The Discourse of Educational Professionalization and Laura Bragg

  • Douglas McKnight


In Louise Anderson Allen’s self-described critical feminist biography, Laura Bragg is portrayed as a second generation New Woman who attained “political, social, and economic equality for herself on her own terms” (Allen, 1997, abstract) through sheer perseverance, personality and the righteous belief in a Progressive mission -- to make museums publicly accessible spheres and outreach centers of cultural history. This charge was born of the Progressive impulse to educate, enrich, reform and, hopefully, inspire the unaware and the impoverished to become educated about their condition.

Allen performs an important service in this biography. She interprets significant events and themes of Bragg’s life from the lens of early feminist attempts to gain access to the public realm and have a voice in institutional settings. Allen renders Bragg’s museum productions as a kind of prototype to the reinventing of museums as public educational domains where cultural history of various places and times could be taught and learned. We now take such social and educational functions of museums for granted.

However, Allen illustrates how difficult a task it was in the early 1900s for Bragg and others to contribute to the creation of an institution with such democratic and social reform intent. Bragg operated within heavy constraints, specifically as a northern educated woman in the South who positioned herself as a social Progressive at a time when Charleston, South Carolina, was not particularly interested in post-bellum national life. And, of course, Bragg’s situation was doubly complicated: she was nearly deaf, and she carried on intimate associations with other women at a time when such relations were beginning to be scrutinized and defined by the medical community as abnormal and, as such, hazardous to the public health.