The Most Influential Women in History
Updated September 12, 2022
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Female Inventors Who Did Not Get Credit
Did you ever get the sense that your history books are just one big boys club, filled with accomplishments by men, for men, and often to the exclusive benefit of men? Does it sometimes feel like the annals of human experience are simply a fraternity where guys are free to banter about sports and make crude noises without fear of offending the fairer sex?
And if it does feel that way, where are all the women? Did women really do nothing more than pop out babies and make pot roasts from the dawn of civilization until Cher overshadowed Sonny Bono in popularity and the whole world changed?
Of course not. It’s just that human history is littered (and I do mean littered) with greedy men who stole their very best ideas from brilliant women.
And in many cases, they didn’t just steal these ideas. They published them in journals, won prizes for them, earned millions from them, became noteworthy men of their time, and iconized in retrospect. Meanwhile, the women who’s ingenuity, insight, and intelligence they appropriated were more often than not footnoted, both in reality and through the lens of history.
But we wish to correct the record, both because education is all about that unending quest for truth and because a future in which women earn equal credit, respect, and financial compensation begins by acknowledging the sins of our past.
So with that, we spotlight women of stellar accomplishment who should be far more famous and celebrated than they are:
1. Rosalind Franklin: The Double Helix
One of the most important scientific revelations of the twentieth century has also long been a subject of disputed credit. Famously, Cambridge University scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick are credited with uncovering the double helix formation that would catapult forward our understanding of human DNA. In fact though, British chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin had been engaged in the study of DNA over at Kings’s College in London in 1951 when she produced a groundbreaking image. A colleague showed this image to Watson and Crick without permission. This was the turning point in their research, though when they published their earth-shattering findings in 1953, they gave only passing reference to Franklin’s contributions. In perpetuity, it is the Cambridge pair that is associated with the double helix. So says the Nobel Prize they received in 1958, four years after Franklin died of ovarian cancer.
2. Lise Meitner: Nuclear Fission
As long as we’re on the subject of scientific genius, there’s the story of Lise Meitner. It’s hard to say whether Meitner is better or worse off for having been slighted by a greedy man. Meitner was a student under the legendary physicist Max Plank, and the first German woman to hold a professorship at a German University. As the Nazis rose to power, the young Jewish scientist was forced to flee her home country. She continued to correspond with her research partner, Otto Hahn, from her new location in Scandinavia. In 1938, Hahn and Meitner joined forces to outline the concept of nuclear fission. This was the groundbreaking moment that would, in just five years, give rise to the awesome destructive capacity of the atomic bomb. Anybody looking to send angry letters to those responsible would find only Hahn’s name on the landmark paper revealing the discovery. Hahn chose to omit his partner’s name and was thus the sole recipient of the 1944 prize in chemistry from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
3. Hedy Lamarr: Radio Guidance System
Meitner wasn’t the only woman working to build military might during World War II. She is joined by Austrian-born, American actress Hedy Lamarr, who in addition to becoming a star of the Silver Screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood, collaborated with composer George Antheil to create a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. The Navy pretended it wasn’t interested in the technology, but of course it was. They stole Lamarr and Antheil’s idea, classified the patent and, by the 1960s, had begun to incorporate the technology into a host of new weapons systems. Perhaps even more importantly, Lamarr and Antheil’s work would be nothing less than the basis for the omnipresent Wi-Fi, CDMA, and Bluetooth wireless technologies.
4. Margaret Knight: Paper Bag Machine
Not all of history’s greatest female inventors worked in the military. Margaret Knight made her greatest contributions to production in an era where industry ruled. Often referred to as Lady Edison, Knight was a well-known inventor, mostly because she had the wherewithal to stand up for her rights. In 1868, Knight was working for the Columbia Paper Bag Company when she invented a machine that automatically folded and glued paper bags into the formation familiar to shoppers today. As Knight worked toward the completion of a metal prototype, a machinist named Charles Anan visited her plant. Unbeknownst to Knight, the random machinist filed for a patent for her invention. She only learned of his deception when she applied for her own patent. Fortunately for Knight, many witnesses were on hand as she worked through her invention. This proved more than compelling in a judgment that ultimately awarded the patent—and all future royalties—to Knight.
5. Elizabeth Magie: Monopoly
In the 1930s, Parker Brothers introduced the game Monopoly to American families. The game made a millionaire out of an unemployed heater salesman named Charles Darrow. He became the first board-game millionaire, and a symbol of the quirky unpredictability of the American Dream. The only problem: he didn’t invent the game. Some thirty years prior, a woman named Elizabeth Magie created “The Landlord’s Game.” It’s intent was progressive in nature, designed to illustrate the evil of business monopolies. The game was prophetic, coming well in advance of the Great Depression. Ironically, it was this catastrophic era that led to Darrow’s unemployment and his subsequent fascination with a game played by some of his Quaker friends in Atlantic City. Darrow would develop this exact variation of the Landlord’s Game into his pitch for Parker Brothers, including Atlantic City street names and places. Perversely, Darrow transformed Monopoly into a game that seems to celebrates dishonest business practices. On its way to retailing one of the most popular board games in history, Parker Brothers purchased Magie’s patent. The game’s original inventor would net a rough total of about $500 for her stroke of gaming genius.
6. Ada Lovelace: Computer Programming
Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, was one of the world’s first computer geniuses, though her role is often minimized by male historians. In 1843, the mathematically erudite Lovelace collaborated with inventor Charles Babbage at the University of London. Babbage was working on something called an Analytical Engine, an early prototype of the computer. Lovelace contributed detailed and extensive notes to Babbage’s work, particularly by articulating the way Babbage’s machine could be fed data to complete complicated math problems, or even compose complex music. These ideas may mark the earliest recorded proposition for what would eventually become computer programming and algorithms. Today, Lovelace’s contributions are obscured by debate, and most often by the dismissive and unmistakably misogynistic characterizations of her role.
7. Margaret Keane: “Big Eyes”
While not technically concerned with an invention, the following one of the most egregious examples of chauvinistic greed on record. Margaret Keane is an American artist best known for her trademark “Big Eye” paintings, which were popular in the 1960s. The only problem: her fans in the ’60s were confident the paintings were done by her husband, Walter. Walter began selling his wife paintings as his own without permission in the 1950s. Eventually, Margaret discovered what Walter was up to. When she confronted him, Walter used threat, intimidation, and emotional abuse to force her silence. As the works gained in popularity, Margaret continued to toil in obscurity, while Walter enjoyed celebrity. In 1965, the two were divorced. In 1970, Margaret revealed the truth to the public. Walter denied her allegations, which ultimately led to a surreal 1986 courtroom scene in which the two were forced into a head to head paint-off. Walter claimed his sore shoulder prevented him from painting. Naturally, Margaret produced a perfect facsimile of her earlier works, earning the rightful claim to her works in perpetuity.
8. Trotula of Salerno: Women’s Health Findings
Trotula of Salerno is one of the earliest victims of historiographical misogyny. An Italian doctor in the eleventh century who wrote specifically about women’s health, she has been recognized as “the world’s first gynecologist.” Her writings have remained instrumental building blocks in our knowledge about human health, and women’s health specifically. And yet, her authorship had been cast into doubt over the ensuing centuries, entirely because historians and medical professionals were skeptical that a woman could have produced works of such accuracy or importance. That’s a messed up assumption, but so ingrained was this belief that many even doubted that Trotula of Salerno existed. This convenient doubt ultimately allowed numerous male physicians over subsequent years to cut and paste their own names over her work.
9. Candace Pert: Neuroscience Findings
While still a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Candace Pert discovered the receptor that allows opiates to lock into the brain. This game-changing neuroscience revelation was so important that it led to an award—for her professor. Dr. Solomon Snyder was recognized for his student’s achievement. When Pert wrote a letter of protest to the award committee underscoring her determinant contributions, Dr. Snyder mansplained in response, “That’s how the game is played.”
Of course, men like Dr. Snyder have been playing this game for centuries. But we have an obligation to call them on it. It starts with history. But it continues in modern academia and today’s workplace. Let’s ensure all the brilliant women in our midst get their due credit. I think we’ve celebrated more than enough greedy men.
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