For Women’s History Month we’re turning our attention to the incredible women who made a mark in the manufacturing industry. From a striker to inventor, these women overcame adversity to make advances that today we still feel.
Here are five influential women who affected manufacturing!
You may not know her name, but she has been widely called “the lady Edison.” After seeing someone get injured in a textile mill that she worked at in New Hampshire by a piece of faulty equipment she created a safety device for textile looms. She received her first patent in 1871 for a paper feeding machine that cut, folded, and glued brown paper bags that we still have today in every grocery store.
She ended up having 12 patents that even included an internal combustion engine in 1913. Other notable patents were a shoe sole cutting machine, rotary engine, and the reel. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
Rosie the Riveter
Possibly the best known image from the manufacturing industry, Rosie the Riveter has become a staple of the can-do American attitude, the power of women, and American manufacturing. During World War II women stepped into the jobs that men traditionally held since most went overseas to fight in the war.
Rosie the Riveter was created to represent the women who worked in American factories during the war. At first, the propaganda was targeted at women to encourage them to work in factories and that they are able to do the same work men do. Also, husbands were encouraged to allow their wives to work in the factories. However, slowly the campaign took on a different meaning. It was used as morale for the women who were working in the factories and took on the message of empowerment.
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, created specialized hair products for African-American hair and was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. In 1910, Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters was established in Indianapolis. She initially purchased a factory at 640 North West Street. As her business grew, she built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents, and added a laboratory to help with research.
Walker’s manufacturing business was the source of employment and empowerment for thousands of women. Many of her company’s employees, including those in key management and staff positions, were women. By 1917 the company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women as sales agents for her products. In addition to training in sales and grooming, Walker showed other African American women how to budget, build their business, and become financially independent. She is credited as organizing the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs to discuss business and commerce.
Ella May Wiggins
We already talked about Ella May Wiggins in our manufacturing history article, but it’s important to honor her for what she did for women. In the 1920s, strikes became more and more common. That’s why Ella May Wiggins, a single mother of five, started to write ballads to support the strikers. Among her most popular were “The Big Fat Boss,” “Two Little Strikers,” and “The Mill Mother’s Song.,” which criticizes mainly that the industry doesn’t give mothers enough time to care for their children or give them a decent wage.
She also took on the even larger idea of industrial capitalism and equality in unions, testified in Washington, D.C. about the labor practices in the south, and even lobbied to admit African-Americans into the National Transport Workers Union.
If you’ve ever worn a helmet, skied, or driven on a suspension bridge, then you’ve experienced the work of Stephanie Kwolek, who invented Kevlar. Kwolek was always interested in fibers from a young age. She loved fashion and even created clothes for her dolls. Kwolek got a job at the chemical company DuPont to save money for medical school. However, she instead stayed with the company to research how to turn polymers into synthetic fibers. Instead of polymers with molecules that were random, Kwolek worked with ones that formed rows. She ran the polymers (after some resistance from a factory) through a spinneret, which created a fiber that was as strong as steel.
That fiber was the first piece of kevlar. It went on to create countless things, but most famously the bulletproof vest. Although she went on to file 17 patents, kevlar ended up being her lasting legacy, which we should be thankful for today.
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