Four African American Women: Nineteenth Century Inventors

Add to RSS feed
Facebook
Twitter
Follow by Email
Google+
https://laurietobyedison.com/body-impolitic-blog/2017/02/four-african-american-women-nineteenth-century-inventors">
Pinterest

In 1888, in Chicago, Sarah Goode applied for and was granted a patent. Goode had just conceptualized what she called the “cabinet-bed

Laurie Says:

These four Black women inventors reimagined the technology of the home: By designating the realm of technology as ‘male,’ we overlook key inventions that took place in the domestic sphere.

Leila McNeill’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine discusses  African American women inventors in the domestic sphere in the latter part of the 19th century. Their accomplishments against overwhelming odds are rarely noted in part because inventions that improve domestic life are rarely recognized as important. And obviously, the endemic racism of the 19th century would never recognize that these women could have valuable ideas.

McNeill makes a point of saying that these are the only four African-American women inventors of this time period that we can identify, though there were certainly more. Following Goode, Mariam Benjamin invented the “gong-signal chair,” whose occupants could signal when service was needed. Benjamin thought about it for invalids, but even more for legislators in session. Sarah Boone is responsible for the iconic curve in the ironing board, making it more useful for sleeves and curved waists. And Ellen Elgin invented a widely successful clothes wringer, but made no money off it because she sold the patent rights.

Aside from her information about these individual women, McNeill examines the overall situation they faced:

Disenfranchised groups often participated in science and technology outside of institutions. For women, that place was the home. Yet although we utilize its many tools and amenities to make our lives easier and more comfortable, the home is not typically regarded as a hotbed of technological advancement. It lies outside our current understanding of technological change—and so, in turn, do women, like Goode, Benjamin, Boone, and Elgin, who sparked that change.

When I asked historian of technology Ruth Schwartz Cowan why domestic technology is not typically recognized as technology proper, she gave two main reasons. First, “[t]he definition of what technology is has shrunk so much in the last 20 years,” she says. Many of us conceptualize technology through a modern—and limited—framework of automation, computerization, and digitization. So when we look to the past, we highlight the inventions that appear to have led to where we are today—which forces us to overlook much of the domestic technology that has made our everyday living more efficient.

The second reason, Cowan says, is that “we usually associate technology with males, which is just false.” For over a century, the domestic sphere has been coded as female, the domain of women, while science, engineering, and the workplace at large has been seen as the realm of men. These associations persist even today, undermining the inventive work that women have done in the domestic sphere. Goode, Benjamin, Boone and Elgin were not associated with any university or institution. Yet they invented new technology based on what they knew through their lived experiences, making domestic labor easier and more efficient.

One can only guess how many other African American women inventors are lost to history because of restricted education possibilities and multiple forms of discrimination, we may never know who they are. This does not mean, however, that women of color were not there—learning, inventing, shaping the places in which we have lived. Discrimination kept the world from recognizing them during their lifetimes, and the narrow framework by which we define technology keeps them hidden from us now. 

There’s lots of fascinating information about these 4 women and their inventions in the article. Read the whole article!