for future generations of deaf women to pursue higher education. She joined Gallaudet in 1888 at the age of 15, after the then-president of the university, Edward Miner Gallaudet, temporarily lifted the ban on admitting women in 1887. At that time, all female students were required to live in a designated dormitory and were not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities unless a male escort invited them.

Hanson worked as an educator of deaf students and was an advocate for the deaf community.

Source and Image Credit: Visionary Leader – June 2014, Agatha Tiegel Hanson

Dorothy Miles

Dorothy Miles lived from 1931 to 1993. She was a Welsh poet and activist within the deaf community. Throughout her life, she composed poetry in English, British Sign Language (BSL), and American Sign Language (ASL). Her work laid the foundation for modern sign language poetry in the United States and the United Kingdom.

She was not only a poet but also a playwright, performer, teacher, and devoted activist for the deaf community. She earned the nickname “Mother of Sign Poetry.” She worked at the National Theatre of the Deaf. Thanks to her bilingualism, her work appealed to both deaf and hearing audiences, and she emphasized the fusion of both cultures. She developed the first instructional manual for BSL tutors and was involved in the creation of the Council for the Development of Communication with Deaf People.

Source and Image Credit: Dorothy Miles

Blanche Wilkins Williams

Blanche Wilkins Williams lived from 1876 to 1936 and was an American teacher of deaf children. In 1893, she became the first African American to graduate from the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf. She was also the first African American deaf person to serve on the Executive Committee of the National Association of the Deaf, a groundbreaking achievement as African Americans were not allowed to hold positions in the National Association of the Deaf until 1965. In 2018, a newly constructed dormitory at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf was named “Wilkins Hall” in her honor.

Source and Image Credit: Deaf Suffragists/Activists: Williams, Blanche Wilkins

Marie Leneru

Marie Leneru was born on June 2, 1875. She was a French deaf playwright and memoirist. After battling smallpox at the age of eleven, she became deafblind but later partially regained her vision and used magnifying glasses. She passed away during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918.

She received awards and recognition for her short stories, non-fiction works about historical figures, and theatrical art. Sometimes, she used the pseudonym Antoine Morsain. Her plays were performed in Paris. She wrote anti-war works, one of which was titled “Peace.” Her creativity inspired and was analyzed by other researchers and authors, leading to master’s theses based on her work and biography.

Source and Image Credit: Deaf Suffragists/Activists: Leneru, Marie

Nellie Zabel

Nellie Zabel, who lived from 1892 to 1991, was the first deaf woman to earn a pilot’s license. She won aviation competitions and performed daring and dangerous stunts during airshows. She was one of the founders of organizations supporting women aspiring to careers in aviation. Her famous aircraft, nicknamed “Pard,” is displayed at the Southern Museum of Flight in Alabama.

Source and Image Credit: A Pioneer of Flight

Nancy Rourke

Today, one of the most well-known deaf artists is Nancy Rourke. Her artwork is popular worldwide. Nancy specializes in oil painting, and her pieces often touch on themes of resistance, affirmation, and liberation. She paints in a distinctively vibrant style, often referred to as “Rourkism.”

Nancy was born into a hearing family, and her deafness was not diagnosed until she was six years old. Her education initially focused on oralism, but art provided a means for her to express herself freely. She attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and painting in 1982 and a master’s degree in computer graphics and painting in 1986. She is not only an artist but also an activist for the deaf community, particularly advocating for incarcerated deaf individuals who lacked access to interpreters or videophones in correctional facilities and promoting programs to develop their artistic talents.


Information Source: Nancy Rourke 

Deaf Women in the Deaf Community

These are just a few of the women who have contributed to the development of the deaf community. I hope you enjoyed this episode. If you did, please like, comment, or share it with others. This will help us reach a larger audience with our videos and increase awareness about Deaf culture. Thank you for watching! Goodbye!

Prepared by Małgorzata Urbańska from the Center for Deaf Development (Centrum Rozwoju Głuchych). Translated into Polish Sign Language by Nikola Śliwa.

Skip to content