March is Women’s History Month and to celebrate we’re highlighting some of the brilliant and fascinating women who have had a huge impact on society and daily life. Beginning in 1978 as a local festival week, the idea of celebrating women’s achievements grew and grew until it became a month-long national celebration. Now, as a society, we are beginning to understand more and more why certain groups have not always been so smooth on the road to equality, particularly in the workplace.
It’s a bit more common these days to see a female CEO or entrepreneur, but it wasn’t always like this. If we go back to the mid-20th century, the labor force was predominantly male. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1950 fewer than 30% of the labor force were women. Although 57.4% of women were employed in 2019, these women still faced wage inequality and fewer opportunities for leadership and advancement. According to a report by Leanin.org and McKinsey & Company, for every 100 men promoted to first-level leadership, only 86 women were promoted in 2020. A quick look at the Fortune 500 list is also very revealing and shows just how male-dominated leadership really is.
The women on this list have risen above inequality and created products and services that have truly changed the world.
1. Hedy Lamarr, 1914-2000
The mother of WiFi
Hedy Lemarr was known for her acting and striking beauty, but it wasn’t until years later that she received the recognition she deserved for her groundbreaking invention. Lemarr, along with another inventor named George Antheil, developed a radio wave frequency hopping system for guiding torpedoes, allowing torpedoes to find their target while avoiding interception. Although their patent expired decades ago, Lemarr and Antheil’s technology is now used in many of our essential technologies: Wi-Fi, GPS and more.
In 2014, Hedy Lemarr and George Antheil were inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
2. Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852
Donaldson Collections/Getty Images
The first computer algorithm
In the mid-19th century, when it was fairly unusual for a woman to study mathematics and science, Ada Lovelace made a huge impact in the field of computing. Lovelace has even been called the first female computer programmer, as she translated and added extensive annotations to a paper on an analysis engine (written by another author). In her notes, she included an algorithm that allowed the engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. This is considered to be the very first published algorithm.
3.Margaret A Wilcox
In 1893, Margaret Wilcox received a patent for a car heater that used heat from the engine to warm the interior of the car. It took some time for the system to be commercially successful, but Wilcox heating technology was finally implemented in vehicles in the late 1920s. Today’s car heaters are more advanced, but Wilcox’s ingenious idea certainly helped pave the way.
4.Mary Anderson, 1866-1953
The United States Patent and Trademark Office
Mary Anderson, another pioneer of automotive innovation, developed the modern windshield wiper. Their 1903 patent was for a device the driver could operate from inside the vehicle: a lever that caused a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade to swing across the windshield.
Before windshield wipers, motorists would have to manually clear rain off their windshield or find another way to deal with inclement weather while driving. Thanks to Anderson’s innovation, today’s roads are much safer in the rain and snow.
Anderson was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
5. Gertrude Belle Elion, 1918-1999
Derek Hudson/Getty Images
Anti-leukemia drug, other medical innovations
Gertrude Belle Elion, along with George H. Hitchings, received US Patent No. 2,884,667 for 2-amino-6-mercaptopurine: a compound that helps treat leukemia. According to the patent, “The compounds are active in this respect for the inhibition of lactic acid bacteria and because of their bacteriostatic effect. Compounds of this type are also valuable for their anti-leukemic activity and in treating other forms of neoplastic growth.” Elion was also part of the team that developed other drugs, including allopurinol to treat gout and aciclovir, used to relieve herpes infections.
Along with George Hitchings and Sir James Black, Elion received a Nobel Prize in 1988 and was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1991.
6. dr. Ann Tsukamoto, since 1952
Advances in stem cells
As an inventor and stem cell researcher, Dr. Tsukamoto holds several patents in the field of stem cell research. One of their most significant discoveries was finding a way to isolate stem cells.
As a microbiologist and immunologist with a PhD, Dr. Tsukamoto’s research was instrumental in cancer research and helped find treatments for a number of other conditions.
7. Letitia Geer, 1853-1935
The one-hand syringe
Letitia Geer patented the one-handed syringe in 1899, making it easier for medical professionals to draw blood and administer life-saving drugs. Geer’s invention, which was an evolution of Franic Rynd’s hollow needle and Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood’s hypodermic syringe, enabled safer and more efficient operations in the medical field. This design became the standard in medicine and changed the way we administered vaccines and medicines.
8.Marie Curie, 1867-1934
Radium, polodium and radiation in medicine
Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her research on “radiation phenomena”. In 1911, Curie received another Nobel Prize for isolating radium. Together with her husband Pierre Curie, she discovered that radium destroys diseased cells faster than healthy cells. This led them to research applications in medicine (e.g. tumors).
Marie Curie eventually began bringing portable X-ray machines to front-line doctors during World War I. In 1920 she suffered from health problems – probably from exposure to radioactive material – and died in 1934. However, her legacy lives on. as their contributions changed science and medicine forever.
9.Stephanie Kwolek, 1923-2014
Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist and researcher at DuPont, is credited with developing the ultra-strong fabric now used in bulletproof gear that would eventually become known as Kevlar.
She made the discovery in 1965 when she observed how “polyamide molecules string together to form liquid-crystalline polymer solutions of exceptional strength and stiffness,” according to the American Chemical Society. “This discovery paved the way for Kwolek’s invention of industrial fibers that protect and save thousands of lives today. Most notable among these is Kevlar, a heat-resistant material that is five times stronger than steel but lighter than fiberglass,” adds ACS.
You can now find Kevlar in a range of products including bulletproof vests, tires, military gear and a range of other commercial products.
Stephanie Kwolek was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1994 and has received a number of other awards.
10. Patricia Bath, 1942-2019
Laser Cataract Surgery
dr Bath holds five patents in all, but her most notable contribution is with the laser phaco probe. When Patricia Bath invented the laser phaco probe in 1986, it was a life-changing invention for people suffering from cataracts, allowing them to live reasonably normal lives and finally see clearly again.
Cataracts occur when the clear lenses in your eye become blurry and foggy, making it difficult to see. The condition can eventually even lead to blindness.
The laser phaco probe uses laser and irrigation to remove the diseased lens and replace that lens with an artificial lens. According to an MIT publication, the Laserphaco probe “uses a laser to vaporize cataracts by inserting just 1 millimeter into a patient’s eye. After using the laser phaco probe to remove a cataract, the patient’s lens can be removed and a replacement lens placed.”
Thanks to Bath, thousands of people around the world can see clearly.