When most people hear the terms “scientist” and “inventor,” they picture a wild-haired, lab-coated man like Doc from the Back to the Future movies. But the reality is that a wide variety of people have contributed to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
Here are the stories of five badass women whose hard work and creativity changed the landscape of the modern world.
1. Margaret Knight
Having your design stolen and patented by someone else before you could even finish your model for submission might be too much for some people to handle, but not for Margaret Knight. She knew something about hard work and hardship. Her first design – a cover for a flywheel to prevent industrial accidents – came about after she saw someone get killed in the factory where she worked at the tender age of twelve. So when Charles Annan patented her machine in 1871, she sued him and won. Margaret went on to found the Eastern Paper Bag Company with a business partner, manufacturing the world’s first square-bottomed paper bags. By the end of her prolific career, she had 87 patents under her belt. No wonder she is still one of the best-known female inventors in the world!
2. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
If Margaret Knight was a genius with machines, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is a master of physics. Born in 1946, Dr. Jackson was the first black woman to earn a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That alone would be pretty impressive, but she didn’t stop there. Her work laid the foundations for such groundbreaking technology as fax machines, touch tone phones, solar cells and even fiber optic cables. So the next time you use your internet connection, make sure to thank Shirley Jackson! She is also the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York (where she has helped raise over a billion dollars for philanthropic organizations), has served on 14 boards of directors, has received many honorary doctorate degrees, and was the recipient of the CIBA-GEIGY Exceptional Black Scientist Award, the Thomas Alva Edison Science Award, and the Richtmyer Memorial Award. Dr. Jackson is truly an accomplished woman of science.
3. Dr. Temple Grandin
Another woman who knew something about overcoming obstacles was Dr. Temple Grandin. Born with autism, Grandin wasn’t able to speak until the age of four. Despite this, she went on to earn a doctorate in animal science and become an author and motivational speaker. Her work in the area of ethical treatment for animals led to the invention of humane animal restraint systems, and she has designed livestock handling facilities around the world. She is also a prominent expert on autism, having published numerous books in the field. Now that is taking life’s lemons and making lemonade!
4. Marion Donovan
Marion Donovan came from an inventive family. As a child, she was exposed to the manufacturing plant of her father and uncle, men who invented improvements to industrial machinery. So when, as a new mother, she became frustrated by the messiness of changing her baby’s cloth diapers, she decided to do something about it. She used her sewing machine to sew a layer of waterproof material to the outside of a cloth diaper to contain the mess. She tried to interest manufacturers in her invention, without success. Undeterred, Donovan debuted her invention – dubbed the Boater – in Saks Avenue in 1949. It was a huge success, and the rest is history. After obtaining a patent on her invention, Donovan sold the rights to Keko Corporation. By the end of her life, Donovan had obtained 20 patents and a degree in Architecture from Yale University.
5. Bessie Blount
Bessie Blount’s training wasn’t in engineering, but in physical therapy. She didn’t let that get in the way of inventiveness! She worked with WWII veterans, mostly amputees. Seeing their struggles with everyday life, she decided to try to improve their lot. In 1951, Blount patented a device that would allow them to feed themselves. It worked by sending a mouthful of food down a tube whenever the tube was bitten. Sadly, she was unable to make money from her invention, and so gave the rights to the French government, who put the device (and a smaller, more portable version she also invented) to use. Many injured war veterans and other amputees were helped by her idea.
So the next time someone says something about how girls can’t do math, or women shouldn’t go into the sciences, point at these five badass ladies. Women can not only get into the STEM fields, but they can kick ass and take names in them!
If you’re interested in reading about or contributing to a program that helps girls get into STEM fields (and why wouldn’t you be, after reading about these badass women??), check out Girls in Technology at http://www.womenintechnology.org/git. It is an organization run by Women in Technology and actively works to build community between women in tech industries. Girls in Technology mission statement is to work to inspire girls in grades 6 to 12 toward successful futures in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) industries.
Nik is an aspiring fantasy novelist and recovering roller derby aficionado. When she isn’t writing articles, she’s wasting brain cells remembering minutiae on such topics as Avatar: The Last Airbender, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and assorted terrible vampire novels from the nineties.