Mothers Of Invention Women Inventors Have Long List Of Accomplishments, Little Recognition

If you made drip coffee for breakfast, poured pasteurized milk on your cereal, put your lunch in a brown paper bag or used your windshield wipers on the way to work, you were using discoveries or inventions made by women.

Women have invented everything from the disposable diaper and chocolate chip cookie to things seldom associated with women - ship signal flares, drugs that stop the rejection of transplanted organs, a method of separating out gold, and the synthetic Kevlar - five times stronger than steel - that makes bulletproof vests so tough.

Those were some of the discoveries of Ethlie Ann Vare, a Beverly Hills rock journalist. She became curious about women inventors when her magazine did a story on a reunion of the Monkees band.

That curiosity eventually led to cowriting a book on women inventors, “Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb, Forgotten Women and Their Unforgettable Ideas.”

Vare spoke Thursday night to a small but appreciative crowd at Montana State University as part of the recognition of Women’s History Month. Vare offered a $10 bill to anyone would could name something they had that was invented by women, but had no takers.

The U.S. Patent Office spokeswoman said Friday it estimates 8 percent of its 5.3 million patents were issued to women. That would mean more than 400,000 inventions by women since 1836.

Is it some “cosmic male conspiracy” that we’ve never heard of women inventors, Vare asked. No, she concluded, it’s probably just conventional wisdom at work.

The Monkees, a 1960’s bubblegum rock band, got her thinking about women inventors because band member Michael Nesmith wasn’t going to attend the band’s reunion. He didn’t need the money; his mother had died and left him a fortune.

Bette Nesmith Graham had invented Liquid Paper, the white stuff in little bottles that secretaries use to cover typing errors. Graham was a typist for a Texas bank when she got the idea from watching sign painters cover their mistakes with white paint.

She adapted her son’s box of paints, but got fired from her typing job for cheating. Other typists loved the idea, however, and after she got help from a male teacher to make it faster-drying, she built the white stuff into a multimillion-dollar business.

Vare credited the original prototype of the cotton gin to the Georgia plantation owner, Catherine Littlefield Greene, who hired Eli Whitney as a tutor for her five children. Whitney and her husband got the credit.

In 1870, Margaret Knight invented the machine that makes brown paper bags. She had to fight in court to prove she was the inventor, after a man claimed he originated the idea and argued a woman couldn’t have created such a machine.

A woman invented a mechanical windshield wiper after she noticed a trolley driver had to keep reaching outside to clear off windows. She felt sorry for him, Vare said.

Also in Vare’s book is the story of Alice Evans, a U.S. government health researcher, who in 1917 discovered that Bang’s disease and similar miserable afflictions were caused by a single organism infecting cows - brucellosis.

Evans proposed milk be pasteurized, a process then used mainly for beer and wine. The dairy industry scoffed at her ideas. But in the 1920s other scientists confirmed her findings, and by the 1930s the industry adopted pasteurization.

“Women inventors have become very rich, very happy and very successful,” Vare said. “They have not become very well known.”

She challenged today’s women to invent something the world needs, like “a non-polluting car” or “a calorie-free Dove bar.”