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International Women’s Day: 11 essential items that were invented by women

International Women’s Day (IWD) has arrived, but acknowledging the many accomplishments and innovations created by women should occur all year long.

This year’s International Women’s Day aims to “inspire inclusion” with its campaign theme for 2024. Around the world, people are encouraged to “forge a more inclusive world for women” by engaging in diverse hiring practices, supporting female entrepreneurship, helping women and girls make informed decisions about their health, and providing women and girls with access to quality education and training.

Not only does International Women’s Day inspire us to take actionable steps toward the future of female empowerment, but it also allows us the opportunity to reflect on the strides made by women of the past. In fact, there are many essential items and inventions we still use to this day that were created or pioneered by women.

According to the United States Library of Congress, we may never know the full extent of female innovation because “many women inventors didn’t use their own names on patent applications”. They often filed patents using their husband’s name, or just initials to hide their identity. In some instances, women’s inventions were never patented “or were sold to a corporation who then patented the idea”.

In honour of International Women’s Day - and Women’s History Month all throughout March - here’s a look at some of the most important things you might not have known were invented by women.

Birth control pill

As women’s reproductive health faces looming uncertainty and attacks from conservative lawmakers in the US, perhaps now more than ever it’s important to amplify the history of the oral contraceptive. Margaret Sanger spearheaded years of education, research, and funding that went into developing oral contraceptives - what’s commonly known as the birth control pill.

In 1923, Sanger opened an entirely female-staffed birth control clinic, which would later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As a lifelong advocate for women’s reproductive health, she recruited medical expert Gregory Pincus to help her develop a birth control pill. Their collaborative effort, along with funding from International Harvester heiress Katharine McCormick, led to the first oral contraceptive pill, Enovid, getting approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960.

Caller ID

Dr Shirley Ann Jackson is an award-winning theoretical physicist whose work led to several advancements in telecommunications, including caller ID, call waiting, fiber optic cables, and the portable fax machine. She was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while Time Magazine has called her “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science”.

Dishwasher

Josephine Cochran was the inventor of the first commercially successful dishwashing machine. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, she was inspired to design a washing device in the late 19th century after finding dishes chipped from hand washing. The original invention featured a set of wire compartments placed inside a wheel, which was laid flat inside a copper boiler. A motor then turned the wheel, pumping hot soapy water from the bottom of the boiler.

Refrigerator

Throughout much of the early 20th century, people relied on ice boxes to keep their perishable foods fresh. That is until Florence Parpart patented the modern electric fridge in 1914. While variations of the refrigerator had been developed before Parpart, some designs used unsafe liquid chemicals that would leak, making it dangerous for homes. Parpart - along with her husband Hiram D Layman - improved the refrigerator using water and electricity, a recent innovation of the time, to circulate water throughout the appliance to keep it cold.

Medical syringe

When it comes to advancements in medicine, a nurse named Letitia Mumford Geer changed healthcare forever with the one-handed syringe. In 1896, she filed a patent for the glass syringe, which could be operated with one hand. The design featured a glass barrel with measurements, a rubber plunger that could draw fluids into the syringe, a hook-shaped handle that was easy to grip, and an attachable and disposable needle. Since then, her innovation has served as the basis for modern medical syringes we see today.

Windshield wiper

It’s a little known fact that the windshield wiper was invented by a young woman named Mary Anderson. In the early 1900s, Anderson conceived her idea of a windshield wiper blade that could be operated from inside a vehicle after witnessing drivers often struggle to see during rainy weather. The design consisted of a level placed inside a car, which controlled a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade that swung across the windshield. Anderson’s patent was approved in 1903, and her invention later became standard vehicle equipment.

Circular saw

Tabitha Babbitt is credited with inventing the first circular saw for use in a saw mill, between 1810 and 1813. Her circular saw improved upon previous designs of the time by attaching a circular blade to a spinning wheel.

Natural gas furnace

Much of the central home heating systems we use today can be attributed to Alice H Parker, a Black woman who invented a “heating furnace” powered by natural gas. The Howard University graduate filed the patent for her heating system invention in 1918. Her design drew cool air into the furnace, then conveyed it through a heat exchanger that delivered warm air through ducts to individual rooms of a house.

Hairbrush

Thanks to Lyda Newman, a Black women’s rights activist, we’re able to brush our hair every day. Her invention of the hairbrush was inspired by her own experience working as a hairdresser in New York City. At the time, most hairbrush bristles were made using animal hair. Instead, she used synthetic fibers, which were stronger and did not break as easily when used on her clients’ hair. The bristles were lined in evenly spaced rows, which could be detached and reattached for easy cleaning.

She received a patent for her invention in 1898, paving the way for one well-known Black female inventor who revolutionised the hair care industry: Madam CJ Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America.

Chocolate chip cookie

While the chocolate chip cookie isn’t necessarily an essential invention, Ruth Graves Wakefield’s recipe forever changed the way we think about dessert. As legend goes, the American chef and cookbook author initially planned on baking Butter Drop Do cookies for guests at her Toll House Inn, the Massachusetts restaurant and inn she opened with her husband Kenneth in 1930.

The only chocolate she had in her kitchen was a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar, so she chopped the bar into bits. To her surprise, the chocolate didn’t melt during baking.

Bras

Perhaps the most pivotal invention in women’s fashion was the bra, patented by American publisher Caresse Crosby. Born Mary Phelps Jacob, she developed the modern backless brassiere when she was just 19 years old, after sewing together two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. She secured a patent for the backless brassiere in 1914 and founded the Fashion Form Brassiere Company, where she manufactured the bra. Crosby would go on to sell the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500, an acquisition that is believed to have earned the company millions.