It’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Established by a United Nation’s organization, UN Women, it strives to set aside a whole 24 hours for the world to celebrate women’s achievements in fields where they’re often challenged and ignored. More importantly today is an opportunity to mull over the fact that, while women have finally moved to the forefront of the sciences, there continues to be a real need to support girls who strive to take their place in scientific communities.
Because the day occurs in Black History Month, it’s also a day to contemplate the additional barriers Black women faced. On top of being female, they’ve longed had to deal with the racial legacy of Jim Crow laws. I’m thinking in particular of 19th century and early 20th century women who had to summon all their determination and strength to just voice their desires. Consider the bravery and gumption of Mary Eliza Mahoney who gained acceptance to the most rigorous training programs in the country and in 1879 was among four out of 42 students to graduate and become the first Black (male or female) to earn a nursing degree. She also co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) and championed women’s rights.
Then there’s chemist Alice Ball, who in 1919, at 23, discovered a way to create a water-soluble solution from chaulmoogra oil, the main treatment for leprosy symptoms. And Rebecca Crumpler, the first Black woman to earn an M.D. degree (1864). In 1883 she was among the first women to write a medical book, A Book of Medical Discourses.
But today I’d like to single out several Black women who saw a problem and applied technology to fix it.
Their work is not as sung as other STEM advances because it represents the very unappreciated field of household and personal care improvements, many born from their own experiences. These women endured ridicule for having the nerve to come up with an idea, racism in applying for patents, and closed doors in the marketplace. But they persevered and their brilliance is astonishing.
Judy Reed. In 1884, she was the first Black woman to receive a patent for her invention of a better dough kneader that more evenly mixed dough and kept it from spoiling by drying out. Forbidden by law to know how to read and write, she signed her name on the patent with an X.
Sarah Elisabeth Goode. As the proprietor of a Chicago furniture store, Goode learned of the difficulty of living in the city’s new impossibly small tenement apartments. In 1885 she designed a cabinet with storage compartments that folded out into a bed, thus laying the design groundwork for the murphy bed.
Alice H. Parker. Inspired by trying to stay warm with only a fireplace through cold New Jersey winters, Parker designed a natural gas-fueled heating furnace in 1919 that led to the development of thermostats and forced air furnaces.
Lyda Newman. The difficulties of tending to her hair with a brush made for white women led Newman to design a hairbrush specifically for Black women. It was 1898 and she was 13 years old. The brush’s firm synthetic bristles lasted longer and made it cheaper and more widely available. She grew up to be an ardent fighter for women’s rights and one of the organizers of an African American branch of the Woman Suffrage Party. (Note: There’s a very confusing back and forth among writers and historians about whether Newman was Madam C.J. Walker (pictured in banner), herself an inventor of Black specific beauty products. More research falls on the side of them being different women with Walker the original inventor of the hairbrush and Newman substantially improving it. This is about as close to historical accuracy as I could figure out.)
Sarah Boone. Women used a straight board suspended between two chairs to iron clothes that was sufficient for men’s clothes but useless for women’s dresses and slim sleeves. Boone decided there had to be a better way and in 1892 patented an ironing board with long curved ends supported by hinged legs that collapsed for easy storage.
Ellen Elgin. Before Elgin, washing clothes meant bending for hours over a washboard then twisting each piece hard enough to get as much water out as possible to dry. Laundry day became easier and took less time after she invented the clothes wringer in 1888. She sold the rights to her work soon after receiving her patent because, as she said, “You know, I am black, and if it was known that a negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer; I was afraid to be known because of my color in having it introduced to the market, that is the only reason.”
Banner photo credit: Inventor and America’s first self-made woman millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker in the driver’s seat, New York Public Library.