The top women innovators of all time

In honor of International Women’s day (next one is Sunday, March 8, 2015) here’s a list of my favorite female innovators of all time.

Historical note: what’s most disturbing in the history of all innovation is how unfair history has been to women. It’s hard to identify a singular cause but there’s evidence the shift to monotheism changed what had been a more balanced view of power, when there was still respect for male and female powers, into masculine centric cultures (See The Alphabet vs. The Goddess). Even by the time of the Western Enlightenment, women were still given few opportunities to study, work in pioneering fields or to receive acclaim for their work. It’d be wrong to blame monotheism alone, but its negative influence on opportunities for women is clear.

The ancient Greeks, who were progressive on many fronts, had few female philosophers and scholars, although there were some. Among the better known is  Hypatia, but few works from the time survived and it’s hard to know how much influence she had.

Top women innovators of all time:

  • Marie Curie - First person in history to win two Nobel Prizes (only other person to do it was Linus Pauling). She also defined the theory of radioactivity, a discovery she died for. Her life story of fleeing Poland for France, helping her family, and charitable works is awe inspiring. She discovered two elements and developed the first treatments using radioactive isotopes.
  • Georgia Okeefe The movements of her creative work over a prolific lifetime are comparable to Picasso’s in many ways. She was the first woman to have a solo show at The MOMA in NYC (1946).
  • Jane Austen - Helped define the style and structure of the modern novel and is one of the most popular writers in history.
  • Susan B. Anthony – A relentless advocate for equal rights for women, she wrote, lectured and organized groups in the pursuit of voting and other rights. She was arrested, in an act of civil disobedience, for voting in the 1872 U.S. presidential election. She died 14 years before the 19th U.S. Amendment was passed, granting voting rights to women.
  • Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966, second woman head of state in modern history, the first was  Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (1960). Indira had an enormous impact on the future of India, defining many policies and systems of government still in use today.
  • Florence Nightingale – More than a nurse, she pioneered the use of statistics and visualizations (Nightingale Rose Diagram) and was a prolific writer and teacher. Medicine has been a productive field for women, with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (contributed to discovery of HIV), Gertrude B. Elion (pioneer in cancer medication, Nobel Prize in Medicine 1988) and Clara Barton (founded the Red Cross) and Elizabeth Blackwell – First woman to receive a medical degree (1849) and become a doctor in the U.S.
  • Grace Hopper invented not only the progamming language COBOL but the very idea of a compiler (1952). And if that weren’t enough she was an Admiral in the Navy.
  • Ada Lovelace - The first computer programmer in history. She is possibly an example of historic gender bias, as some of the work Babbage is credited with possibly should be attributed to her, although the history from the time leaves many questions about who did what, as the work they were doing was of interest to few at the time.

As my historical note suggested, I’m not surprised all of these women lived in the last few centuries.

Top lists of anything are subjective. If you emphasize politics, arts or engineering you end up with different people. My goal was to balance the impact and challenge of these people’s works independent of how famous they became, regardless of domain.

In the category of modern marvels:

  • Kevlar, used in bullet proof vests was invented by Stephanie Kwolek(1965). The car windshield wiper by Mary Anderson (1903). Patsy Sherman co-invented Scotchgard in 1956 (despite her high school aptitude test telling her she should be a housewife).
  • Many homemaking and clothing inventions were by women, likely because these were the first domains they were allowed access to. The wire bra was invented by Caresse Crosby (1914), Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher in 1886 and Bette Graham invented Liquid Paper in 1956. Chemistry, the rising science in the 1950s, created new opportunities that were open to women for the first time.

Notable Mentions:

I did study Cleopatra, Mother Teresa, Amelia Earhart and many other famous historic women. The challenge is being famous and making contributions are different things. The history on Cleopatra isn’t great and Hollywood factors more in our perceptions than the sketchy facts we have. Mother Teresa didn’t invent or pioneer much of anything as far as I could tell, and while her charity is impressive it didn’t warrant a place on this list. Earhart’s short life is inspiring of course, but I’d consider her more a pioneer (first to do something) than an innovator (progressing something in a way that has lasting impact).

Hedy Lammar wins a prize for the most hollywood sounding story that happens to be true, as not only was she a  famous actress, but she patented a covert communications system used by the U.S. military and is used in how Bluetooth and Wi-Fi work.

Queen Elizabeth I had an astonishing autonomy, one of the first female heads of state, but her reign didn’t achieve much of lasting impact. Of course she may have inspired many women of later generations, but it’s hard to measure that on a list like this. Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton also surface in political history, but their good works and visibility, while notable, were hard to stretch into innovations. Alison Bechdel actual came to mind for her Bechdel test which will blow your mind if you’ve never heard of it.

If you have a favorite female innovator I should study, leave a comment.

17 Responses to “The top women innovators of all time”

  1. sdimeglio

    Perhaps Martha Graham for dance. Her approach was certainly unlike anything before her as far as I know.

    Reply
  2. Lizabeth Barclay

    Ellen Swallow Richards

    Reply
  3. TG Mark

    “It’d be wrong to blame monotheism alone, but its negative influence on opportunities for women is clear.”

    Well said Scott. Could not agree more.

    Reply
  4. Tanja

    Did you check “Ingenious Women. From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines”? It’s a book with numerous inventions made by women. I have another book at home but fail to recall the title right now.

    Reply
  5. Irina G

    Two women innovators of the seventeen century:
    Artemisia Gentileschi -most accomplished Italian Painter after Caravaggio
    Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz – first feminist, shcolar and poet of the Americas

    Reply
  6. Anil Kuppa

    It’s not Indira Ghandi but Indira Gandhi. Also, Indira Gandhi was one of the dictators rather than an innovator and she subverted the election process for her own benefits.

    Reply
  7. Julie Austin

    Would it be self promotion if I named myself? :)
    Patent and trade dress holder for the wrist water bottle.

    Reply
  8. Nate Burgos

    Thanks, Scott! Also:

    Fashion Designer Coco Chanel

    Digital Designer Muriel Cooper, Co-Founder of MIT Media Lab where she founded the Visible Language Workshop

    Architectural Designer Maya Lin

    Industrial Designer Eva Zeisel

    This footage of Grace Hopper, explaining “Nanoseconds”, is a must view » http://bit.ly/Zl2TMG

    Reply

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