History’s Hidden Heroes: “Wings of Their Own” and Female Aviators

Photo of Julie ClarkEvery month we take a look at “History’s Hidden Heroes” people (usually scientists, because that’s how I roll) who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, or who otherwise don’t fit the common stereotype of what a scientist looks like.  I try to find people who, while they may be well-known in their field or in their country of origin, are not well-known among laypeople in the USA.

This month, we are shifting from the sciences a bit to talk about women in aviation.  I just got to see the documentary Wings of Their Own, and it is a fascinating and inspiring overview of women in  aviation.  The filmmakers interviewed (or otherwise discuss) 210 women, providing a fascinating overview of women in aviation from “Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral.

As a documentary, “Wings of Their Own” suffers from a lack of captions identifying women who are speaking (there are some but I could have used more), no option for subtitles, and generally low production values.  This is a low-budget labor of love, so the photography and music is poor (by film standards).  But the movie is absolutely electric when the women who are profiled are speaking – which is for most of the documentary.  Because so many women are talking, there’s no in-depth coverage.  This is the kind of documentary in which it’s casually mentioned that the Wright Brother’s had a sister who flew – and off I go to Google.  In case you’re wondering, Katherine Wright served as the brothers’ executive assistant/social manager/business manager and flew while touring Europe with her brothers.  She was the third woman to fly – the first two were Theresa Peltier and Edith Berg.  In addition to going up in a plane, she went up in a balloon.  But I digress.

Here’s just a few things the documentary mentioned that will have you googling for hours:

  • Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, had to learn French because in 1920 she could not get a pilot’s license in America
  • Jacqueline Cochrane, founder of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots group (WASP) had some special requirements for WASP members.  In order to promote the best possible public image, she looked for women who were pretty, athletic, and white.  No African-Americans were allowed in the group.
  • Mercury 13 refers to a group of women who passed their tests to qualify as astronauts in the Mercury spaceflight program in the early 1060s.  The testing was abruptly suspended and the women never flew.
  • When Julie Clark, one of the first female commercial airline pilots, was hassled by a male co-pilot, she finally told him, “Hey!  I’ve flown more hours inverted than you’ve flown upright!”

I mention Julie Clark because I used to see her fly at air shows and when she appeared on-screen I gave this little yelp of glee.  My dad used to take me to air shows and Julie Clark was my favorite performer because, year after year, she was the only woman.  I worshipped the ground that woman walked on when she wasn’t flying.  One of the things the documentary talks about is how many women were introduced to flying by supportive men – and how much women value the support and mentorship of other women.  The networking of women is placed front and center at the beginning of the documentary, which talks about women’s air races, some of which are flow by mother-daughter teams.

One of the traps of history is that of the token hero.  In science, if there’s a picture of great scientists, they will usually be male with the exception of Marie Curie.  Marie Curie was great, and we should all know about her, but she’s one of just thousands of women who have been scientists historically.  In aviation, we get Amelia Earnhardt – again, a great, but not the only woman out there.  The problem with this is not only the factual error but the physiological impact.  If all we see is one image of ourselves in a sea of others, than we think that to succeed in a given field we must be very special and very alone.

My favorite thing about Wings of her Own was that it shatters the myth that female pilots are few in umber (and always white).  The women are young (the youngest is nineteen) and old (some women are still flying well into their eighties!).  They are black and white and Indian and Asian and Latina.  They flew in every possible capacity – Coast Guard, commercial jet, stunt pilots, medevac, police helicopters, fighter planes – you name it.  Then there’s the women who fly purely for fun – kindergarten teachers, therapists, moms, anyone.  They light up when they talk about their first solo flights.  They encourage each other and the urge the viewer to “just try it!”  Even though I wish the film had gone more in-depth about some things, as an overview this was inspiring and exciting and fun, and it makes me want to go through the attic and see if I can still find my “Julie Clark” metallic sticker.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Margaret E. Knight

Maggie KnightWelcome to History’s Hidden Heroes, the feature where we look at scientists who are not well-known in the United States outside of their field.  We feature people of color, women, and LGBT scientists both historical and current.  Today we’re looking at the life and inventions of inventor, Maggie Knight, who lived from 1838 – 1914.  She was awarded The Decoration of the Royal Legion of Honor by Queen Victoria herself.

Maggie was raised by a single mother (her father died when Maggie was young).  Maggie left school at the age of twelve to work in a cotton mill.  Her first invention was a device that would automatically turn a machine off if something was caught in it.  A common cause of injury in the mills was getting caught in the machinery, and Maggie’s device was quickly put into use.

Maggie’s most famous invention was created in 1868, while she was working in a paper bag plant in Massachusetts.  Her invention was a device that would automatically glue and fold the bottom of a bag, so the bag could be stored perfectly flat and then unfolded.  Every time you use a paper bag at the store you are using a variation on Maggie’s invention.  It may not seem like a glamorous invention, but it’s one that’s had a huge impact on every day life.  And, in the 1800s, paper bags (the size you might put your lunch in) were a big industry, so her invention had an economic effect as well.

Charles Annan tried to copy and take credit for her invention, but Maggie took him to court.  His argument was that no woman could invent such a great thing.  She was able to prove that she was the inventor, and she won her patent.  Female inventors faced discrimination in and out of court.  The first known U.S. woman inventor, Sybilla Masters, invented a means of grinding corn in 1715, but she was forbidden by law to have a patent issued to her – it had to be issued to her husband.  Maggie is sometimes listed as the first U.S. woman to have a patent in her own name, but this is incorrect.  The first was Hannah Slater, who was awarded a patent in 1773 for developing cotton sewing thread.

While the paper bag folding machine is the invention that made Maggie Knight famous, it wasn’t her last.  She came up with over 100 different inventions and ended up with over 20 more patents.  You can see her patents at wikipedia.  Here’s a picture of the 1879 patent model of the paper bag machine – isn’t it beautiful?

paper bag folding machine

You can find out more about Maggie Knight at women-inventors.com.  PBS.org has a small but interesting feature about colonial female inventors.






History’s Hidden Heroes: Luis E. Miramontes

photo of Luis MiramontesLuis Miramontes (full name: Luis Ernesto Miramontes Cardenas) is the reason, or rather one of the reasons, that women can safely plan their families.  A Mexican chemical engineer, He was the co-creator of one of the most important components of the birth control pill.

Miramontes was born in Mexico in 1925.  When he was still an undergraduate, he was recruited to work with the European scientists  George Rosenkranz and Carl Dejerassi.  He was instrumental in synthesizing norethindrone, an oral protestin.  A progestin is a compound that mimics the behavior of progesterone, which suppresses ovulation.  Norethindrone was the first highly active progestins that was synthesized that could be taken orally.  It was used in the first three version of birth control pills although its use is less common today.

Miramontes’ contributions highlight the collaborative nature of the scientific process.  The common image of an inventor is of a loner like Edison or Tesla, who has a brilliant idea and invents a thing single-handedly.  But many inventions are the work of many.  The invention of the birth control pill included the molecule synthesized by Miramontes, without which an effective oral birth control pill would not have been possible.  Other scientists before and after Miramontes’ invention were also vital in the project.  The birth control pill has been frequently ranked among the most important inventions of all time, and Miramontes as one of the most influential chemists of all time.

You can find more about Luis Miramontes Cardenas at his website.


History’s Hidden Heroes: Chien-Shiung Wu

047aWhen you think of The Manhattan Project, you probably think of white men such as Robert Oppenhiemer and Richard Feynman.  Chien-Shiung Wu was the only Chinese American scientist to work on the project.  Chien-Shiung Wu went on to design and carry out the experiments that proved that the Law of Parity, which involves forces at the quantum level (gravity, electromagnetism, and strong nuclear force) does not apply to weak nuclear force.

Wu was born in China in 1912.  Her father was an advocate for women’s education and he sent Wu to boarding school at the age of eleven.  Wu moved to the United States in 1936 to attend graduate school.  She intended to go to school in Michagan. but ended up studying at the University of California, Berekely, where she completed her Phd and married a fellow physicist, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan.


As part of the Manhattan Project, Wu developed a procedure that separated uranium into different isotopes.  One of the earlier Hidden Heroes entries in this blog was about the women of Oak Ridge Tennessee, also known as Atomic City.  That thing they spent the war doing?  It was the process developed by Wu.

After WWII, Wu was approached by two physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang.  They theorized that the law of parity did not apply to weak nuclear forces but they couldn’t figure out how to test it.  Wu designed and carries out the experiment that proved that the law does not apply to weak nuclear forces.  while Lee and Yang were awarded a Nobel Prize, Wu’s was shamefully not included.

Wu’s later work included work on the molecular changes invoked in sickle cell anemia, publication of a book (Beta Decay), and an experiment that further experimental work in physics.

I am greatly indebted to Wikipedia for giving me something of a cheat sheet regarding Chien-Shiung’s, life, and I recommend this page for a list of her many accomplishments.  Seriously, the list of “Honors, Distinctions, and Awards” is epic.  Here’s a couple of highlights:

  • first female instructor in the Physics Department of Princeton University
  • first female President of the American Physical society
  • first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her

I’m also grateful to listverse.com for explaining the law of parity in short words that I could understand!


History’s Hidden Heroes: Lynn Conway

220pxLynn_Conway_July_2006Building a career in computer engineering is a difficult thing to do once, but Lynn Conway did it twice!

Lynn Conway built her career for the first time when she was recruited by IBM in 1964.  At IBM, she helped invent dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS).  Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that when I try to talk about computer science, my eyes start spinning around my head and I have to lie down.  But as far as I can tell, in the simplest terms, what she did was make it so that you could give multiple directions to a computer in various orders instead of being locked into a single order.  This was a crucial stage in the development of modern microprocessors.

Conway was assigned a male gender at birth and was living (unhappily) as a man when she was hired by IBM.  In 1968, Conway was fired by IBM when she disclosed her intention to fully transition to living as a woman.  Conway was also divorced by her wife and lost custody of her children.  The rest of her family disowned her.  Conway persisted in completing her transition, and began a new life as a woman.  She started over completely, with no one close to her knowing that she had lived part of her life with a male identity.

In this next phase of her career, Conway co-authored the book Introduction to VLSI Systems, which became the standard chip design textbook.  She has been an instructor as well as a designer, working with Xerox, Memorex, MIT, and the Department of Defense.  Conway’s work alongside Carver Mead was so important that it’s been called “The Mead and Conway Revolution”.

Eventually Conway realized that Mark Smotherman, a computing professor, was putting together a website full of information about the IBM project that Conway had worked on, and that this might end up “outing” her.  She came out gradually to family and friends and ultimately went public with her story.  Today Conway has reconciled with many members of her family, including her children, and she is a prominent activist for the rights of transgender people.  You can find more about her career as a computer engineer and an activist at her webpage.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Roger Arliner Young

young_roger_airlinerRoger Arliner Young was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in zoology.  This is especially noteworthy because she earned the degree in 1940, which was a difficult time for women and for African-Americans, and she lacked most of the economic and social support systems that most scientists rely on.

Dr. Young was born in 1889.  She was 32 years old when she took her first science course, and she got a C.  But her teacher, Ernest Everett Just, an African-American biologist, encouraged her to pursue science and became her mentor for many years, until they had a bitter falling out in 1935.  Her family struggled with poverty and during her adult life Dr. Young cared for her disabled mother.  Dr. Young struggled with logistical issues and serious mental health issues throughout her career.  Despite the challenges of gender, race, economic hardship, and family obligations, she contributed greatly to her field.

Young was best known for her teaching career and for her research, which involved the effects of radiation on marine life, the way paramecium are able to manage salt intake, and the hydration and dehydration of cells.  She was the first female zoologist to publish in the journal Science.

We like stories with a steady arc – person is born with some sort of disadvantage, they have a dream, they pursue it, they succeed.  Young’s life was not that kind of story.  She had ups and downs.  She gave up her academic studies for a while she lost jobs and got jobs, she struggled with her mental health, and she does not ever seem to have had a happy personal life.  But she held on to science against every obstacle and made significant contributions in her field.  She put herself through school and was the sole support of herself and her mother, and she struggled with finances and mental health issues until the day of her death at the age of 75.  I find her story to be, in a way, more inspirational than many with happier endings.  When it came to science, you just could not keep Roger Arliner Young down.

For more detailed information, check out this article – they so very politely included a full citation for me to cut and paste that I’ll leave the whole thing here instead of just a link:

Hodges, Fran. “Young, Roger Arliner 1899–1964.” Contemporary Black Biography. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. 1 Jan. 2014<http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

I also used this source, which provides hours of reading about women in science:  Women in Science, from the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Grace Hopper

GraceHopper02This month’s Hidden Hero is Grace Hopper, who lived from 1906 – 1992.  Who’s Grace Hopper, you say?  Oh, she’s just did some programming – by which I mean among other things, she was instrumental in the development of COBAL.  I can’t come close to understanding her computer work, but here’s what I gather – one of the most significant reasons that people can tell a computer to do things other than numerical calculations is that Grace invented the language with which to do so.  Also, she spent a little time in the Navy – by which I mean, she was a Rear Admiral.  Grace’s nickname was “Amazing Grace” and seldom has a nickname been better earned.

Here’s a rundown of Grace’s computer work.  This comes from wvegter.hivemind.net.  During WWII, Grace worked on Harvard I, the first large-scale computer, as well as the Mark II and Mark III.  She was the first female computer programmer – not counting Ada Lovelace, who programmed the very first computer, which is another story in and of itself.

Grace then went on to develop the first compiler.  I am so computer illiterate that as far as I can tell this blog is delivered to your computer in the dead of night, by elves.  But my limited understanding is that a compiler is basically a program that allows a human being to enter commands into a computer in a programming language that is human-friendly, with those commands then being translated into programming language that is more computer friendly.  Among other things, it means that you don’t have to give commands to your computer in binary code.  Grace was instrumental in developing COBAL (Common Business Oriented Language).


Grace Hopper achieved a rank of Rear Admiral and retired at the age of 80 to become a senior consultant at Digital Equipment Corporation.  Amazing Grace is credited with having polarized the term “debugging” a computer, a term she and her colleagues used after they found an actual bug (a moth) in the Mark II.  Here’s a few quotes by this amazing woman:

A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.  Sail out to sea and try new things.

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.

You manage things.  You lead people.

wikiquote has more of her quotes, with the sources listed, and a little more context about the quotes.


If you really want to know about Amazing Grace Hopper, you HAVE to check out this cartoon from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  Here’s one teeny panel to lure you in.  READ IT!  DO IT NOW!  Sorry, I was having a moment – it’s really funny!  Here is link:  http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2516