Karen Christie and Nancy Rourke


Deaf poet, biographer, newspaper reporter

Portrait of Laura Redden as Howard Glydon done in the bright primary color style of Nancy Rourke.
Laura Redden by Nancy Rourke2

One of the most prolific and well-known Deaf Womxn3writers published works under the pen name of Howard Glyndon. Laura Catherine Redden (Searing)(1839-1923) was a graduate of the Missouri School for the Deaf and published in a wide variety of newspapers, such as The Silent Worker and The New York Times. In 1861, she wrote about the injustices of unequal pay for men and Womxn in the St. Louis public schools. As a Civil War correspondent for the St. Louis Republican, she travelled to Washington, DC and interviewed both President Lincoln and General Grant via pen and pencil. One year later, she published a book, Notable Men in the House of Representatives followed by a volume of poetry, Idylls of Battle and Poems of the Rebellion. While much of her work addressed patriotism and the Civil War experience, she wrote poetry honoring figures from Deaf history such as Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and celebrating the work of Deaf sculptor, Douglas Tilden.

By the time it became known that Howard Glyndon was a Deaf Womxn, it did not deter some who went on to publish her works. However, Deaf poet and scholar John Lee Clark (2005) states: "When critics did learn of the fact (that she was Deaf), …many of them lowered their earlier opinion of Redden's poetry" (p. 165). Redden used this experience in creating her short story, "The Realm of Singing." The story presents an allegory in which a bird's singing is criticized only after it was noticed that the bird had a 'defective' wing. She is regulated to the lower branches ('down low') with the high branches symbolizing status and recognition in the world of poetry. These voices say,

What have we here? A crippled bird that tries to sing? Such a thing
was never heard of before. It is impossible for her to sing correctly under
such circumstances and we were certainly mistaken in thinking that there
was anything in such songs. Our ears have deceived us.
They then withdrew adding, "We will forgive you poor thing, for trying
to sing. And all the circumstances being considered, you do quite nicely.
But then you know this isn't singing. The birds who do the real singing
are not crippled as you are. Don't you know that birds in your unfortunate
situation never succeed in singing? …and you cannot hope to be an exception
to the general rule… (Jones & Vallier, 2003, p. 208-9)

The story is successful in revealing the patronizing social attitudes toward disability and being Deaf. In addition, the trope as a bird representing a Deaf person appeared in many Deaf literary works hereafter.

Many of Redden's poems explored love and intimate relationships. Concerning her poem "Corinna Confesses," the editors of a book on Redden's poetry note "The first verse of this poem contains the only literal description of the female orgasm in nineteenth-century women's poetry" (Jones & Vallier, 2003, p. 187). The poem contains fifteen stanzas, we reproduce the first, third and final stanzas here:

To think that my eyes once could draw your eyes down for a moment,
   From their lifting and straining up toward the opulent heights—
To think that my face was the face you liked best once to look on
When fairer ones softened to pleading 'neath shimmering lights!

Too dark was the shadow that fell from your face bending over me—
    Too hot was the pant of your breath on the spring of my cheek!
I but dimly divined, yet I shrank from the warring of passions
    So strong that they circled and shook me while leaving you weak

And yet, if I went to you now in the stress of your toiling—
    If we stood but one moment alone while I looked in your eyes—
What a melting of ice there would be! What a quickening of currents!
What thrills of despairing delight betwixt claspings and cries!

In addition to expressing sexual excitement and pleasure, Redden also wrote about the social pressures upon young Womxn in the nineteenth century. The epic poem "Sweet Bells Jangled" is over 275 stanzas long and structured into over 70 sections. It describes a girl maturing into womanhood experiencing conflicts of love and work. Early on, the verses challenge the marriage expectations placed on young Womxn, pressures to keep up appearances, and the denial of her right to intellectual pursuits.

'Wilt thou be an ancient maiden?'
    Say the matrons unto me;
'Wilt thou have no chubby children,
    Clinging fondly to thy knee?'
'Ruddy matrons! happy mothers!
What are children unto me?'

'Will thou live alone forever?'
    Say the matrons unto me.
Light I answer: 'Who is single
Should be ever blithe and free.
Sober matrons! thoughtful mothers!
Liberty is sweet to me!'

And later…in a stanza describing her nineteenth year:

I pore above my books
So late of nights; and Mother does not like
To have me different from other girls,
Except that I should show the freshest face,
The prettiest dresses, and the readiest smile.
And ah! How shocked she would be, if she knew
That I write poems sometimes,—nay not poems,
But wretched verses…
My rhymes—my very own— (Jones & Vallier, 2003, p. 82-3)

The poem contains hints of autobiography, as Redden did not marry until later in life, and then, only briefly. She was one of few Womxn poets of her time who made writing a career, taking on audism, sexism and the right of an independent Womxn to celebrate sexual experience.


1. This writing appears in a slightly different form in Christie, K. & Wilkins, D.M. (in press). Listen to my hands: Deaf womxn's liberation through the poetry of American Sign Language and written English. In A. Cruz (Ed.). Culture, Deafness & Music: Disability Studies and a Path to Social Justice. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
2.Rourkeism, an art style developed by De'VIA Surdist Nancy Rourke, is characterized by its use of bold primary colours and Deaf themes expressing resistance, affirmation, and liberation in which "shades of primary colors: red, yellow, blue has its own meanings. Black and white do not have its meanings, except they are used as a reinforcement to give contrast in art among other primary colours to make them pop out. They are also used when the same colour appears in two areas, they help keep them separated from each other."
3. Although this writing focuses on a Deaf White Cis Womxn, Womxn with an x is used here to reflect the many identities, struggles and movements of womankind – the x also represents intersectionality.


Karen Christie (name sign, KC) grew up in California and taught Deaf Cultural Studies and English at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Along with Patti Durr, she produced and edited the multimedia website The HeART of Deaf Culture: Literary and Artistic Expressions of Deafhood. Her latest work is ABC Portraits of Deaf Ancestors with Nancy Rourke . Her poetry has appeared in Deaf Lit Extravaganza and White Space Anthology among other publications.

Nancy Rourke (name sign, N3) is an internationally-known Deaf artist and activist. She is also a full-time professional artist, she frequently does artist-in-residencies at Deaf schools and promotes De'VIA and Surdism through art workshops in community settings. A book about her work, Nancy Rourke: Deaf Artist Series (2014) is available from Empyreal Press. Originally from San Diego, California, she now makes her home in Loveland, Colorado.