While the majority of positions in modern research laboratories, software companies, and engineering firms are filled by men, women have made many notable contributions to advances in science, technology, engineering, and math, dating back more than a century. Without the work of women who excelled in fields ranging from botany to computer science, many of today’s careers and technologies would not exist.
Ana Roqué de Duprey
Born in 1853 in Puerto Rico, Ana Roqué de Duprey started a school when she was just 13. She wrote a geography textbook to use as a teaching tool, which the Puerto Rican Department of Education adopted for widespread use. Her passions were education and astronomy, and she founded several schools for girls. She also was a founder of the College of Mayagüez, which today is known as the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Roqué was a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico. She also wrote Botany of the Antilles, an extensive overview of Caribbean flora.
- Ana Roqué de Duprey: The National Women’s History Museum provides an overview of Roqué’s life, civic causes, and scientific writing.
- Ana Roqué de Duprey, Puerto Rico’s Astonishing Educator and Suffragist Hero: A great lover of books since childhood, Roqué turned her own thirst for knowledge into a long career as an educator and suffragist.
- Suffragists You Need to Meet: Anna Roqué Duprey (1853-1933): The League of Women Voters writes of Roqué’s dedication to education and ensuring that women had access to the vote.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth is perhaps best known as the mother of 12 children from the book and movies Cheaper by the Dozen. However, Gilbreth was also a turn-of-the-century psychologist and industrial engineer who was an expert in the fields of organizational psychology and efficiency. She worked as a management consultant, applying her expertise and theories to major corporations. She was also Purdue University’s first female engineering professor. She was also the first woman inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.
- Lillian Gilbreth, Pioneering Inventor: With her husband Frank, Gilbreth invented time and motion study, which consisted of watching workers perform tasks and then analyzing these movements so that the process could be made more efficient, safer, and more satisfying to the worker.
- Lillian Moller Gilbreth: This biography of Gilbreth addresses her struggles in obtaining a college education along with other issues as she broke glass ceilings imposed by her gender.
- The Management Theory of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth considered it key to reduce the number of motions required for a task, closely study the efficiency of motions, and increase both efficiency and worker satisfaction.
Ruth Rogan Benerito
An American chemist who pioneered bioproducts, Ruth Rogan Benerito is most frequently honored as the person who saved the American cotton industry after World War II. She invented a process to produce cotton fabrics that were wrinkle-, stain-, and flame-resistant. Benerito also discovered how to remove fats from seeds and use these fats in intravenous feeding of hospital patients. Along with teaching college courses, Benerito also worked for the USDA before receiving the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for her work as an educator and scientist.
- Ruth Benerito: The invention of fabrics such as polyester threatened the cotton industry, but Benerito’s development of wrinkle-free cotton fabric saved the industry.
- Ruth Benerito Modernized the Cotton Industry Through Her Scientific Invention of Wrinkle-Free, Wash-and-Wear Fabrics: Over her career, Benerito filed 55 patents that advanced the textile field. This article explains why she won a lifetime achievement award from MIT.
- Ruth Benerito: Chemist Who Helped Create Wrinkle-Free Cotton: An obituary from 2013 illuminates her accomplishments and life.
Edith Clarke initially worked as a computer. At the time, computers were people who did complicated calculations by hand, before the invention of electric computers and calculators. Clarke was also an electrical engineer at the turn of the 20th century whose research improved the efficiency and stability of power distribution. It was difficult for her to find work in her field due to her gender. However, in 1922, she became the first employed professional female electrical engineer in the United States. The National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted Clarke in 2015.
- Edith Clarke: Clarke’s biography covers her education and professional accomplishments.
- Edith Clarke Biography: Clarke’s engineering work was based on her efforts to develop mathematical processes that simplified calculations needed to design and improve electrical grids.
- Edith Clarke: A Trailblazing Leader for Women and a Pioneer in Computing and Engineering: Clarke became an orphan at a young age, and the money her parents left her allowed her to attend college and study mathematics.
Mary Engle Pennington
Growing up during a time when college attendance was rare for women, Mary Engle Pennington obtained a Ph.D. and worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a bacteriological chemist. During her tenure at the USDA, Pennington was appointed chief of the Food Research Laboratory. In that position, Pennington pioneered many advances in the safe handling of food. The accepted standards of food refrigeration stem from Pennington’s work.
- Mary Engle Pennington: The “Cold Chain” of Food Safety: Pennington’s interest in science was sparked when she read a book about medical chemistry at age 12.
- Philadelphia Women’s History Month All-Stars: Mary Engle Pennington: Although Pennington completed all of the requirements to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania, the college refused to grant diplomas to women at the time, so she instead received a certificate of completion. Later, Pennington would complete and receive a Ph.D. from the institution.
- Mary Engle Pennington: The Mother of Modern Food Preservation: The ability to walk into a grocery store anywhere in the U.S. at any time of the year and be assured of finding fresh eggs is largely due to the work Pennington did in establishing standards for refrigeration and transportation of fresh food.
When the space shuttle Discovery took flight in 1993, Dr. Ellen Ochoa made history as the first Hispanic woman to go into space. She has since completed three other missions and logged almost 1,000 hours in space. Before becoming an astronaut, she worked as an inventor and research engineer. NASA appointed her the director of the Johnson Space Center in 2013; she was the first Hispanic person and second woman to hold this post.
- Five Fast Facts About Astronaut Ellen Ochoa: Along with Ochoa’s other achievements, she is also a classically trained pianist.
- Ellen Ochoa: Ochoa applied twice to NASA’s astronaut program before being accepted. After the first rejection, Ochoa obtained a private pilot license.
- Ellen Ochoa, First Hispanic Director of Johnson Space Center, Retires: Ochoa retired in 2018 from her role as director of the Johnson Space Center. During her tenure, she worked to improve the diversity of the staff at the center and the people involved in missions to the International Space Station.
The Manhattan Project created the first nuclear bombs, which the United States used against Japan in World War II. One of the most difficult parts of the project was isolating the needed enriched uranium. Clinton Engineer Works decided to focus on hiring young women who had recently graduated from high school to operate the calutrons, which were used to isolate uranium isotopes. Although the women weren’t told why they were performing these tasks, they were better at producing uranium than the trained male scientists who worked alongside them.
- Who Were the Calutron Girls of Oak Ridge? A famous image from the Manhattan Project shows two rows of women working with large machines. These were the “calutron girls,” and this article examines the stories of those women and others like them.
- Girl Power, Circa 1940: Building the Bomb (and Not Knowing it) in East Tennessee: Thousands of young women were instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb. At the time, none of them knew what they were working on.
- Calutron Girls: The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and the Atomic Heritage Foundation produced this video about the work and lives of these women.
Before Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, computer languages were written in mathematical notation. She led the development of human-readable coding languages in English, including COBOL, which is still used today. Her career spanned from the 1930s until the 1980s, and during that time, her work was on the cutting edge of the development of computer coding. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is held annually in her honor.
- Grace Murray Hopper (1906-92): A Legacy of Innovation and Service: Hopper was an early believer that computers could be made user-friendly and would be used by a wide cross-section of people.
- Rear Adm. Grace M. Hopper, USNR: Born in 1906, Hopper joined the Navy in 1943 and rose to the rank of rear admiral.
- Grace Hopper, Pioneering Computer Programmer: Hopper led the development of programming languages to the level of sophistication needed for complex software applications.
Katherine Johnson, an African-American space scientist and mathematician, made enormous contributions to America’s aeronautics and space programs. She played a huge role in the space race, calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, as well as for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
- Katherine Johnson: Johnson’s work was crucial to the success of America’s efforts to put humans in space.
- Katherine Johnson (1918-2020): Johnson faced obstacles due to her race and gender, but she earned the respect of the scientific community due to her mathematical skill.
- Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician and an Inspiration for Hidden Figures, Dies : Johnson lived to age 101, and she and her work were featured in the book and movie Hidden Figures.
Ada Lovelace is widely credited as the first computer programmer. Lovelace wrote a program for the Analytical Engine proposed by Charles Babbage. She would die in 1852, before the machine could be built, but her work and the poetic way she approached science have inspired generations of young female scientists.
- Ada Lovelace, the First Tech Visionary: Ada Lovelace’s first line of scientific research examined why birds could fly and she could not. Over the course of her life, she combined her imagination with her scientific inquiries.
- Ada Lovelace’s Mathematical Papers: Lovelace was largely a self-taught mathematician and scientist who corresponded with people like Charles Babbage to deepen her understanding of the field.
- Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace: From her famous parents to her early experiments, this biography of Lovelace covers her life story.
The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, who started her historic trip on June 18, 1983. She retired after her second space flight, deciding to focus on educating young people in science. Before her death in 2012, Ride founded Sally Ride Science in 2001, which provides support for students interested in STEM.
- Dr. Sally Ride: Ride’s life story and decision to start Sally Ride Science are explored in this biography.
- Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being the First: Breaking a glass ceiling, as Sally Ride did, changed the course of her lifers.
- Why Sally Ride Waited Until Her Death to Tell the World She Was Gay: Ride tried to keep her personal life private, including her relationship with her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.
The Mercury 13
A group of women were recruited to be the first female astronaut trainees in the early 1960s. Although the privately funded program wasn’t officially part of NASA’s space training program, the 13 women completed the same screenings as the men selected for the Mercury program. NASA would not send any of them into space, but they opened the door for astronauts like Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.
- The Mercury 13 Ladies: The women who participated in the program passed the same tests used to select the men chosen to be astronauts in the Mercury program.
- Aviation Hall of Fame: Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb: Cobb was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 2012 for her accomplishments as a pilot.
- The First Lady Astronaut Trainees: The Library of Congress discusses the Mercury 13 program and the women involved in it.