Deaf Suffragists/Activists: Fisher, Dorothy Canfield

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Photograph of Dorothy Canfield Fisher(1879-1958) Eleanor Roosevelt named her as one of the ten most influential women in the United States. 

Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a writer, social activist, and educator. Her father was a professor at the University of Kansas, a librarian at Columbia University, and later became president of Ohio State University. He always talked about the value of each person having a well-stocked personal library, which would influence her involvement as a member (the first woman) of the selection committee of the Book-of-the-Month Club. In the library world, there is the Dorothy Canfield Fisher annual award for children’s literature which will be renamed 2020.  The book winners are voted on by children themselves. Her mother, Flavia Camp, a progressive school teacher, traveled to France with Dorothy when she was 10 and continued these trips throughout her teens. This nurtured her love of the French and its language. She spent summers in Vermont.

At age 14 she became deaf. This forced her to change her major at the university she entered at age 15. She had planned to study music and changed to literature studies. After graduating from Ohio State University, she studied at the Sorbonne and Columbia University where she was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages. Dorothy also worked at the British Museum!

She taught at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. Later, she met John Redwood Fisher, and settled in Arlington, Vermont where they raised two children. Dorothy was fascinated with child development and studied with Maria Montessori in Rome. She advocated for the Maria Montessori philosophy which she brought to America. She wrote books on child development based on her studies and was an educational reformer. She served as a member (the first woman) of the Vermont State Board of Education. She helped to establish the Adult Education Association which she presided over. She supported life-long learning and equal rights for women as well as racial equity.

During WW I, she and her family moved to France for three years as they wanted to help in the war effort. Dorothy coordinated services for blinded soldiers and was in charge of a home for refugee children. During this period, she published two books about France.

When she returned home later, her novel, The Brimming Cup became a best seller. Her other books were also popular and centered on relationships between family members. She also wrote books for children such as Understood Betsy, about an orphan in Vermont. She never liked to discuss her deafness and admitted that it was “a hindrance in every way”. Interestingly, she had blind characters in her books, which may have indirectly shown her views about her deafness. She wrote over 40 fiction and non-fiction books.

 “Our senses are not ourselves…..The use one makes of what he has; that is the formula.” (A quote from a blind character from Keeping Fires Night and Day). Note: Much of this material is from Harry G. Lang and Bonnie Meath Lang's entry from their book, Deaf Persons in the Arts and Sciences.

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