Missing the women distorts history and role models

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Recently, an article posted by the Rochester Beacon  applauded Rochester’s top immigrant entrepreneurs of the past to coincide with the Biden administration’s restart of the International Entrepreneur Rule, which encourages immigrants to bring their business ideas to the U. S. Missing from the article’s list of Rochester’s top 10 immigrant entrepreneurs was the person who:

■ created modern retail franchising (the fastest-growing retail segment in the world);

■ invented the reclining shampoo chair still used today; and

■ pioneered social entrepreneurship by insisting that the first 100 of the 500-plus Harper Method franchises had to go to poor women to empower their lives.  

Those world-affecting innovations were accomplished by a poor Canadian immigrant woman by the name of Martha Matilda Harper.

Martha Matilda Harper
(Photos courtesy of Rochester Museum & Science Center)

Her absence from the “unscientific” list was a striking omission.  While any list runs the chance of leaving out others, I believe Harper’s absence also reflects a disturbing pattern in our country to bury women’s accomplishments. In fact, as Harper’s biographer, I could not find Harper’s story in the normal archives that historians would use. Instead, it took six years of crisscrossing the United States and Canada for me to uncover her story. Harper’s monumental franchise model was ignored by business history written by men. Yet, when I knocked on former Harperites’ doors, I discovered treasure troves of documents, photographs and articles that affirmed Harper’s world impact. (Fortunately, those documents are now part of the Harper archives at the Rochester Museum & Science Center.)

Why is it that when we think of the top, successful business leaders, Martha Matilda Harper does not pop into all Rochesterians’ minds? It’s because her story and the other historic accomplishments of women have been minimized. Every fourth grader in Monroe County should know about Harper, as well as Kate Gleason, the first woman with no bank ties to become president of a national bank. They are both Rochester Business Hall of Fame inductees, yet they are not widely recognized for their business pioneering roles. Dare we forget Martha Graham with her two years at the Eastman School of Music, who created her dance company and was the first to racially integrate her dance company.  Every bicyclist should know Georgena Terry, who designed the first bicycle specifically for women. How many of us know the unique role the Seneca women played in influencing the American suffrage movement? All these women, and over 200 other diverse women, were recently showcased in the temporary exhibit “The Changemakers: Rochester Women Who Changed the World.”

The issue of forgetting women has a long history in our country, starting with Abigail Adams in her letter to her husband John: “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. … Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Women were left out of the Constitution and state laws restricted their independence, and specifically property and parental rights. Yet, in spite of the obstacles, women succeeded. Margaret Knight, invented the paper bag; Josephine Cochrane invented the mechanical dishwasher; Madame CJ Walker became the first self-made Black millionaire; Melitta Benz created coffee filters; Grace Hopper invented the compiler, COBOL, the first universal programming language; and British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin had uniquely documented the DNA double helix, but her role was unacknowledged. Instead, without her permission her colleague Maurice Wilkins took her films and shared them with two men, James Watson and Francis Crick, who with Wilkins would win the 1962 Nobel Prize for “their” DNA double-helix discovery. (Franklin died in 1958. While it is true that since 1974 Nobel Prizes have not been awarded posthumously, there were two previous occasions before then it had. They were Dag Hammarskjöld, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, and Erik Axel Karlfeldt, who received Nobel Prize in Literature in 1931.) Nor was Franklin’s contribution recognized in any fashion by the awardees. It is a perfect example of how men took care of themselves, but left the woman unrecognized until relatively recently.

The list goes on—windshield wipers, Monopoly, WiFi, Bluetooth etc. All were inventions sparked by women who, interestingly, failed to reap public recognition for their innovative thinking. Mary Anderson did invent and get patented the first windshield wiper, but it was not commercially adopted until a male version evolved. The explanation that cars were not initially in big demand in 1903 is not persuasive since Anderson’s patent did not expire until 1920. The car industry was booming before then. In the case of Monopoly, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Magie created the Landlord Parlor game with the objective of illustrating the dangers of land grabbing and income inequality. She received a patent on it in 1903. The game was in the public domain for years. Ultimately, she received $500 for her game from Parker Brothers, but the game’s concept was, in her mind, distorted and taken. Charles Darrow took her concept and “sold” it to Parker, reaping commissions, which left Maggie furious and inadequately compensated. Hedy Lamarr, with collaborator George Antheil, conceived of frequency hopping, which was a precursor of WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. They offered their invention to the U.S. Navy in the 1940s with the hope that it would identify missiles and safely protect ship crossings during World War II. Unfortunately, Lamarr’s invention was disregarded until years later, with the consequence that ships may have needlessly sunk in the war.

By excluding these and the other monumental accomplishments of women, we reinforce the false image that men exclusively are the top inventors, creative thinkers, dynamic entrepreneurs and business leaders. It does not matter whether it is intentional; it dangerously segregates both ambition and role models, and limits the progress we all can learn from.

In the 1970s, there were two separate books entitled, “What a Little Girl Can Be?” and “What a Little Boy Can Be?”The girl’s book suggested she could be a nurse, or a teacher, but the last page suggested her final accomplishment was to be a mother.   The boy’s book presented them with adventuresome jobs such as astronaut and inventor, with the final page depicting their top achievement would be becoming the president of the United States. No mention was made of fatherhood as a top achievement.

That social conditioning continues today when we “forget” to acknowledge women’s actual accomplishments. Even though in the 1970s the courts upheld a government ruling that eliminated newspapers’ right to run gender-separated help wanted ads, clearly, the issue of limiting women’s recognition continues to plague us. If you agree, here are some steps you can take:

■ Support a more permanent display of Rochester women’s achievements by donating to the Rochester Museum & Science Center (contact Lisa Ireland, vice president of institutional advancement at [email protected]);

■ Learn about Martha Matilda Harper (www.marthamatildaharper.org); and 

■ Demand that your schools also teach about women’s accomplishments. 

Let’s remember together men AND women changed the world.

Jane Plitt is a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester, a former Rochester businesswoman, and a lifetime advocate for equality for all.

One thought on “Missing the women distorts history and role models

  1. So why haven’t I seen or heard Jane Plitt speak publicly in Rochester? It could be that she has on numerous occasions and I was not tuned to the right channels or publications. Loved the article, by the way. And how ’bout this: Let’s get Jane Plitt on stage at the Eastman to speak and visually offers Rochester women’s achievements while our famous orchestra supports the program. Or the same concept at George Eastman’s Dryden. If we need to change the concept of what women can do ( and do) then let’s push our great public/private institutions to help do this.

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