To mark Women’s History Month, an Eastside Community Heritage exhibition at Wanstead Library will uncover the stories of local women inventors this March. Judith Garfield reports
The world of invention and enterprise has been male-dominated throughout history and the lives and creations of female inventors have frequently been overlooked, glossed over and ignored. Women have consistently had their contributions swept under the rug and hidden in the background while their male counterparts have stood in the foreground as standalone pioneers.
Women from east London who were behind four revolutionary innovations – which changed the way we eat, dress, love and find our way home – have now had their stories discovered in our new exhibition. One such story was that of Phyllis Pearsall, who invented the A-Z street map in 1936. The creation and publication of the A-Z was revolutionary in a time before GPS and satellite navigation. In the same year, Phyllis received her first large order for The A-Z Street Guide from WHSmith for over a thousand copies, but she had some difficulties along the way. With little support, she had to buy a wheelbarrow to take them to WHSmith herself and distribute them.
Many times, you find a female inventor’s name will appear, and the company is referenced by another name. This is an indication of the power women probably had behind the scenes, but not linked to the invention or the idea. Women were often very influential figures in companies and in enterprise but their names were rarely mentioned.
“If you go back in history, a lot of inventions were attributed to the man because the woman was the man’s property and if she invented something, it got patented in the man’s name. So, I think there were women inventors but we just don’t know about them,” said Mandy Haberman, inventor of the Anywayup Cup. “There is a difference, men are bullish about putting themselves out there, they have an ‘I am the great I am!’ They are the brand. Women are much more likely to hide away; a woman is much more reticent to expose herself and put herself out there in that way. It’s changing now, it’s different now. But children were brought up to be seen and not heard and wives not seen and not heard!”
Another pioneer was Joan Ball, a working-class woman from London’s East End, who established the first computer dating service in 1964. The St James Computer Dating Service stored clients’ preferences according to their dislikes on punch cards, sorting matches by a process of elimination. Ball’s service pre-dates the famous system Operation Match at Harvard University, who are often cited as the founders of the invention.