When surveying the catalogue of human ingenuity that is the history of invention, a few things stick out. One is that we are an extremely innovative species who can solve basically any problem (and invent some new problems to solve if we get bored). Another is that inventions are actually an intriguing social measure: what societies have chosen to patent and use throughout history gives brilliant insight not only into their technological capacities, but also into what they thought was important and deserving of correction or aid. Sometimes that can render phenomenal results, as with the invention of moving type; but it can also reveal deeply horrible underlying ideas about how to treat people — especially women.
Outlining a truly sexist invention is actually less simple than it seems. Products that have taken on anti-feminist connotations often have more complex histories; corsets are an example, being less a male-dictated object designed to keep women inferior than a complicated garment adopted enthusiastically by women in general (a reminder that, of course, women can be agents in their own sexist treatment). Other products, particularly in the cosmetic industry, became truly sexist only in their marketing rather than because of any inherent sexist or repressive qualities. It's all a bit complicated. There are, however, some inventions that leave no room for argument or nuance; they are simply, wildly sexist. So as we celebrate National Inventor's Month, remember — innovation can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good.
(Warning: the description below for the "Iron Spider" is quite gruesome)
Smelling Salts For Hysterical Wandering Wombs
The origins of the idea of smelling salts lie with the ancient Greeks, but the distillation of the actual material itself, designed to wake people up after operations or shocks, only really occurred in the 17th century in Europe, when people figured out how to distil ammonia from the horns of harts. I
t was in the 19th century, though, that the idea of "smelling salts" became seen as a necessary accompaniment to any female in the world, and the reason lay in a very strange theory about wandering uteruses.
The idea was that women were fundamentally unstable and less healthy in part because their uteruses were inclined to wander around the body freely. The ancient Greek physician Aretaeus explained:
"It is very much like an independent animal within the body for it moves around of its own accord and is quite erratic. Furthermore, it likes fragrant smells and moves toward them, but it dislikes foul odors and moves away from them."
While wandering wombs were slightly out of fashion by the 19th century, they appear to have been the origin behind the idea that a woman, whose frail mental condition caused her to swoon whenever she experienced any emotions or encountered shocking things, needed to be given a strong sharp dose of smelling salts to put their emotions (and, originally, their uterus) back into their proper places. Wandering wombs were originally posited as the cause behind the famed female complaint "hysteria," a favorite of 19th century diagnoses of women with any kind of nervous problem. If they didn't keep the smelling salts on their persons, they were vulnerable to their own mental and physical weaknesses. Charming.
Ducking Stools & Scold's Bridles
These are some truly astonishing objects built due to horrendously sexist views. In 16th and 17th century England in particular, the idea of the "scold" — a woman who was loudly quarrelsome or prone to argument — was seen as societally unacceptable and dangerous. To control scolds, two punishments appear to have been used: being dunked in a river, and having a bridle put on your face.
Ducking stools, as they were called, were more widespread than scold's bridles, and had official sanction. The woman in question would be strapped to a chair, which was then dunked progressively several times in water, usually in a local river or stream. It was meant to be humiliating, terrifying, and also a violation of a woman's modesty, because of her clinging clothes. Scold's bridles, though, were arguably worse; also called "branks", they were designed to be clamped around the head of a loud scold and physically preventing her from talking (though versions designed for witches also physically pierced the tongue). The woman would then be paraded in public for everybody to see her shameful punishment.
The Iron Spider
This is one of the most horrific torture devices ever made, and it distinguishes itself from others in its category by the fact that it was made particularly for women (warning: this description is quite gruesome, so if you like to steer clear of such things, please skip the rest of this section).
The Iron Spider or "breast ripper" was a category of torture device designed in the late 17th century in Germany specifically for use on the breasts of women being punished, and it did it in a spectacularly awful way: by clamping, turning and pulling the breast flesh off entirely.
It was either used to "mark" people (particularly unwed mothers) or to torture them ; there are records of both heated and cold devices being used on women who had committed crimes as diverse as heresy, magic and abortion. The horrific demonstration was often done in public, making it even more awful.
The Beauty Micrometer
Compared to breast rippers and bridles, the "beauty micrometer" of Max Factor, invented in America in 1932, looks intensely benign — but it's not exactly fun, either. It was, rather like the scold's bridle, a vast apparatus designed to be worn on the head. Bur instead of constraining a woman from speaking, it operated as a "flaw detector," claiming to take up to 325 separate measurements of the imperfections of the female face in order to help the cosmetician correct them with make-up.
"The strips are held in place by set screws, allowing for 325 possible adjustments. If, for instance, the subject’s nose is slightly crooked — so slightly, in fact, that it escapes ordinary observation — the flaw is promptly detected by the instrument and corrective makeup is applied by an experienced operator."
This calibrator may well be the most uncomfortable demonstrations of the prison of female beauty standards that has ever existed in history. Was there one for men? Of course there wasn't. Men could have flaws; but women had to wear something that looked like the weekend wear of Pinhead from Hellraiser in order to "correct" theirs.