Women whose ideas changed the world

Guest posts

Faculty: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Category: History, philosophy and social studies

15 May 2019

Celebrate brilliant ideas, inventions and achievements by women throughout history, from the warrior queens of antiquity, to the doyennes of the civil rights movement, and the tech pioneers of modern times.

Early inspiration – beer, fighting and poetry

Clay tablets dating back to the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia suggest that beer brewers were women. Brewing seems to have been a high-status profession. It was the only one that had divine protection from female beer goddesses, specifically: Siris, goddess of beer itself; Ninkasi, in charge of beer production; and Siduri, who looked after the enjoyment of the beer.

See also: Sappho – well-known and greatly admired poet of antiquity; Boudicca – ferocious warrior who led a rebellion against the Roman army in Britain.

‘Ain’t I A Woman’ – rights and freedom

Escaping from slavery to become a powerful advocate for human rights and the anti-slavery movement, Sojourner Truth made a speech in Ohio in 1851 entitled 'Ain’t I a Woman', highlighting the hypocrisy around the chivalry that was customarily extended only to white women.

See also: Rosa Parks – 1960s civil rights pioneer; Mary Wollstonecraft – early 18th-century defence of the rights of women; Harriet Taylor Mill – writer and campaigner for equal rights and liberty; Emmeline Pankhurst – suffragette leader; Simone de Beauvoir – feminist activist and philosopher who wrote about ideas concerning the equality of the sexes.

Cables, computers, phones and tech

As well as having a successful Hollywood film career, Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor. She developed (with the composer George Antheill) a radio guidance system that used spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping technology, developments that have since been incorporated into Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

See also: Grace Hopper – IBM pioneer programmer, code compiler and inventor of COBOL programming language; Ada Lovelace – computer algorithms and design, Shirley Jackson – fibre optic cable and phone technology including the touch-tone, caller ID and caller waiting features.

Science, space, and solar power

Stephanie Kwolek – invented the first of a family of synthetic fibres of astonishing strength and stiffness (poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, or Kevlar). Much stronger than nylon, and five times stronger than steel by weight, Kevlar is used in more than 200 applications, including tennis rackets, skis, aircraft, cables, car-tyres, fire-fighting boots and gloves, protective building materials, mobile phones and bullet-proof vests.

See also: Maria Telkes – solar power (and inventor of the first fully solar-powered house); Marie Curie – discovered the elements radium and polonium, and invented the first mobile X ray units for injured WW1 soldiers. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel prizes in science and remains the only woman to achieve this; Rosalind Franklin – worked on the discovery of DNA; Bette Nesmith Graham – liquid paper/correction fluid; Josephine Cochrane – the dishwasher; May Anderson – car windscreen wipers; Betty Wright Harris – explosives detection and environmental waste treatment; Valerie Thomas – NASA scientist.

Babies, bodies and bras

Caresse Crosby invented the modern bra when she was aged 19. She filed the patent and opened a factory to respond to popular demand for her design, which replaced the uncomfortable corset. A wealthy heiress and socialite, Caresse Crosby founded a publishing company (with her husband) called The Black Sun Press, publishing many of the more notorious modernist writers in Paris in the 1920s, including James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and D H Lawrence. She was unafraid of social scandal and embraced a very bohemian lifestyle. Later in life she bought a 180-room Italian castle, intending to develop it as an artists’ colony.

See also: Marie Stopes – planned pregnancy and contraception; Alice Augusta Ball – pioneering treatment for leprosy; Patricia Bath – pioneering technique to remove cataracts.

By Alison Ainley
Head, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

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