On November 17, the Intellectual Property Law Society, Organization for Women Law Students and Staff, and the Black Law Student Association welcomed Northeastern University School of Law Professor Kara Swanson to the University of Iowa College of Law to share some insights from her upcoming book, Inventing Citizens: Race, Gender, and the Patent System.
In the book, Professor Swanson—who holds a PhD in the history of science from Harvard University and has received honors from Society for the History of Technology, the Association of American Law Schools, and the Iowa Historical Society—investigates how two historically marginalized groups have utilized the patent system as a means of working toward social equality.
“This is a particularly American story,” said Professor Swanson. “Early on, Americans saw themselves as inventive people, and they created a patent system that was much cheaper and more accessible than any other patent system in the world.”
Though “technology, patents, and inventions have historically been codified as male and white,” 19th-century women activists and turn-of-the-century African American activists realized they could use the patent system to further their causes. By publicizing the inventions of women and African American men, Professor Swanson explained, these overlooked groups were able to “destabilize the characterization of patents as exclusively male and white.”
“The patent system acted as the thin edge to a wedge,” she said. “Both groups could use the patent system to demonstrate their inventiveness—a quality particularly prized in the American identity.”
Beginning in the mid-19th century, a women’s movement sought to dispel a notion popularized by Voltaire that suggested a lack of inventiveness was proof that females were biologically inferior to men. One major step in this movement was the publication of Matilda Gage’s article “The Cotton Gin Was Invented by a Woman,” which argued that Catherine Greene, not Eli Whitney, was the true creative force behind the invention of the cotton gin.
“Whether this is true or not, we’ll never know,” said Professor Swanson. But, she explained, the piece was nevertheless the catalyst for a series of articles highlighting women inventors from around the world and throughout history. Other publications throughout the country picked up those articles and helped establish the idea of the woman inventor as a “person of interest” in the American collective consciousness.
By 1893, the World’s Fair in Chicago featured a pavilion dedicated solely to women’s accomplishments, including the woman inventor. Women activists used the pavilion to further their message, “substituting materiality for biography” as proof of physical inventions designed by women took the place of historical anecdotes about female inventors.
Beginning in the 1880s, African American activists began publicizing and promoting black inventors to achieve a similar goal to that of the women inventors’ movement: to dispel the notion that they were incapable of inventing and combat any illusions of biological inferiority.
“In the post-Reconstruction era, the black inventor took a prominent role in counteracting white-supremacist ideals,” said Professor Swanson. African Americans had already demonstrated they could be successful in many other areas—from soldiering to education—so highlighting their inventiveness would be another significant blow to opponents of racial equality.
By 1900, African-American Patent Examiner Henry Baker had compiled a list of African American patentees, and the United States displayed all 350 of those patents at the Paris Exposition. Activists were then able to use these patents to illustrate the magnitude of African American ingenuity.
In the early 20th century, prominent African American leaders Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois both emphasized the importance of the black inventor in the context of their respective philosophies. Washington argued African American men could use the patent system to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, while Du Bois contended that African Americans’ established success as inventors proved their progress within society was being obstructed not by their own failings but rather by institutionalized racism.
Though Professor Swanson’s research has focused thus far on African American male inventors and white female inventors in the 1800s and early 1900s, she intends to expand her research to investigate other eras and demographics as well.
In addition to comparative studies of African American women inventors and Native American inventors, she said she is also “interested in looking at juvenile curricula to see how schoolchildren have been taught about the idea of the American inventor, and how race and gender play into that perception.”