STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS2.B

CCSS: Writing: 7

TEKS: Science: 3.3C, 4.3C, 5.3C, 6.3D; ELA: 3.6E, 4.6E, 5.6E, 6.5E

Daring to Discover

These women fought to follow their dreams in STEM 100 years ago 

The U.S. reached an important milestone 100 years ago. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was approved, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Women in the U.S. had been demanding suffrage and other rights for decades. They were treated unfairly in many ways. Most occupations weren’t open to women. If women worked, they were paid less than men. Women weren’t even permitted to wear pants in many places! They had to wear bulky dresses. 

Something big happened 100 years ago. The U.S. approved the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It gave women the right to vote. 

Women in the U.S. had wanted suffrage and other rights for decades. They weren’t treated fairly in many ways. Women couldn’t hold most jobs. Women who did work were paid less than men. Women weren’t even allowed to wear pants in many places! They had to wear dresses. 

But in the early 1900s, women were also breaking ground in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). More and more women attended college and got patents, or legal recognition for their inventions. 

After 1920, women’s struggles weren’t over. Even today, women—especially women of color—are still fighting for equality. “This is an ongoing issue,” says historian Lisa Tetrault. 

Let’s meet three trailblazing women who worked in STEM 100 years ago. How do their experiences compare with those of women working in STEM today?

But women didn’t let that hold them back. They broke ground in STEM fields in the early 1900s. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. More and more women went to college. They got patents. Patents are legal rights to inventions. 

Women’s struggles weren’t over after 1920. Women fight to be treated as equals even today. That’s especially true for women of color. “This is an ongoing issue,” says Lisa Tetrault. She’s a historian.

Let’s meet three women pioneers. They worked in STEM 100 years ago. How do their lives compare with those of women today?

Agnes Chase traveled to South America to discover new grass species.

Juliette Toma

Bold Botanist

Agnes Chase (1869-1963)

Agnes Chase loved studying plants. But in the early 1900s, universities and institutions rarely gave money to women scientists to travel and do research. So Chase raised the money herself.

She traveled to South America multiple times to search for new species of grasses. Over her 60-year career, Chase collected 80,000 samples of plants, wrote dozens of books and papers, and mentored other women botanists, or plant experts. She became a world expert on grasses.

Chase also fought for women’s suffrage. She was jailed twice for protesting and giving speeches about why women should be allowed to vote. Chase almost lost her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a result. “She believed in standing up for people who were oppressed,” says historian Leslie Madsen.

Agnes Chase (1869-1963) 

Agnes Chase loved studying plants. But she needed money to travel and do research. It was the early 1900s. Institutions rarely gave funds to women scientists. So Chase raised the money herself.

Chase visited South America many times. She was looking for new types of grasses. Chase’s career lasted 60 years. She collected 80,000 samples of plants during that time. She wrote dozens of books and papers. helped train other women botanists. These scientists study plants. Chase became an expert on grasses.

Chase also fought for women’s right to vote. She protested and gave speeches. She was jailed twice for these efforts. Chase almost lost her job as a result. She worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “She believed in standing up for people who were oppressed,” says Leslie Madsen. She’s a historian.

Juliette Toma

Christine Ladd-Franklin helped reveal how people see colors.

Visionary Researcher

Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930)

Imagine going to class every day, acing all the tests, but not being allowed to pass. That’s what happened to Christine Ladd-Franklin in 1882. She studied math at Johns Hopkins University. But she was denied her degree because she was a woman. 

That didn’t stop Ladd-Franklin from pursuing her dreams. By studying with researchers in Germany, she went on to become an influential psychologist, someone who studies the science of the mind and behavior. Her work helped reveal how people perceive colors. 

Ladd-Franklin also worked toward equal treatment of women in STEM fields. She raised money for American women to go to Europe, where they were allowed to attend college. In 1926, Johns Hopkins finally awarded Ladd-Franklin her degree. 

Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930)

Imagine going to class every day. You ace all the tests. But you’re not allowed to pass. That’s what happened to Christine Ladd-Franklin. It was in 1882. She studied math at Johns Hopkins University. But she wasn’t given her degree because she was a woman. 

That didn’t stop Ladd-Franklin. She still followed her dreams. She went to Germany. She studied with scientists there. Ladd-Franklin ended up becoming an important psychologist. That’s someone who studies the science of the mind. Her work helped reveal how people see colors. 

Ladd-Franklin also worked for women’s equality in STEM fields. She raised money for American women to go to Europe. There, they could go to college. Johns Hopkins finally gave Ladd-Franklin her degree in 1926. That’s 44 years after she left the school. 

Juliette Toma

The chair designed by Miriam Benjamin could send a signal by displaying a red ball at the top.

Inspired Inventor

Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947)

In the 19th century, most people thought women and African Americans weren’t capable of being inventors. A school teacher named Miriam Benjamin proved them all wrong. She was one of the first black women in the U.S. to get a patent.

In 1888, Benjamin invented the “Gong and Signal Chair.” The chair had a button on its side. Pushing the button chimed a bell and moved several cranks that displayed a red ball at the back of the chair. Benjamin hoped her invention would be used to alert staff at hotels and even in Congress. In those places, people had to shout or clap to summon helpers. Imagine the noise!

Today, you can find similar technology on airplanes. Passengers can push a button that turns on a light above their seats. The light alerts flight attendants that a passenger needs help.

Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947)

In the 19th century, most people thought women and African Americans couldn’t be inventors. Miriam Benjamin proved them wrong. She was a school teacher. She was also one of the first black women in the U.S. to get a patent.

Benjamin invented the “Gong and Signal Chair” in 1888. The chair had a button on its side. Pushing the button rang a bell. It also moved several cranks. A red ball appeared at the back of the chair. Benjamin hoped her invention would be used in hotels. It could alert staff. It could maybe even be used in Congress. People in those places had to shout or clap to call helpers. Imagine the noise!

Today, you can find similar technology on airplanes. Passengers can push a button. It turns on a light above their seats. The light tells flight attendants a passenger needs help.

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