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Five Ways That Women Changed the World

Five Ways That Women Changed the World

Since the dawn of time, women have been defining and shaping society: Sappho and her poetry, Boudicca protecting Britons from Romans, French saint Joan of Arc's military heroism and religious devotion and countless others, century after century.

Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe helped propel America into a civil war with her writings, while Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankurst campaigned tirelessly to give women the right to vote in the U.K. We know that women are pretty incredible — and are responsible for changing the world. They're also responsible for some of the greatest — and most fun (hello, Monopoly, courtesy of Elizabeth Magie Phillips) — inventions ever, across a variety of spheres, from the circular saw to the life raft, the windshield wiper to the signal flare. Women are even credited with inventing beer: 7,000 years ago, women in ancient Mesopotamia initially brewed beer and ran taverns, and men weren't allowed anywhere near the drink.

Wondering how else women changed the world? Here are five ways that women left their lasting marks... 

1. As rulers
Britain has only had one female prime minister so far, and America has yet to appoint a female president, but hundreds of years ago, women were ruling over countries - and rocking it. Elizabeth I, who reigned over England for 45 years in the 16th century in what is often referred to as the Golden Age in English history, took a country that was divided by religion and in financial upheaval and strengthened it, notably keeping the country safe from invaders and religious persecution with her triumph over the Spanish Armada. Intelligent and quick-witted, Elizabeth's refusal to be forced into marriage for political reasons - she would remark that her husband was "the kingdom of England" - has established her as a fierce early feminist. As she so memorably said: "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too..."  In the 18th century, Russia experienced a golden era of its own under the rule of Catherine the Great, who expanded Russia's borders, encouraged trade and brought Enlightenment ideas to the country. Under her 34-year-reign — the longest of any Russian monarch — St. Petersburg became a global cultural capital and a centre where education, arts and sciences were cultivated.

2. With Kevlar
Chemist Stephanie Kwolek may not be a household name, but she sure should be: in 1964, while working at DuPont, she invented Kevlar, otherwise known as poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, synthetic fibres with amazing durability and strength (Kevlar is five times stronger than steel by weight). Kevlar is, quite simply, amazing. It's used in everything from bullet-proof vests to car tires, hockey sticks to armoured cars, as well as boats, airplanes, tennis rackets, skis and firefighter boots. It's also used in bomb-proof materials, and has everyday practicality: you can find Kevlar in frying pans. Countless lives saved, journeys undertaken and breakfasts made thanks to one incredible woman. Kwolek won the National Medal of Technology, the IRI Achievement Award, the Perkin Medal and was the fourth woman to be added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

3. By inventing lots of useful appliances
Housewives have long been derided for "staying at home," but in addition to the quite extraordinary task of raising a family, many of the tools that we take for granted and that have changed our experience of domestic life (for both men and women) were invented by women. Take Florence Parpart, who created the refrigerator in 1914 (she had already put her impressive skills to use by improving on the basic street-sweeper design, changing it to render it suitable for more widespread use in 1900) to more luxurious amenities like the ice cream maker, invented by Nancy Johnson in 1843. Women have given us the gas-fired heating furnace (the precursor to central heating, courtesy of Alice H. Parker in 1919), the dishwasher (Josephine Cochran, 1886) and the ironing board (Sarah Boone, 1892). And that retractable lead you're using to walk the dog? That's from Mary A. Delaney, who came up with the idea for it in 1908. And let's not forget the chocolate chip cookie (Ruth Wakefield, 1930). Can you imagine where we'd be without those items today?

4. Never giving up the fight
According to some, we have now entered the fourth wave of feminism thanks to technology and social media, which allows for new opportunities to protest against gender imbalances and inequalities and to push women's issues to the forefront. While we are now free to debate the merits of whether a naked Kim Kardashian selfie is actually empowerment or not, where would be without the women who fought - some to the death — for the rights that weren't simply given to women throughout history? From the suffragettes who gained women the right to vote by way of Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex" to the second-wave feminists like Germaine Greer, Marsha Rowe, Rosie Boycott, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who broadened the debate and questioned sexuality, family, workplace rights and reproductive rights, the fight for women's equality has continued decade after decade. Even in 2015, women continue to push for recognition. Some of this year's hottest topics? The wage gap — which affects women working in offices to Olympians to Oscar winners — getting more women on FTSE 100 boards, attracting women to STEM careers and encouraging more family-friendly maternity and paternity policies. 

5. For pioneering computer science
Silicon Valley may be its own kind of boys' club and tech is often berated for its lack of women, but computers as we know them wouldn't exist without some major female intervention. Grace Murray Hopper was a computer scientist (and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral) who worked on the first computer, the Harvard Mark 1, before inventing the first compiler (a program that transforms source code into a simpler computer language) and subsequently COBOL computer software programming, which is still used to this day. And it all started with a little girl's curiosity: Grace used to take alarm clocks apart as a child before embarking on her career in computers. She's not the only woman who has changed computing as we know it: Radia Perlman invented the STP (spanning-tree protocol) which led to the creation of huge networks using Ethernet and Barbara Liskov, an American computer scientist and trailblazer, invented programming languages like CLU and Argus. Watch this space for the women in tech who are making waves for the future. 

Get to know MAKER Laura Bates by watching her exclusive MAKERS story below.


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Photo Credits: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images; Universal History Archive/Getty Images (The Female Eunuch)