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Let’s Revive the Memory of Great Female Inventors

Digital Marketing Instructor Lorraine Marchand

Katz School Biotechnology Professor Lorraine Marchand, who contributed this blog post as part of a series on Women in STEM, is author of The Innovation Mindset: Eight Essential Steps to Transform Any Industry, which will be published by Columbia University Press in August.

Edison, Tesla, Jobs, Musk. Four iconic names in innovation. Four inventors and visionaries. Four guys.

Yes, it’s a stereotype—the brilliant inventor, working out of a university lab or a tech-cool, Silicon Valley office, creating products or ideas that will reshape our lives.

Few would envision that great innovator as wearing a skirt.

There is, of course, some truth to this: the vast majority of patent holders and new development specialists are male, but that that doesn’t mean they’re all men and, of course, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t women who have made profound and significant changes in our world through innovative new product or concepts.

As an innovator myself with three decades in new product development, working with corporations such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, LabCorp, J&J, HP and IBM, I am well aware of the perception that the best new ideas spring from the minds of men.

In my professional life, in my classes at the Katz School and Columbia University Business School and in my upcoming book The Innovation Mindset, I try to disabuse people—especially young people—of this notion. Not only are women fully capable of marshaling the imagination and the vision (not to mention patience and persistence) that it takes to develop a breakthrough new idea, they are doing it, and they have done it.

Like much else about women’s history, we just don’t know their names as well as the men.

I was already well aware of some of the great female innovators in history, when I started writing my book. But the more I researched it, the more extraordinary women inventors I became aware of. So impressed was I with some of their achievements—and so sad that few of them are known at all today—I decided with my co-writer to include a special tribute at the end of the book titled A Women’s Innovator’s Hall of Fame.

They range from the one name most would recognize as a female innovator (Marie Curie, who discovered radioactivity) to the one name most would recognize without being aware that she was also a great inventor (Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr whose work on a secret communication system during World War II presaged Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi).

Some of the other women in our hall of fame include Josephine Cochrane (1839–1913) who invented the automatic dishwasher; Madame C.J. Walker (1867–1919) who invented hair care products for black women and is recorded as America’s first    female self-made millionaire; Mary Anderson (1886–1953) who invented the windshield wiper blade; Gertrude Belle Elion (1918–1999) who developed drugs for herpes, organ  transplants and leukemia; and Bette Nesmith Graham (1924–1980) who invented Liquid Paper—used to correct or “white out” mistakes on the typewritten page.

Ironically, that's what has happened to Bette (whose late musician son Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees, is far better known than she) and many of the other women I found: They've essentially been whited out from history.

That's a real shame. We need to start admitting women into the male-dominated fraternity of inventors. We can start by reviving the memory of the great women innovators of the past. In doing so, I think we can help inspire today’s women who, I believe, are going to shape our future in dramatic ways.

See how the Katz M.S. in Biotechnology Management and Entrepreneurship is making the world smarter, safer and healthier: