Book Reviews

From publisher’s Weekly Online, May 30, 2002

What do these inventions have in common: the cordless phone, the first computer language, fabric softener sheets, the Mars rover, AZT and protease inhibitors, Jell-O, the hang glider, tract housing, Barbie, industrial diamonds, windshield wipers, the space suit, TV dinners, laser cataract surgery, vacuum canning and disposable diapers? Give up? They were all conceived and invented by women!
For too long and too often, women inventors have been ignored or had their discoveries attributed to men. Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek aim to set the record straight with their book, Patently Female: From AZT to TV Dinner, Stories of Women Inventors and Their Breakthrough Ideas (Wiley, $24.95).

In the Pittsburgh Tribune, Andrea Grande-Capone writes: “Devoting a few sentences, paragraphs or pages to each woman inventor, the authors show how the products of female ingenuity are often those we can’t imagine doing without…Each woman’s story is inspiring in and of itself, but Vare and Ptacek have a knack for choosing anecdotes that bring the inventor’s trials and triumphs to life for the reader.”

Consider the story of Betty Nesmith Graham. A single mother in Texas, she worked as a secretary to support her young son Michael. When the electric typewriter was introduced, she was afraid she would lose her job because of poor typing skills. So she mixed some white tempera paint in a bottle and took it and a small brush with her to the office. The result, of course, was Liquid Paper. (You may not know the rest of the story: her son Michael grew up to be a teen heart-throb as one of The Monkees, one of whose hits was “Last Train to Clarksville”…).
In 1957, the same year Laura Scudder sold Scudder Foods for $6 million (which Borden bought 30 years later for $100 million), RCA patent director C.D. Tuska wrote: “Most of our inventors are of the male sex. Why is the percentage of women so low? I’m sure I do not know, except the Good Lord intended them to be mothers. They produce the inventors and help rear them, and that should be sufficient.” Throw that man in a pool of Jell-O!

The book’s lighthearted, informal style makes it an easy and enjoyable read. But more important, it brings attention to the fact women’s contributions to our lives have been numerous and monumental.


As posted at Publisher’s Weekly Review Of “Patently Female”.

In their sequel to Mothers of Invention, Vare and Ptacek explore female innovators a role history has often failed to record, let alone reward. The first U.S. patent was awarded to a woman, Hannah Slater, in 1793, for perfecting cotton sewing thread. But the authors quickly demonstrate that women’s inventions aren’t limited to the home. Both the brassiere and the jockstrap were invented by women. Can’t do without that cordless phone? Thank Terri Pall. Interested in voting reforms? Susan Huhn invented the most reliable and mobile voting machine.

The brilliance of physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking is transmitted through computer technology invented by Martine Kempf, Leslie Dolman and Carrie Heeter. And Hawking studies the universe in good company: Jocelyn Bell discovered the pulsar, and women invented the Mars rover and the space suit. Dr. Gertrude Elion’s immunosuppressants make lifesaving transplants possible, including bone marrow transplants, which were Dr. Suzanne Ilstaad’s revolutionary treatment for end-stage cancers and anemias.

The major AIDS-fighting drugs, AZT and protease inhibitors, were also invented by women. Of course, not all women’s inventions are so dramatic witness the TV dinner, Jell-O, tract housing and Barbie. Vare and Ptacek detail how women’s ideas like the cotton gin, automatic sewing machine and even the Brooklyn Bridge have often been attributed to men and how history books and museums like the Smithsonian and the National Inventors Hall of Fame have ignored women’s achievements. The book’s lighthearted, colloquial style makes it ideal for classrooms, but the lack of specific years for many of the inventions is irksome. Photos.

© 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.