When we think about history-making women, we generally think about the ladies who broke gender and racial barriers to reach their goals. But as we celebrate the well-known female figures during this Women's History Month, let's not forget the women inventors whose products we use every day. If not for them, our lives would be a lot more inconvenienced — and in some ways, more dangerous.
For the last 32 years, the month of March has been declared Women's History Month, and we acknowledge it with rallies, special events, lessons at school, and woman-power posts and memes. We teach our children about the big-name heroines: Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony. More recently, the women's bio spectrum has expanded to include names such as Malala Yousafzai, Maya Lin, Ida Lovelace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the African American mathematicians who became the "hidden figures" of the NASA space program. But there are also countless women through the centuries who have quietly contributed to our history, health and well-being. They may never get a place in the textbooks or halls of fame, but they still deserve our acknowledgement.
Next time you enjoy your morning cuppa, change your baby, drive in the rain, or log onto your laptop, take a moment to give a nod to the women who made it all possible.
1. Disposable Diapers
This generation of moms can't even imagine a time when cloth diapers — which had to be pinned shut and laundered clean — were a mother's only option. Marion Donovan changed all that back in 1951, explained Mental Floss, when she developed a plastic diaper cover out of a shower curtain. The waterproof design was such a hit that she went on to create a totally disposable diaper not long after. Grateful mothers have been protecting their babies' bottoms with single-use nappies for the last 58 years.
2. Windshield Wipers
Back in 1903, driving was uncomfortable or downright treacherous in bad weather, because cars were designed without any way to wipe rain or snow off their front windows. Noticing this, Mary Anderson designed a blade that fastened to the windshield and could be operated by the driver, as BBC News explained. The idea took a long time to catch on with car manufacturers, but gradually it became standard. Today, we take Anderson's invention for granted every time we go for a drive in the rain.
3. Coffee Filters
Talk about "grounds" for celebration: In 1908, a German housewife named Melitta Benz had had enough of serving coffee with grainy residue in the cup, according to the Melitta website. Taking blotting paper from her oldest son's notebook, Benz used it to line a coffee pot into which she'd poked holes. The result: Smooth java with no grounds. More than a century later, Melitta coffee filters are still a staple in millions of homes.
4. Computer Software
Grace Murray Hopper was a remarkable woman in many ways. As a Yale bio explained, she had an aptitude for numbers that led her to a PhD in mathematics in 1934 at Yale — one of only four women in the doctoral program. She went on to join the U.S. Naval Reserve, eventually becoming a rear admiral; even more significantly, she helped develop the first-ever computer programs, including UNIVAC and COBOL. The National Women's History Museum noted that Hopper was so ahead of her time, she predicted that one day computers would be desk-sized, and that they would be available for the general public to use.
As MIT explained, Illinois socialite Josephine Cochrane and her husband threw a lot of parties, but she was exasperated by the way her servants chipped the china when they washed it in the sink. After her husband died and left her deeply in debt, she took an idea she'd been toying with and developed it into a patented design. She went on to found the company we now know as KitchenAid.
6. Rolling Pin
The concept of using a dowel or a similar device to crush grain or flatten dough is centuries old, but a woman named Catharine Deiner patented a rolling pin design in March of 1891 that included attachable cutters to slice dough into one of a number of designs.
7. Baby Carrier
While working as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Togo, nurse Ann Moore was impressed by the bonding she saw between mothers and their children as they carried their babies on their backs with cloth slings. "Nobody carried their babies in America," she told the University of Cincinnati magazine. "They always put them in those plastic infant seats. There is no human warmth in that." A new mother herself, Moore sewed her own baby carrier and immediately got raves from other moms. She patented the Snugli in 1969, and American mothers have been baby-wearing ever since.
8. Circular Saw
As the Yorksaw company explains, a Shaker woman named Tabitha Babbitt is credited with developing the round-bladed saw in 1810, after seeing how lumbermen struggled to cut logs with the back-and-forth motion of a pit saw. She designed the saw to be powered on a spinning wheel, and the idea was used to create a larger-scale saw that revolutionized the logging industry.
9. Fire Escape
The first patented exterior ladder for exiting a burning building was designed by Anna Connelly in 1887, according to Fire Fighter. Unfortunately, lax building codes allowed owners to use cheap materials and shoddy workmanship for the earliest fire escapes, but over the years, safety laws and stricter codes have led to safer products that would make Connelly proud today.
Screen actress Hedy Lamarr wasn't just a pretty face. She was also a talented inventor who developed the concept of jumping radio frequencies as a military strategy to keep the enemy from jamming the signal on torpedoes, according to Marketplace. She got a patent for her technology and donated it to the military during World War II, but it wasn't until a decade later that her system became commonly used. It also paved the way for the Wi-Fi and GPS systems we take for granted today.
11. Chocolate Chip Cookies
The world managed (somehow) to survive without this bit of baked perfection until 1930, when Massachusetts restaurant owner Ruth Wakefield was looking to tweak her pecan icebox cookie recipe. As per the The New York Times, she reportedly planned to transform the cookie by adding melted unsweetened chocolate, but the only kind she had in the kitchen was a Nestle's semi-sweet bar. Cutting it up with an icepick, Wakefield added it to her other ingredients, and history was made. As the original recipe declared, "Every one will be surprised and delighted to find that the chocolate does not melt."
12. Central Heating
Next time you turn on your thermostat on a cold winter night, give a nod to Alice Parker. The Howard University graduate developed a patented design for a gas-fueled central heating system, per Heat Treat Today. This was a game-changer back in 1919, when most people were heating their homes with wood or coal. Although her specific design was never put into production, it was the basis for the duct heating system we use today.
Police and military personnel owe their lives to Stephanie Kwolek, a research chemist for DuPont. As Women Inventors explained, she discovered "a liquid crystalline polymer solution" that was light yet remarkably sturdy. It was used in the making of Kevlar, the material in bulletproof vests, along with other products such as camping gear and suspension bridges.
14. Synthetic Bristle Hairbrush
Not much is known about the early life of African American hairdresser Lyda Newman according to Biography, but what she achieved as an adult has improved our lives (and our hair) today. In 1898, Newman patented a new type of hairbrush that used synthetic bristles set into even rows, with a compartment for collecting loose hair and debris. She was also a passionate suffragist who galvanized her New York voting district to fight for voting rights for women of color.
If not for Lizzie Magie, millions of us would never have been able to move our cars and thimbles and collect $200 for passing "Go." As Inventors Digest reported, Magie developed "The Landlord's Game" as a way to illustrate "the evils of economic inequality." When it started gaining small-scale popularity, it caught the attention of a salesman named Charles Darrow, who modified it and got a patent for it. Magie sold her patent for $500 to Parker Bros. on the promise that they would sell her version as well as Darrow's. Alas, the Darrow game became a phenomenon, and Magie's dream of promoting a single-tax economic system faded into history.
16. Square-Bottomed Paper Bags
Millions of school lunches, not to mention Trader Joe's shoppers, owe a debt of gratitude to Margaret Knight. As Smithsonian explained, Knight showed a gift for invention early on. At just 13, working in a cotton mill to support her family, she developed a safer shuttle system for the weaving machines. Then, moving on to a paper bag factory, she invented a machine that not only folded the bags efficiently, but also created a square bottom that allowed the bags to stand up when opened. She got a patent for the machine in 1871, which was quite an achievement at a time when women represented only a tiny percentage of patent-holders.
17. Retractable Dog Leash
If your pup likes the freedom of walking with a leash that extends to let it roam a bit, you have Mary A. Delaney to thank. Delaney patented the first retractable dog lead back in 1908, to the delight of 20th-century pooches everywhere, according to Mental Floss.
Although no one knows the exact identity of the first person to combine hops, malt, water, and yeast, we do have women to thank for perfecting the art of beer-drinking. As The Telegraph reported, author and alcohol expert Jane Peyton studied the origins of beer and found that women were considered the experts on brewing as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. In the Viking era, women were the only ones in Norse society permitted to make brew, and in Shakespeare's day, women frequently brewed ale in their homes as a source of income. The balance shifted toward men after the Industrial Revolution led to more streamlined brewing methods, but let us never forget that we were the ones who made all those craft IPAs and pints of Guinness possible in the first place.