Badass Women: Laura Bridgman

A full 50 years before Helen Keller was transformed from an unruly deaf-blind child who understood nothing, to a young woman who could read and write, there was Laura Bridgman.

After a bout of scarlet fever at the age of 2, Bridgman was left deaf and blind and largely alone and without companionship, with the scarce exception, until she was sent away to school at the Perkins Institute for the Blind at 8 years old. There, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe developed a system of raised letters and numbers through the use of tactile sign in order to teach Bridgman to both read and write. At the formal end of her education, she had extensive learning in subjects such as history, literature, mathematics, and philosophy.

Bridgman had a number of teachers while at the Institute, and she formed very strong bonds with each of them, including Howe, who she loved as a father. However, one by one, they all eventually left the Institute to get married, and even though Howe never left the Institute, his new wife held distaste for the students there (shame on her), and Bridgman suffered from anorexia and depression.

She had a brief moment of international fame when Charles Dickens visited the Institute and wrote about her in his American Notes, and received thousands of visitors, who loved to watch her read and point out locations on maps.

The fallout from these life events led to her ill health becoming more severe, and she filled the void with religion, eventually embracing the Baptist faith. She lived out her life at the Institute, becoming neither famous nor worldly, reading and sewing until her death in 1889.

One has to wonder how and why history chooses who to remember. It seems that Bridgman’s quiet life, paired with her health struggles, led to Helen Keller being the more popular choice for history to revere, even though Bridgman was actually the first to face their shared struggles and overcome them. Her experience led doctors to try to educate other people with similar impairments, such as Keller, and opened the way for them to learn. Bridgman was also friends with Anne Sullivan, Keller’s eventual teacher, and it was a doll that Bridgman had sewn herself that Sullivan gave to Keller upon their meeting. And yet, her story and memory have gone on quietly unremembered, while every child in the U.S. learns about Keller’s life story in grade school.

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