Feminine ingenuity: women and invention in America
"What useful things have American women conceived of and developed that have contributed to the progress of technology, science, and engineering?" Raise that question, even among educated feminists of the 1990s, and you are likely to be met with a fumbling for names. Raise it among the skeptics of women's creative talents and they will reply "Where, after all, is the historical record?" "In the Patent Office", replies historian Anne L. Macdonald, author of Feminine Ingenuity. In her engaging and meticulously researched history of American women inventors, she presents not only the official evidence of women's remarkable achievements contained in two centuries' worth of Patent Office archives, but also a wealth of material she has discovered in unofficial contemporary accounts of women's inventions: magazines, journals, lectures, major fairs and expositions, and the manuscripts of several important inventors. Feminine Ingenuity celebrates the achievements of women inventors from Mary Kies, whose 1809 patent for a method of weaving straw was the first issued to a woman, to Gertrude Elion, the Nobel Prize Laureate whose anticancer drugs led to her 1991 election as the first woman in the Inventors Hall of Fame. It is not, however, a litany of accomplishments of previously unsung individual women, for Macdonald doesn't ignore the downside of women's struggle. Society, with its relentless assignment of females to the domestic sphere, discouraged mechanically talented girls by barring them from the kind of technical education it lavished upon their brothers. It took the Civil War and the consequent absence of their men to force these alumnae of required cooking and sewing classes to learn notonly to operate farm machinery but to invent major improvements to it. By presenting women inventors against such a historical backdrop, Macdonald keys their experiences to the larger themes of women's changing economic, political, and social position. This makes Feminine Ingenuity a thought-provoking account of a significant and previously neglected aspect of the history of women.
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