With the start of each new year, many of us make resolutions whereby we vow to change our behavior and start new patterns. What a great time of year to celebrate some of the women throughout American history who have come up with new ideas to help improve our quality of life and standard of living. In this month’s column, we profile Emma Willard, Saint Katharine Drexel, Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, Frances Wisebart Jacobs, Juliette Gordon Low, Admiral Grace Murray Hopper and Stephanie Kwolek. All of these women have been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The founder of the first school for women’s higher education, Emma Willard was encouraged in her pursuit of education in the early 1800s, a very unusual situation for a woman. When she was 17, she was teaching at the school where she had been educated. Willard believed that women should be educated in subjects like mathematics and philosophy; these were the subjects that (at that time) only boys were taught. Emboldened with her idea, she presented the concept of an endowed school for girls to the New York legislature. With the governor supporting her idea, in 1821 she opened the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York for boarding and day students. Subjects taught included the aforementioned mathematics and philosophy as well as geography, history, and science. In 1895, the Troy Female Seminary was named the Emma Willard School in her honor. It is still strongly promoting women’s education today.
Saint Katharine Drexel was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a family where philanthropy was viewed as an obligation. A devout Catholic, she was very concerned about education for African Americans and Native Americans, as she mentioned at an audience with the Pope when she was in Rome, Italy. He challenged her to do something about that concern – and she did! She established an order of nuns whose focus was establishing schools. By the time of her death, under her leadership, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had founded more than 60 schools, as well as Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic college in the U.S. The first canonized saint to be born a U.S. citizen, Drexel was canonized in 2000.
The first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1873), Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, called “Ellencyclopedia” by her sister-in-law, had a series of new ideas. After testing 40,000 water samples from rivers in Massachusetts, Richards developed what are today called water quality tables. From the samples, she developed the “Richards’ Normal Chlorine Map” which tracked pollution in inland waters. She helped found the field of home economics and advocated for healthy living through science. Richards is one of the founders of the organization that is today known as the American Association for University Women (AAUW).
Called the “Mother of Charities,” Frances Wisebart Jacobs is best known today as the founder of United Way. Jacobs moved to Denver, Colorado after her 1863 marriage. She was concerned about the health and financial needs in the community and she founded organizations to address those needs. In 1872, she organized and served as president of the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, which today has involved into Jewish Family Services. She also founded and served as president of the Denver Ladies’ Relief Society in 1874. After helping to establish free kindergartens, in 1887, she helped found the Charity Organization Society, which today is known as United Way. In 1890, under her leadership, the cornerstone was laid for a hospital today known as National Jewish. Through that hospital’s work, tuberculosis is no longer an epidemic and National Jewish is the preeminent respiratory hospital in the nation, if not the world.
In 1911, Juliette Gordon Low was in her fifties and trying to figure out what to do with her life. After she met Sir Robert Baden Powell in England, she determined that her passion would be establishing the Girl Scouts. Her famous phone call, which brought together the first troop, occurred on March 12, 1912 in Savannah, Georgia. Low knew that women needed to be ready to vote and to enter the professions. Her organization would provide them with skills including self-resourcefulness, self-confidence, and self-reliance. Seventy percent of women leaders today were Girl Scouts in their youth and millions of girls participate in the largest leadership organization for girls in the country.
Admiral Grace Murray Hopper laid the foundation for the information age by developing the computer compiler. This is the software that allows humans to speak to computers in human languages instead of the zeros and ones that a computer understands. Admiral Hopper also developed the first English-based computer language, which was called Flow-matic. She was instrumental in the development of the business computer language COBOL. Admiral Hopper carried around pieces of wire – her nanoseconds – 11.86 inches long – the distance light travels in a billionth of a second to demonstrate the speed at which computers operate. In addition, she loved taking credit for finding the first computer bug (1945) – it was a moth – stuck in the relays of the computer on which she was working.
Today Kevlar® is used in more than 200 products including steel-belted radial tires, but Stephanie Kwolek couldn’t foresee all of those applications when she invented the compound in 1965, opening up a whole new field of polymer chemistry. Kevlar® is stronger than steel and much lighter. It is used in everything from tires to bulletproof vests to protective clothing for our service personnel. When she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Kwolek was escorted to the stage by a policeman whose bulletproof vest had saved his life. Kwolek said, “I don’t think there is anything like saving someone’s life to bring you satisfaction and happiness.”
Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives including coming up with new ideas. The women profiled above and many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.