What's it like to be a woman inventor and scientist?
The "Guy" Who Invented Kevlar
Stephanie Kwolek tells this story about when her patents for aramid fibers became well-known. "A chemist in another company said, 'That guy who did the work in the patents had to be a very outstanding chemist.' He referred to me as guy. It always surprised me, because at that time Stephanie was not a very popular name, so he must have thought Stephanie was a man's name, although I don't understand how he possibly could have thought it." Because the name on the front of the patent is her full name, it is hard at first to understand why that chemist thought Stephanie was a man. But, at that time, very few women were research scientists. Often, people assumed that anyone making important chemical discoveries had to be a man.
"At the time I was hired, it was not particularly an easy time for women, in particular for women involved with science. I do remember hearing and being told this by my professors in college: that a lot of women were coming back and going into what were considered women's fields. At one point, they thought they would discourage women from studying chemistry, but it took a number of years until women were more accepted. Even now, it is still not easy for women to be promoted into upper levels. But I think gradually they are getting there."
At the beginning of her career, Stephanie was one of only a few women who worked at DuPont as chemists. "When I was hired by DuPont," she explains, "a number of women who were hired by DuPont, about 12, they worked and produced until they married, when they had children, they left to take care of the children, as was the custom at that time." Sometimes this was difficult, but, Stephanie says, "I think one reason why it never particularly bothered me that there were so few women was that ... I thought of myself as a research chemist, and I considered myself equal to any of the other research chemists who worked in the lab." Polymer chemistry was such a new subject that it wasn't taught in schools. Everyone had to learn as they went along, and everyone, remembers Stephanie, "started on an equal basis ... I had to study up just as the men did. We helped each other and learned from each other. Somehow, I never set myself apart, or thought lesser of myself, because we all seemed to start on an equal footing."
Now, many women are researchers at universities and large companies, and many, like Stephanie, are busy inventing.
Interested in women inventors? Read more about them!
All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 5 February 1999.