“Although women have invented since the beginning of time, it seems as if full recognition of their role has been painfully slow.”
When you think of inventors, who do you think of? Usually it is men like Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and Giovanni Marconi. Seeing that women make up nearly half of the world’s population, surely there must be many women inventors too, though it is seldom that their names come to mind.
This is what Anne L. Macdonald tries to remedy in her book.
Feminine Ingenuity covers three centuries of women inventors in the United States, from the 1700s to the 1990s, focusing on women who were awarded patents.
In the early 1700s, King George I recognized the critical role played by Sybilla Masters in inventing a way to clean and cure corn, thus helping to develop Pennsylvania’s economy. Nonetheless, the king issued the patent to her husband, Thomas Masters.
In the newly formed United States, nothing prevented women from being granted patents: the Patent Act of 1790 was silent on gender. To ensure that inventors were not dependent on political favours, the new State granted the authority to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” to the national Congress—rather than to state legislatures—and established a central Patent Office.
In 1809, Mary Kies was awarded a patent for inventing a straw-weaving process, the first patent granted to a woman in the US. The reason it took so long was because women were initially hesitant to apply for patents due to economic and social barriers. They had to fight discrimination and the prevalent belief that women lacked the brains to invent anything, and when they did invent something, it was usually an appliance for domestic use. Educating women was seen as detrimental to their health. E.H. Clarke, a physician, wrote in 1873 that menstruation enfeebled the brain, which was dependent on blood, thus making women incapable of sustained mental effort.
Women inventors also had to battle the many unscrupulous men who tried to take credit for their inventions.
The press did not always help to build women’s credibility. News stories about women inventors tended to emphasize their appearance and roles as wives and mothers, instead of focusing on their intellectual achievements.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women were becoming more vocal about their rights, and the suffragette movement and the movement for women’s rights were both gaining ground. This also helped women inventors. Charlotte Smith, a widow with two young sons, championed the rights of working women and women inventors. In 1888, she moved to Washington and tried to persuade the newly organized unions to accept women. The unions were not persuaded, so Smith founded the Women’s National Industrial League. She used her position as president of the League to push for legislation for working women, “[b]uttonholing legislators to pass laws to improve wages”. She also pushed to allow women to participate in “men’s only” occupations such as mining, construction, ironworking and bricklaying, and got the Patent Office to compile a list of women’s inventions.
These included an irrigation method invented in the late 1800s by Harriet Strong. When her husband shot himself, he left her with huge debts that threatened their ranch in California. She had to find a way of supporting their four children. But instead of turning to relatives, or taking in sewing or boarders, she decided to cultivate her land. Her walnut orchard became the largest in the world. Because the land was semi-arid and subject to torrential spring rains followed by very dry summers, Harriet Strong came up with a way to store water in a series of dams, one above the other.
In 1868, Margaret Knight invented a machine to fold and glue paper to create the “satchel-bottomed” bags that are still in use today. In 1892, Harriet Tracy received a patent for her “Tracy Gravity Safety Elevator” which had a safety mechanism that slowed an elevator’s descent in case of power failure and prevented it from crashing. In the early 1900s, Mary Anderson found a way to help streetcar drivers in New York to clear snow from their windscreens by operating a lever from their cabs, a precursor of today’s windscreen wipers.
In 1928, Marjorie Joyner, a Black woman, invented a permanent waving machine that “will wave the hair of both white and coloured people”, as she stated in her patent. It sounds very much like the machines used today: an “electrically powered device with cords, metal curling irons, and clamping devices suspended from a dome”.
These are just some of the extraordinary women mentioned in this book. There are many more.
This is a story of women who, when they saw problems, worked to find solutions. Macdonald, an inventor herself, has done a remarkable job. The book is meticulously researched, and illustrated with photographs as well as drawings from the patents. It is a great way to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of these women, not just through their inventions but through their struggles for equal rights.
Just a thought: the book makes me wonder how much longer the list of women inventors would be if the field was widened to include other countries.