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Defying Stereotypes:

Women Invent in Tradionally Male Fields

As many of our previous women Inventors of the Week have proven, men do not have a monopoly on innovation even in disciplines in which women have been underrepresented, such as science, medicine, and high technology.

One crusader for women's recognition from the turn of the century was Harriet Russell Strong of Oakland (1844-1929). An entrepreneur and engineer, specializing in irrigation and water conservation, she won several patents for dams and water storage systems. During World War I, Strong went to Washington to promote her bold plan to counter a severe food shortage by temporarily diverting the Colorado River and using the Grand Canyon as a reservoir. When a Congressional Committee rejected her plan, Strong was convinced it was simply from chauvinism. Undaunted, she spent the rest of her life fighting for water conservation and women's rights.

Chien-Shiung Wu (b. 1912) worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. She created at least five inventions in experimental atomic physics, including devices for radiation-detection and radioactive-decay wavelength separation. Most notably, Wu designed the landmark experiments that allowed her colleagues Dao Li and Chen Ning Yang to win the Nobel Prize (1957) for proving that the Parity Principle does not hold universally. Wu herself was hailed by Newsweek in 1963 as the "Queen of Physics."

In medicine, one outstanding inventor continuing the tradition of Hazen and Brown and Gertrude Elion is Ariel Hollinshead of George Washington University (b. 1929). In the 1970s, she developed a unique type of vaccine for all four major types of lung cancer, and invented a low-frequency sound technique for isolating antigens from cell membranes. In 1980, Hollinshead's work was called "among the most advanced and exciting in the world."

The world of computing has included many significant women inventors, the best-known being Grace Murray Hopper. Margaret K. Butler (b. 1924) was also a pioneer in computer hardware. Working at Argonne National Laboratories in the 1950s, she helped develop one of the world's first digital computers for science. Sandra Kurtzig of Atherton, California (b. 1947) has invented monitoring and information-sharing software for businesses. The company she founded with $2000 in 1972, ASK Computer, now does over $100 million in annual sales. Kurtzig herself has been called one of the "heroes of Silicon Valley."

The achievements of these women have brought us closer to a world in which restrictions based on perceived "male" and "female" fields will not exist.

See the Invention Dimension archives for Virginia Apgar, Katherine Blodgett, Martha Coston, Edith Flanigen, Stephanie Kwolek, Hedy Lamarr, and other women inventors in science and technology.

[March 1997]

Illustrations ©1997 H. Mitchell

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