For Women’s History Month, we thought we’d write about a few women who should be household names, but aren’t well known.
Of course, we soon discovered there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of women who fit this description. So we turned to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, NY, for help.
Here are ten women — some historical, some still breaking down barriers — who deserve our thanks.
Stephanie L. Kwolek (born 1923)
When you think of skis, bulletproof vests, or airplanes, think of Stephanie Kwolek. Kwolek is the inventor of Kevlar, a synthetic fiber five times stronger than steel and widely used in sports equipment and protective gear. Like so many great inventions, Kevlar was created partly by accident. While working as a research scientist at DuPont, Kwolek was testing chemicals that formed liquid crystals in solution. She came up with a slightly opalescent liquid, and convinced one of her colleagues to put it in a centrifuge and see what happened. The rest is history. Ironically, Kwolek never meant to become a career scientist — her intention was to work at DuPont only long enough to earn enough money to go to medical school. In 1995, Kwolek became the fourth woman inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Loretta C. Ford (born 1920)
Ford transformed the nursing profession by creating the first nursing designation to formally recognize that patients are more than the sum of their symptoms. In the 1960s, Ford realized that a shortage of primary care doctors meant that women and children, in particular, weren’t receiving the care they needed. In response, she created the nurse practitioner program, which trains nurses to take into account a patient’s social, psychological, environmental, and economic situation when designing a plan for care.
Today, there are approximately 140,000 practicing nurse practitioners in the United States. About 9,000 nurse practitioners are trained every year at 325 colleges and universities. Editors’ note: Ford holds many honorary degrees and prestigious awards, yet does not have her own Wikipedia page! Could someone more qualified than us please fix this? Otherwise we will be forced to do it! Thank you.
Linda G. Alvarado (born 1951)
When Linda Alvarado started her construction company in 1975, there were no programs, in banks or government, to help women-owned or minority-owned businesses succeed. Banks would not lend to her. So her parents mortgaged their home and lent her $2,500 to start what would become one of the most successful construction firms in the country. Alvarado remains the sole owner of Alvarado Construction, whose success has paved the way for other women-owned companies in the industry. When she bought the Colorado Rockies baseball team in 1992, she became both the first woman and the first Latino to own a major league sports franchise.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997)
Chien Shiung Wu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, upset the world of physics by disproving the law of conservation of parity, which had held that the laws of nature are always symmetrical with regard to right and left. She was the first Chinese-American to be elected into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences; the first female president of the American Physical Society, elected in 1975; the first person selected to receive the Wolf Prize in Physics in its inaugural year of 1978, and the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her. Wu may also have been the only person of Chinese descent to work on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb during World War II.
Dorothy Harrison Eustis (1886-1946)
Eustis' contribution: guide dogs for the blind. An American philanthropist and dog lover living in Switzerland in 1923, Eustis was breeding and training German shepherds as police dogs when she heard about a school in Germany that was teaching dogs to serve as guides for veterans blinded in World War I. Their work inspired her to write a piece for The Saturday Evening Post in 1927, called The Seeing Eye, which came to the attention of a blind American named Morris Frank. He wrote to Eustis and asked for a guide dog; she agreed, he came to Switzerland and trained with a dog named Buddy. The ensuing publicity in the U.S. raised awareness about how dogs could help the blind. Together, Frank and Eustis set up the first guide dog school in the U.S. — The Seeing Eye. She's also credited with helping to change attitudes toward disabled individuals.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917)
Maria Francis Cabrini, known as the patron saint of immigrants, was the first American to be named a saint by the Catholic Church. Born in Italy, she decided early in her life that she wanted to lead a religious life. After learning that none of the missionary orders admitted women, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which quickly attracted women who were also eager to serve. In 1889, the Pope asked her to go to New York City to help poor and sick immigrants, many of whom were Italian. She went on to set up 67 convents, schools, orphanages and hospitals in the U.S., Europe and South America.
Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911)
Ellen Swallow Richards paved the way for women to study science in the U.S. The first woman professional chemist in the U.S., she was also the first woman to study — and later teach — at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (They balked at giving a woman a doctorate degree, so she got it from Vassar). At MIT, she applied scientific principles to domestic life, pioneering the study of "home economics." She also thought about air, water and food in new ways, prompting the creation of national public health standards. Her work led to sanitary engineering and nutrition becoming their own disciplines. And if that's not enough to impress you, she also introduced the word "ecology" into English and pushed for the relationship between people and nature to be studied as an environmental science.
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Before Avon and Mary Kay, there was Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove). The daughter of slaves, she was the first African American woman to become a millionaire. She invented a hair care system and beauty products specifically for black woman in 1905 and came up with a novel way to sell them — creating a marketing and sales network that empowered other African Americans to become economically independent. A philanthropist and advocate for black men and women, she also built a lavish house in upstate New York called Villa Lewaro. It was designed by Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York state.
Susette La Flesche (1854-1903)
La Flesche, also known as "Bright Eyes," fought for the rights of Native Americans. The daughter of the last Chief of the Omaha Indians, she was the first Native American lecturer, author, interpreter and artist. She is credited with bringing national attention to the plight of American Indians, who were forced to move onto reservations by the U.S. government. In 1879, she served as a translator during a landmark civil rights trial — Standing Bear v. Crook — which led to Indians being granted some rights as citizens under the U.S. Constitution. — KW and CG
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Photo of Stephanie Kwolek in her lab courtesy of Dupont
Photo of Susette La Flesche courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society