The Secret Garden of Invisible Women

For dozen of centuries, women were considered the weaker sex, but at what extent males decided to limit our ideas?

By Ibtissam El Azami

Updated 07:35 pm EDT, September 1, 2023

Published 02:31 pm EDT, April 19, 2023

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

As a woman, I have faced the same problems as my mother before me and her mother before her. Classic jobs and heteronormative relationships have felt the same kind of rough ride every time I was mansplained, belittled for being the ‘weaker sex,’ or simply looked down on.

It’s not just me. It’s not just classic jobs. It’s not just relationships. It’s the whole world taking credit from women who, at a precise moment in time, did not have the possibility to voice their opposition. Life is tough enough as it is without having to prove yourself over and over again. And yet, when we aren’t judged by the color of our skin, background, or ethnicity, we are judged by our gender.

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

Genderless is a word that only really started gathering notoriety a few years ago. If you’re anything as open-minded as I am, it is a concept and a truth that should have been applied and explained to many, many generations before the boom of ‘soul over matter.’ As genderless as creations, inventions, and discoveries might be, in a world where women are still the ‘last best thing,’ it’s crucial to keep remembering what women achieved for the greater good.

There are two moments when we shut down and decide that our voice doesn’t matter: when we feel ashamed and afraid and when society shuts us down by force over and over again, at which point we feel like it is useless to speak up anymore.

If you’re not acquainted with the works of marketing guru Seth Godin, you’re missing out big time. For whoever wants to change the world by changing themselves first, Seth Godin has published countless works about economics which veer entirely into the world of personality. Who are you as a person? How do you react to the world? How much self-interest do you put before society’s system – which Godin calls ‘systemic restraint’?

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

As a woman, I have lived through sexism, a significant part of systemic restraint, more times than I can recall. I have experienced firsthand being looked down on for the same kind of job I would do as a man would. Throughout many different jobs, I would be paid much less than a man for a job I could, however, often do better.

I was told to wear makeup on the job when men only barely needed to comb their hair. As a makeup artist, a sales assistant, or a receptionist, it did not matter: I had to be the best version of myself, as decided for me by men. Otherwise, I was deemed less worthy. Of money, of attention, of status. I was told to wear heels, which are tools that end up destroying the feet and the back’s structure over time. This was not a choice but an obligation that was stipulated in such and such a contract. In many cases, we can relate to accepting this obligation if the grass is not greener on the other side, but when you need to bring food to the table, can you really say no? I was expected to cook for boyfriends, fiancés, and whatnot, and while they were resting, I would serve a kind of man-child who thought backward in a world where females were still giving their all to males without expecting equal opportunity treatment in return.

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

Combine all this with an introverted personality, and what you get is a person who would much rather work from the inside out, as a writer or a blogger, as a scientist, as a researcher… As someone who can change the world from afar.

For dozens of centuries, women were considered the weaker sex (‘le second sexe’, as stated by French female existentialist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir). Women definitely are physically weaker in nature compared to men, but at what point did males decide to invent the idea that women had smaller brains, hence more limited cerebral abilities? When actually, some of the greatest minds of this world were females, from George Sand to Elizabeth Magie Philips, and from Coco Chanel to Cleopatra. Did you know your babies only have disposable diapers because a woman invented the prototype? Did you know that we know that chromosomes and gender are related because a woman made that discovery? No? You’re in for a treat.

Vera Rubin and the Dark Matter

Actually, prepare to be shocked. Even if you are not science-savvy, dark matter, broken down simply, makes up part of the objects and bodies around us (about 27%), but it is entirely invisible. This substance cannot be detected by our instruments and does not reflect or emit light – yet, it interacts with the matter we see all around us and is the subject of studies aimed at finding out more about the Big Bang. Vera Rubin, the astrophysicist who first brought to light the presence of dark matter in the universe in the 1960s and the 1970s, was actually never properly credited for her research. Why? Because the astronomer Kent Ford with whom she was working, took credit for that discovery, one that would explain one of the most fascinating concepts of our entire universe.

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

Marion Donovan: Disposable Diapers

If our children have diapers today, it’s not a coincidence. Marion Donovan created them in the 1940s when women used cloth to protect their babies. Donovan was a mother herself and initially created diapers from parachute nylon, with an insert that would be not only absorbent but also somewhat comfortable for babies. However, the situation was a little bit different with Marion Donovan since it was finally patented in 1951, and her ‘Boater’ diaper was the first invention of its kind with snap buttons instead of safety pins used to close the diaper. However, it’s not just about stealing work this time: even if Marion Donovan’s patent finally landed her thousands of dollars, it was initially ignored by all the companies she submitted it to. Today, many of us still think that Pampers and Huggies were the precursors to one-use diapers when it was indeed the work of a mother.

Ada Lovelace and Computer Programming

You may be reading this article on your phone or your laptop, which is either an iPhone or a Macbook – in any case, you would probably not have either of these without Ada Lovelace. This is probably one of the saddest stories in this article since Ada Lovelace is very much at the beginning of all that we use in terms of electronics today, with her concept of ‘Analytical Machine.’ The first computer programming dates back to the middle of the 19th Century, at a time when no woman would ever have been deemed able to produce such groundbreaking contributions to society. Ada Lovelace partnered with Charles Babbage, with her role as the interpreter being nothing if not crucial. She was the one who wrote the first instructions of programmatic computing, and while the idea was hers, Charles Babbage took the credit – after all, was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron expected to be able to invent computer programming?

Joan of Arc: The French Heroine

Many understand Joan of Arc’s personality as that of a crazy lady – given that she thought she was acting under religious guidance in the midst of the Middle Ages, it could be somewhat understandable. It was a mere few decades before men started fearing women in Europe, calling them witches, and had she existed a teeny bit later in History, Joan of Arc would have indeed been burned at the stake. No matter how much craziness we want to paint over Joan of Arc’s memory, she led the French army to victory in 1429 in the Siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years’ War. All the while being dressed as a man, with a masculine haircut, to make fighting more comfortable and living amongst soldiers more appropriate. Little do we know that in the end, at the age of 19, Joan of Arc was still burned at the stake… for wearing men’s clothes.

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

Caresse Crosby Saved Our Boobs

Women didn’t only save our babies from rashes and discomfort – they saved our bosom too. Have you ever heard of Caresse Crosby? She is the one who invented the bra as we know it today. The patent she got for creating the brassiere was later sold to the Warner Brothers Corset Company, and today, if you don’t do any research on the birth of the bra, you won’t come across Caresse Crosby’s name. But she’s not the only one – if you’re a woman reading this article, or a man with long hair, chances are you’ve used a hair straightener at least once in your life.

Katherine Johnson: The Woman Who Helped Land on the Moon

Have you ever heard of Katherine Johnson? Without her, there would have been no Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon in 1969 and certainly no trip to space for the first time in 1961. A NASA Mathematician, and a Black woman, Katherine Johnson, calculated the exact path that would allow landing on the moon successfully. Her name was first broadcast to the entire world thanks to the movie ‘Hidden Figures,’ without which most of us would never have even wondered who made it possible to travel to space. When we say ‘the first man on the moon,’ we forget that there was a whole team behind the astronauts going into space – and Katherine Johnson was part of it.

Elizabeth Magie Philips & the Monopoly

On a smaller geographic scale, another woman has been forgotten, yet helps bring us together on family nights: Elizabeth Magie Phillips. In 1935, it just so appears that the world had begun waking up from the 1928 financial crash, which had turned the whole world upside down. This was the genesis of capitalism as we know it today, since more than just making a profit to live, we were entering an era of ultra-abundance that was to go on until World War II. Game designer and writer Elizabeth Magie Phillips, also known as Lizzie Magie, created one of the most famous games ever brought to life, the Landlord’s Game, patented in 1903. The original game had two sets of rules, one completely similar to Monopoly as we know it today and one in which all players could be winners and choose whether to play the game morally or follow society’s rules. The dire attempt to protest against the birth of capitalism made its way to Charles Darrow, who struck a deal with the Parker Brothers in 1935, and the Monopoly was born. The actual board game was never openly credited to Elizabeth Magie Phillips, and the Parker Brothers went on to buy her patent for the game as well as two other game designs she had invented.

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

Rosalind Franklin & the DNA Double Helix

One of the most important discoveries of the 20th Century was made by Rosalind Franklin in London and has paved the way for many cures and understanding of the human and animal world. Rosalind Franklin was a British X-Ray crystallographer who, with a single image, provided the proof that DNA was not built with just one helix but two. The mere fact that DNA ever came into play with formulating drugs and advancing health solutions is groundbreaking news in itself. Still, Rosalind Franklin never had the opportunity to claim the discovery as her own and receive the Nobel Prize that such a life-changing discovery should have brought her. Instead, two scientists from Cambridge University, James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick, took that contribution as their own. In their publication, they did mention Rosalind Franklin, but so slightly you could doubt she ever really did anything groundbreaking. And while she had already produced the DNA’s double helix photography in 1951, Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1958, granted because they were those who found out the existence of the DNA’s single helix.

Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife, never gets enough credit

Adding insult to injury, we should also talk about Zelda Fitzgerald, which nobody knows unless they are versed in literature. No matter how much you read, you have probably already heard of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which is not only one of the most famous books in the world but has also caught on with the theater and the cinematographic world. The Great Gatsby is still a recurring theme for parties and for its importance when it comes to accurately depicting 1925 New York City’s rise to fame and love scene, notably with the main character’s discussions with millionaire Jay Gatsby. Little do we know that it was from Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, that we get so much content and such spice in words. Interviewed by the New York Tribune, Zelda Fitzgerald mentioned that a few passages of the books written by her husband reminded her of letters and sentences she had written herself in her personal diaries. An even more astounding fact, though, would be that Zelda was also a writer and a painter who never truly got to claim the fame she was entitled to due to her status as a woman – and died in the fire of the hospital she was admitted to before she could finish her second novel.

Ada Harris and the case of the Hair Straightener

The hair straightener was invented many, many years before disposable diapers and bras were brought into our everyday lives. We use hair straighteners before we go to a party, we have flat irons on photoshoots, and some of us even carry a portable hair straightener in our bags just to touch up our hair before a date. In 1893, Ada Harris, a school teacher from Indianapolis, created the ancestor of the tool we use today with a slight difference: a comb included in the hair straightener to section the hair while straightening it. Unfortunately, unless you read about it online or in the archives, you don’t really hear about Ada Harris. Actually, you hear about Marcel Grateau, who launched the curling iron a few decades before, in 1852, for women visiting his salons. Almost the same, but not quite.

Photo Credits

Photography: Juan Manuel Monteoliva
Model: Anna Esposito
Hair & Make-Up: Grisel Maldonado

The Why and The How

One big question remains: why? Why do men feel the need to take for granted women’s discoveries? Is it a proof of masculinity, of virility? Is it a need to be accepted by the group as an alpha male? I have only touched base here on a few of the women who have helped shape our modern world, from board games to fashion and from literature to science. Women’s creations and discoveries surround us, and beyond not knowing their names, we do not even wonder who is responsible for all the great inventions and discoveries we bathe in every day. One could argue that acknowledging the importance of women in scientific matters or inventions in everything culturally advancing to society is something pretty useless, as the discovery has been made already. And yet it is crucial to acknowledge that these women helped shape the world we live in. if we didn’t know about the DNA’s double helix and if we didn’t know about the feminine and masculine genders, we wouldn’t know about ourselves.

Funnily enough, it is a state affair whenever a man discovers something and wins a Nobel prize in physics, mathematics, or literature. When it’s a woman discovering or inventing something that has the ability to change the whole world, we try to sweep it under the rug, or some male tries to steal the spotlight. Is it just an ego thing? Is it that men need to be in the spotlight? Is it toxic masculinity? It could be all three, but in my opinion, it is more than anything else toxic masculinity. After all, we are all trying to leave our mark on the planet in one way or another. It’s scary, isn’t it? No one truly knows for sure where life takes us after death, and we’re trying as much as we can to leave a mark of our presence. We don’t want to be forgotten, and beyond that, we want to be remembered.

Why Crediting Women Would Change the World

The hardest way to be remembered is to create something worth remembering. If you can’t achieve that, then stealing is the second and next best thing, and stealing someone else’s work has been done since the dawn of time. It might just be our individualist society that pushes us further, and further does the road of ultra-productivity: create or be forgotten. That might be why we have so many influencers, so many Instagrammers, and so many bloggers these days. Much fewer scientists, as we now live in a world where everything goes so fast that what you need is to produce something unforgettable as fast as possible. Many of the women crucial to history had seen their work stolen or swept under the rug at a time when man knew basically nothing about himself, and every piece of scientific data was essential to further our knowledge.

We are then left with two problems here. The first one is that now that man feels super powerful in a general sense, and above all natural laws, the nature of our progress regarding the greater good is basically inexistent. There are groundbreaking discoveries made every year in terms of technology, astronomy, and all kinds of sciences – but when have you heard about the last one? When was the last time you were interested in knowing more about how the world works beyond just waking up in the morning to go to work? We’re all guilty of that.

The second problem is probably even more dangerous, as it is inherently linked to the first one: what kind of children will you bring up? It all comes down to developing your critical mind, as our parents tried to teach us when we were kids. Something we’ve forgotten on the way to school and, later, on the way to work. But if you do not try to understand, as you tried to understand, how everything worked around you when you were a child, how are we supposed to better our kids’ education? If that kind of toxic masculinity thrives, nothing changes. Women are still subpar. Their creations, their inventions, and their discoveries are still subpar, or, if they’re not, they surely belong to men by birthright. The cycle goes on with skillful stealth, and women stay in the kitchen without having anything to strive for. For why would they strive for something they won’t be credited for?

If there is really anything to change, it would be the legacy we leave for our children. We are grown-up people now – most of our habits can only be shaped if we focus on bettering ourselves. But we owe it to our children to leave them a world where they feel safe expressing themselves. To be themselves, true to their core, and proud of who they are no matter what their gender is, the color of their skin, and the soul they were given at birth Nobody likes change. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s even more uncomfortable to have your very core crushed by systemic restraint, unable to voice your truth and show what you’re capable of.

Often, where it hurts is the pattern showing you where things are going wrong: in the secret garden of invisible women.

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