For: “Inventing the Woman Voter: Suffrage, Ability, and Patents,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (volume 19 (2020): 559-574).
The 2022 Martha Trescott Prize awards an outstanding published historical essay in the area of women in technology. This year, the committee considered a large field of excellent essays, each of which contributes to the growing body of literature about women in technology history. The committee is pleased to award this year’s prize to Kara Swanson for her article, “Inventing the Woman Voter: Suffrage, Ability, and Patents,” published in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (volume 19 (2020): 559-574).
Drawing on interdisciplinary expertise in legal and social history, Swanson’s framing of this paper moves the concept of technological creativity — “inventiveness” — beyond the realm of industry to highlight its political, gender, and racial significance. She documents how the US ideal of “independence” was discursively linked to invention (and specifically patenting) and provides many examples of how this connection was made explicitly by both supporters and opponents of women’s rights. She argues that the granting of patents could be presented by suffragists as official government certification of women’s inventiveness, and therefore end their “legal disability” by proving their fitness to participate as voters in the body politic.
Swanson foregrounds the Whiteness of this construction of ‘woman as inventor,’ noting how the exclusion of Black women was both structural (Black women had less access to the patent process due to their race, their gender, and their financial status) and intentional. Her description of the “Woman’s Work in Savagery” exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which distinguished the origins of inventiveness in non-White cultures from the accomplishments of White female patentees of the day, reinforces this point brilliantly. Reflecting on the limitations of patent records as historical sources, Swanson notes that the naming conventions used in these records made it difficult to identify female inventors, and nearly impossible to determine race, hobbling any efforts to recognize the contributions of Black female inventors.
The article is deeply researched, well-written, and engages with History of Technology literature. It helps us to understand in new ways the intersections between history of technology, history of suffrage and women’s rights, US political history, history of race and white supremacy, and history of disability. Finally, this is a story about women probing the archives of the US Patent Office to formulate a narrative about their own role in the country’s technical and industrial evolution – women doing history of technology about women in technology – a great fit for the Martha Trescott Prize.