When it comes to identifying spectacular innovations that have changed the world for women, there are quite a lot of candidates. Getting rid of the corset? A+++. The realization that "hysteria" is actually nonsense and that women don't have "weak nerves"? Well done and well overdue. But when discussing which actual, physical inventions most changed the world for women — as many people are doing in April, as we celebrate National Inventors Month — it can be a tricky to figure out what mattered most, and what really gave women the most benefit as a social group. The printing press, for instance, changed the world entirely, but it didn't target women on their own, so it's out. Inventions that changed the world for women, specifically, have to meet a few conditions: they have to materially shift the ways in which women have been constrained or damaged by gender inequality; they have to be safe; and they have to make a significant and measurable difference to women, specifically.
Some of the inventions that have made this list weren't created to help women, or indeed to become widely known at all, while others were specifically intended to better the condition of women across the board. But intention doesn't actually have too much impact on whether they improved women's lives vastly.
And that improvement becomes starkly obvious when you compare places where these inventions are available to places where they aren't, and the conditions of women in both. When ingenuity creates a more equal world, it's a brilliant thing.
If you're over a certain age, you may remember your grandmother using a mangle and huge copper tubs to do the household washing; though that sounds like ancient technology, it didn't fall out of favor all that long ago. Keeping clothing and linen clean has been, for much of human history, a) a women's job and b) an incredibly labor-intensive job, to the point where entire days of the week would be subsumed by the task. Households in Victorian England, for instance, had to make their own soap with lye, hand-scrub and boil all the items, wring, dry and press them. And that was with the aid of things like mangles!
Labor-saving devices from dishwashers to vacuum cleaners all improved many women's lives, by removing the necessity of devoting massive amounts of time to pointless, repetitive household tasks — time that could instead be spend in the workforce or education. The huge labor involved in washing, however, means that the washing machine earns a special honor for the blow it dealt to sexist divisions of labor.
Washing machines themselves only entered the US market in the early 1900s, and were initially available only to the wealthy, but technology has improved to the point that they're far more common and affordable. It's worth remembering, of course, that gender inequality remains a serious problem when it comes to the division of labor in household chores, even in places with labor-saving devices (a viral 2016 ad about a father's regret for not teaching his daughter that men are responsible for household chores, too, demonstrates the point). But in regions where washing by hand by women is the norm, there's less chance of female societal equality in general.
The Birth Control Pill
Has anything changed women's lives as much as the Pill? It's up for debate, but it's certainly up among the most major feminist inventions in human history. The Pill, first approved by the FDA in 1960, was the first reliable, woman-centric contraceptive option, one that allowed women who didn't want to become pregnant greater control of their reproduction and lives. Before its invention, women had to rely on male-centric methods like condoms, devices with a lower success rate such as sponges, and, if push came to shove, either childbirth or illegal (and highly dangerous) abortions. To say that the Pill saved countless women's lives is in no way an exaggeration.
It was also an invention that set the groundwork for other revolutions: once women were more able to control their childbearing, they were also able to enter the workforce and get educations with more impunity. Although the Pill itself came at a high cost — it emerged from a series of extremely unethical experiments performed on women of color and patients in asylums, who were not given any information about the tests being conducted on them — the results have been incredibly important.
The Department Store
These days, the idea of the department store as a destination and shopping adventure is pretty old-school; though the first department store opened in England in 1796, we have records of clusters of shops and kiosks dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I. But what's sometimes forgotten when considering the history of this particular kind of shopping is how much it contributed to the social spaces of Western women, and how it helped speed along their liberation and economic freedom.
19th century department stores were new spaces for new activities with new products, and the primary targets were women. And they became, historians say, a way for women to wander, socialize, experience new things without necessarily being chaperoned, and generally act as free agents in the service of pleasure. To be out in the world on one's own was seen as a highly dangerous for women, but the new spaces allowed for change. "19th century department stores," the academic Jeanne van Eeden notes, "became a key location of middle-class female activity and identity formation." In a world where going outside on your own meant social disgrace, the freedom offered by department stores was a veritable social revolution.
The amount of women who die in childbirth throughout the world has dropped dramatically in the 21st century, though maternal mortality still remains horrifically common in countries where prenatal and childbirth care are below standard. A lot of things have contributed to this — from the understanding of germ theory (we now know that transmission of bacteria to the vagina of the woman can cause puerperal fever, infections and sepsis) to the invention of the epidural and anesthetic as standard. However, the forceps, which greatly aid babies in poor positions in the birth canal and lower the chances of maternal death from prolonged labor, have been an amazing asset in maternal health — even though they were kept a secret by their inventors for at least a century.
The Chamberlens, a 16th century French Huguenot family who worked in Holland, appear to have developed the forceps and used them as part of their practice of "male midwivery" — but they guarded their professional secret jealously, keeping the helpful invention secret for years. Forceps only came into wider use in the 18th and 19th century, particularly after Princess Charlotte's death in labor was blamed on her male physician's unwillingness to use forceps.
Sanitary Pads & Tampons
Women have been having periods since...well, pretty much always, and dealing with the bloody results in whatever way they can. Everything from folded cloth to animal fur appears to have been put to use for the purpose over the centuries, but it wasn't until World War I, in which French nurses began to use bandages made of wood pulp for their absorbent properties, that the modern sanitary pad was really born. Tampons had a similarly bizarre history, from ancient Egyptian pessaries to 19th century bundles of lint and cotton, but mass manufacture was also confined to the 20th century.
The main thing to consider about both of these inventions is convenience; the bother of having to cope with ineffective methods of period management, plus the stigma attached to the whole process, was a burden on women that created stress and (through poorly assembled homemade methods) the possibility for disease. Even today, period taboos create serious issues for women worldwide. Some women in rural Nepal have to go to "menstrual huts" for the duration of their periods, and it's common for girls in regions as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia to drop out of school when their periods begin. Giving women access to easy, safe, disposable methods of managing their periods keeps them in education and the workforce, and protects their health. Like all of these inventions, we take menstrual products for granted today — but life without them would feel unrecognizable.