Archive for January 29th, 2011

Inventive women …

A question came across my desk this morning, and after yesterday’s post on how useless I am concerning the practical matter of fixing things I thought I’d give this a bit of a follow.

Q. What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers and laser printers have in common?

A. All were invented by women.


Sure, some things attributed to the ingenuity of women may seem a bit girly … chocolate chip cookies, disposable diapers, ironing boards and the rolling pin, for example … but many are pretty damned butch and far more useful than just making it easier to keep things tidy.

It was a woman, Tabitha Babbitt, who in 1812 invented the circular saw and Stephanie Kwolek who came up with Kevlar, the steel-like fiber used in radial tires, crash helmets, and bulletproof vests, in 1966.

Women also invented street-cleaners, lamps and telescopes for submarines, the rotary engine and the medical syringe; all handy items the world would be less without.

It comes as no surprise at all, when you think about it, that it took a woman to think of such things as mufflers for engines, as guys are happy enough with big noises that can be translated to mean “power”, or that electric hot water heaters came to mind, then fruition.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to track the results of womens’ genius back very far. In the US, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that women were allowed to own a patent, so when they did produce strokes of brilliance the credit had to be given to some guy, often a husband, to get the whatever recognized, protected and produced.

We’ll probably never know how many women inventors there were. That’s because in the early years of the United States, a woman could not get a patent in her own name. A patent is considered a kind of property, and until the late 1800s laws forbade women in most states from owning property or entering into legal agreements in their own names. Instead, a woman’s property would be in the name of her father or husband.

For example, many people believe that Sybilla Masters was the first American woman inventor. In 1712 she developed a new corn mill, but was denied a patent because she was a woman. Three years later the patent was filed successfully in her husband’s name.

This brings to mind the perspective that still exists in far too many minds and cultures that the female gender is somehow less than, a weak and wobbly stance supported by statements that go something like:

So … if women are do damned clever and equal, why was all the great stuff in the world produced by men?

Double-barreled, that, as Virginia Woolf so elegantly pointed out in her essay, A Room of One’s Own where she brilliantly illuminated dark corners where women were relegated rarely allowing personal and financial freedom to create much of anything other than a slew of children.

Woolf’s ‘invention’ of Shakespeare’s sister rather shot the whole notion of women-as-inferior in the foot for the reasonable:

In one section, Woolf invented a fictional character, Judith, “Shakespeare’s sister,” to illustrate that a woman with Shakespeare’s gifts would have been denied the same opportunities to develop them because of the doors that were closed to women. Like Woolf, who stayed at home while her brothers went off to school, Judith stays at home while William goes off to school. Judith is trapped in the home: “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school.” Woolf’s prose holds all the hopes of Judith Shakespeare against her brother’s hopes in the first sentence, then abruptly curtails Judith’s chances of fulfilling her promise with “but.” While William learns, Judith is chastised by her parents should she happen to pick up a book, as she is inevitably abandoning some household chore to which she could be attending. Judith is betrothed, and when she does not want to marry, she is beaten and then shamed into marriage by her father. While Shakespeare establishes himself, Judith is trapped by the confines of the expectations of women. Judith kills herself, and her genius goes unexpressed, while Shakespeare lives on and establishes his legacy. For Woolf, Judith Shakespeare is an exemplification of the danger and waste in denying women education and the means to determine the course of their lives.

“A Room of One’s Own” is, by the way, a book I buy for almost every young woman I know, as it’s required reading as far as I’m concerned. Aside from providing a great name for a Smith’s song and a band, the thoughts and words conveyed in go a long way toward giving girls some context and encouraging growth in quite a few generations already.

I should probably be sending as a companion edition some how-to-it manuals and tool kits …

So, maybe I can’t fix my door handle or re-electric the hoogygidgets that aren’t doing what they should, but this has no reflection on the capabilities of women in general … and me individually … to change more in the world than a light bulb.

Not that I’m not bloody grateful for the stuff in my house that now works better than it did a week ago, and I’m quite happy to give credit where credit is due.

(Thanks, David.)

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