Category Archives: history

Four African American Women: Nineteenth Century Inventors

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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!

Everfair: Nisi Shawl’s Remarkable New Novel

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Laurie says:

Nisi Shawl is a friend, and when she gave me an advance copy of her new book, I was delighted. I waited until I had real down time to read and review it, and I’m very glad I did.

Everfair, a beautifully written and imagined novel, is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

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The last novel to engross me this much was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker prize in 2009. The two books share an historical believability and a vivid and immersive reality of time and place. Wolf Hall is about an alien time (16th Century England), Everfair about an alien and alternative time (1889-1919). The core of the novel is set in Equatorial Africa, and includes stories that extend to other parts of the world. When I read it, I see the people and their environments with an almost photographic gaze. Shawl has the rare gift of creating a fully realized universe.

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Unlike most stories in western literature that involve both black and white characters, this is a genuine Black African story, with significant non-African characters, black, white, and asian. The novel is an alternative history to the tragic, murderous colonial story of the Belgian Congo and the death of millions; a story that continues to haunt and reverberate in horrific ways in the modern Congo. In today’s publishing world, Shawl’s tale is a neo-Victorian steampunk alternate history. Shawl is entirely successful in these genres, and in transcending them as well.

Everfair has steampunk battles, romance, international intrigue and politics, evil corporations, spies, family stories, complicated love, and ritual magic fused with steampunk tech.

Shawl has created a complex, tightly woven tapestry that blends history, events and relationships in ways that are difficult to unravel and do justice to in a book review. The novel is a complex human story that blends equatorial African history and religions, Fabian Socialism, African royalty and leadership, colonialism, the Black Diaspora, African ritual magic, Christianity and steampunk science.

Unlike most stories in western literature that involve black and white characters, this is a Black African story, with significant black, white, asian non-African characters.

In her unsentimental novel, Shawl does not indulge in either the pornography of pain and terror or the sentimental pornography of romance, though her story is filled with both. Her characters are all determined to do the right thing, but she is constantly aware that the right thing depends so much on who you are and how you see the world. She deals brilliantly with the complexities of class, and conscious and unconscious racism, and how they affect love and relationships.

My favorite part of the uses of steampunk tech are the remarkable clockwork hand and arm prosthetics used by many of her African characters. (The Belgians punished almost all infractions with amputation of a limb or a hand.) I wish they existed in the real world.

One of the goals of science fiction is to present the possibility of alternative values and ways of being. Shawl succeeds both in her alternate history and in her alternative story about how humans behave and can behave. Violence and conflict are integral to her story, but the power of human cooperation and hope are central to the outcome. In a nuanced and real way, Everfair is not only an excellent book, it is also a hopeful one.

Nisi Shawl says: “I like to think that with a nudge or two events might have played out much more happily for the inhabitants of Equatorial Africa. They might have enjoyed a prosperous future filled with all the technology that delights current steampunk fans in stories of western Europe and North America. And more. In Everfair they do.”

Everfair – Nisi Shawl, TOR Books, September 2016