The Five Greatest Inventions Known to Woman

These are not all things invented just for women, but they are things that are associated with – or generally important to – a great many women worldwide, and on a very personal level, me.

In no particular order:

The bra
Bras are gift-wrapping for your boobs. They’re also a fantastically functional item for the heavy-boobed like me. I don’t know many women who can (or choose to) go bra-less, and some research suggests around 90% of Western women wear a bra. Larger-chested ladies want to avoid the pain and discomfort of a free-fall approach, and I think most Western women of most sizes prefer a bra for aesthetic reasons. I saw a t-shirt recently that said “tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes”. It made me laugh, but also made me think about just how boob-centric Western society is. And yes, as frustrating as it is, there is a media-and-fashion-provoked ‘ideal’ cleavage that a lot of people, men and women, subscribe to (see the success of Wonderbra for details). That ideal exists whether we like it or not, and I doubt any amount of bra-burning will ever change that. All cleavage is equally fab, but in a properly-fitted bra it can be just that little bit fabber.

OK, women don’t have exclusive use of chocolate, but by gosh we love the stuff. I think the science may be a little shaky, but one suggestion is that magnesium (found in cocoa) helps relieve headaches and blood sugar levels associated with PMS. And there’s the old chestnut about phenylethylalamine and theobromine to elevate mood and energy levels. Or maybe it’s just because it tastes absolutely freaking amazing.

The tampon
Oh tampon, how thou hast liberated me! According to popular advertising, tampon-wearing women can skate, swim, and generally lark about being outdoorsy despite there being a ton of womb-lining, unfertilised eggs, and generally gooey goo trying to expel itself from our bodies. The truth is fairly close to that, in that tampons do make almost anything possible compared to the ‘open to the underpant elements’ alternatives, but it’s not quite like every other week of the month, because you have a great wodge of cotton shoved up your hoo-hoo. Or as I like to put it, “a mouse in the house”. But there is no denying that tampons are an amazing invention. The applicator tampon was invented in 1929 by Dr. Earle Haas. A mouse in the Haas, then.

The mammogram
Back to boobs, and a less frivolous subject this time. If you’ve had a mammogram, you’ll be familiar with the weird, clamping, you’re-photocopying-my-boobs discomfort, and hopefully the amazing relief at the all-clear. If you haven’t had one, I promise that the benefits completely justify the moment of discomfort. I had a lumpectomy a few years ago, and although the culprit didn’t actually show on the mammogram (it did on the ultrasound), I count that as ‘score one for science’. Yes, it’s not a perfect system, but it saves lives. A million cheers for Albert Salomon.

The internet
Invented by men, and often dominated by men, nonetheless I consider the internet to be one of the greatest inventions known to women. My great-grandmother was a suffragette, and in battling for equality for women, she and others like her knew just how vital it was to get accurate, compelling information out there as fast as possible, and exchange opinions, stories, hopes and ambitions with like-minded individuals. Nothing changes if you just sit at home and tell no-one. Everything changes when you get out into the world and start campaigning, start collecting support, and start telling others like you that they are not alone. The internet has made that possible on an unprecedented scale, and ironically enough, you now can change the world by…sitting at home.

Those are my Five Greatest Inventions Known to Women. I’m sure yours will differ, and I’d love to hear about them. You may even think mine are plain wrong, and I’d love to hear about that too. I had a hard time narrowing it down to just five, and I really wanted to include Gregory House in there but sadly he just couldn’t stand up to the others.

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  1. I see some devices conspicuous in their absence. I would have to include vibrators, simply as a historic change in the way women view sex and pleasure.

    Historic value only! Really!

    And I hate mammograms, and think they should be replaced by ultrasound.

  2. The vibrator! For sure! Bug_girl beat me to it but it just has to be seconded. For far too long, sex was only “supposed” to be pleasurable for men. For women, the idea was to stay still, wait for nine months and then pop out a baby.

    The fact that vibes are still the subject of court battles over whether or not women should be allowed to have them only helps to prove their power.

    I’m very curious to see what others have to say. I’ve Dugg it:

  3. What? Invented by MEN???

    How could any Skepchick or Nrrd Grrl not know of the fabulous Grace Hopper, inventor of the compiler and the developer of layered computing standards? (She also gave us the term “debugging,” an immense contribution as any programmer would agree.) She’s also probably the only person other than James Randi to have earned the moniker “Amazing.”

    The TCP protocol itself, the very basis of all internet traffic, was developed in large part by Sally Floyd.

    Your Google searches would be much less useful without the techniques first pioneered by Karen Sparck Jones in information retrieval.

    Look at how much we depend on wireless technology now: Wi-Fi internet, cell phones, satellite communications…security is a HUGE issue with wireless, because anyone can tap the signal, but we can do it very securely thanks to very advanced and clever spread spectrum algorithms invented by…actress Hedy LaMarr.

    Where would it have all been in the first place without Adele Goldstein, who made significant contributions to the development of the ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer? She even wrote its incredibly detailed manual! (Why doesn’t anyone write manuals like that nowadays?)

    Computerized circuit switching, necessary for both the internet and modern phones, was invented by Erna Schneider Hoover.

    There’s Joan Margaret Winters, co-developer of the ASCII standard.

    Then, of course, I have to mention Ada Lovelace, first programmer ever!

    Internet invented by men? You do your gender a disservice. For shame!

  4. I must admit, theres a part of me, deeply buried where I drag my knuckles and fear the vibrator. Thats not a rational thought, and I know it. I should no more feel apprehension on that than a woman should feel over my “collection”.

    I’m quite fond of saying, courage is not the absence of fear, but the overcoming of it.

    Maybe, intelligence is not the lack of irrational thought, but better, the acknowledgment, and overcoming of it.

    (Way to profound, quick, insert cheap joke)

    That being said, any body got any pictures to help me get over this?

  5. Yes, definitely the tampon. I’m from the Philippines, where very few women use them, mostly because (1) of the popular misconception that only non-virgins can use them and (2) most of us had moms that didn’t use them either so we were only taught to use the pads. I myself have only started using them (I didn’t know where to buy them! I couldn’t find them in the grocery stores here), and I wish I had started earlier.

  6. shanek, you know you are awesome. Go on with your bad male self.

    AG, that’s very interesting. I didn’t realize the tampon was so rare in the Philippines! I, too, took a long time to start using them. It’s a damned shame, because I was such a tom boy and I could’ve spent a LOT more time swimming, plus running around playing sports without constantly freaking out over possible mishaps.

    There was recently an article on Jezebel about the shame of purchasing tampons and pads, something I think about a lot. Long ago I decided to not give a crap about whether or not people see me purchasing something that is 100% normal and necessary. Yet still I get weirded out about it and I have to force myself to suck it up and be a woman.

  7. Rebecca-
    I’m a father to a 12 year old girl, and it has happened that I’ve been sent out on midnight drug store runs to buy pads for my daughter. Other than a mild embarassment caused by forgetting what features I was supposed to be looking for, I didn’t really feel any embarassment, and certainly no shame. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy and it isn’t my biological functions being put on display.

    Holding my wife’s purse, though, is a completely different matter.

  8. – The chocolate martini
    – The birth control pill – yes, I’m a DINK and I intend to stay that way, thank you very much.
    – The high heeled shoe. Probably a controversial one but I can shop for shoes whenever I want and not get depressed because, unlike my pant size, my shoe size doesn’t change.
    – The hairdryer

    Put all these together and you get one heck of a night out. And, for the sensible side:

    – The ponytail holder
    – The tissue with lotion in (ok, not exclusively to women but as someone who gets a LOT of colds, this one is near and dear to my heart)
    – The three-day and (be still my heart) one-day yeast infection medication!

  9. Yeah, Canesten!

    Ooh, and that stuff for cystitis.

    The high-heeled shoe was on my ‘nearly’ list. Anything that makes a leg look longer, shaplier, and more taut is great in my book. I agree it’s a potentially controversial choice though!

    Hairdryer and ponytail holder – good calls.

    You can get tissues with Olbas Oil in now as well.

    Birth-control pill…I thought and thought about that one and am still torn, because there are other forms of birth control available, and also because the pill made me crazy when I was on it. Condoms very nearly made it onto my list though. You don’t need to remember to take them every day, and unlike the pill, they come in fruity flavours! And also they stop unwanted babies AND stds. But the Internet won out in the end. In fact some people spend so long online, they eliminate any chance of babies or stds entirely…

  10. So I just thought I should mention that you female types don’t have a monopoly on the ponytail holder… When I was 17, I was a decathlete with hair nearly to my waist, and let me tell you, those little stretchy bands made my life a Hell of a lot easier. If not for that useful invention, I might now be relating you the pain of having one’s hair wrap around a high-jump bar – which I imagine to a horrifically painful occurance.

  11. Augustus // Apr 16, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Rebecca Is that why women make us go out and get them?

    No, that’s because we’re too tired and cranky to do it ourselves.

    Or . . . yeah, sometimes, probably.

    Masala Skeptic // Apr 16, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    They should make BCPs in fruity flavors too :)

    YES, I definitely would have remembered to take mine had they been more similar to Flinstones vitamins. I mean in shape, too. Erotic shapes would be extra fun!

  12. I’m with limadean: the Diva Cup kicks the tampon’s skinny white butt. Here’s why:

    There are no known cases of TSS associated with it, it’s made of silicone and contains no dioxins (which only occur in tampons in trace amounts, but still might not be something you want to shove into yourself every month), it lasts for five to ten years with good care and therefore will save you more than the $600 you’d be spending on disposable menstrual products every five years, you can wear it for up to twelve hours which means it’s safe for overnight use, you can exercise and swim and do all the other stuff you can do with a tampon, it won’t dry you out and increase your risk of bacterial infection like a tampon does, it’s easy to use and to clean, and best of all, MUCH better for the environment. Think of all the paper and plastic and crap you go through on your period, and then think of all that crap piling up in landfills somewhere. Not only will there be fewer soiled pads and tampons, but there will be much less packaging and wrappers taking up space as well.

    (And no, I don’t work for them or anything; I just really like the product. You guys should actually do a piece on menstrual products at some point, ’cause there’s a lot of hooey out there. There’s enough to love about the cups without ladies spreading crap like “there’s asbestos in them there tampons!”)

  13. In fact some people spend so long online, they eliminate any chance of babies or stds entirely…

    *Raises hand, shamefacedly*

  14. First off, all these inventions, being good for women, are also good for men. Just thought I’d make that obvious point :)

    Tampons: I think a lot of guys don’t realize the impact here. Growing up with sisters, I have an idea of how life might suck without them. The main benefit for us men is that we are able to do the above mentioned activities with our female friends more. We wouldn’t normally stop to consider the inconvenience of menstruation, and now we don’t have to :)

    Vibrators: I seriously can’t understand the hangup here. I’m absolutely delighted to know women are out there having orgasms almost as often and as easily as I am :)

    The internet: or else we wouldn’t have :P

  15. thanks to very advanced and clever spread spectrum algorithms invented by…actress Hedy LaMarr.

    shanek, you just totally blew my mind into tiny bits.

  16. Birth control.

    Especially the pill.

    It has it’s bad points, but has been tweeked well over the years.

    The early studies in Puerto Rico transformed that island.

    Reliable birth control allowed many more women to work, and many more women to just have some fun.

  17. thanks to very advanced and clever spread spectrum algorithms invented by…actress Hedy LaMarr.

    shanek, you just totally blew my mind into tiny bits.

    “That’s Hedley!”

  18. I recently discovered the most amazing brownies. They’re kinda pricey at £7 for 12 little 2cm-square bites, but they’re simply delicious and best of all, they have a sprinkling of silver glitter on top for no reason at all!

    These people make them:

  19. I “lol”ed throughout the tampon blurb; it was fantastically worded.

    Also, I agree with Masala when she said this:
    “The high heeled shoe. Probably a controversial one but I can shop for shoes whenever I want and not get depressed because, unlike my pant size, my shoe size doesn’t change.”

  20. The birth control pill is the best. my paranoia probably makes it easy for me to remember to take it every night at the same time. It’s kind of a chore, but it’s better than just using condoms and constantly wondering if the condom broke or slipped and now i’m knocked up (told you i’m paranoid)

    I don’t think tampons are that embarrassing to buy…. I think it’s more embarrassing to buy maxi pads..One time my co-worker’s maxi pad fell out of her purse and all I could think was ‘who the hell would want to wear a maxi pad?’ they’re just so awful once you start using tampons…you just can’t go back.

    But all of these things don’t make up for the fact that pap smears are horrible.

  21. One more person to add to shanek’s list: Barbara Liskov.

    As well as a distinguished career that includes the development of the first programming language which supported data abstraction natively, she invented one of the least sexy, but most important parts of the Internet: The algorithm which finds the best path to send data through the backbone.

    The “Internet” is not a single computer network, because it has no central authority managing the physical structure. It’s actually a bunch of computer networks all connected together in a complex, messy, haphazard kind of way. Liskov’s distributed spanning tree algorithm is essentially what makes the mess managable.

    Incidentally, on tampons: My wife now uses a cup (the Diva Cup in particular), and now would never go back to tampons. They’re apparently more comfortable, more convenient, more environmentally friendly and cheaper in the long run.

  22. About that bra thing–they were only invented during my grandmother’s lifetime. Was every large-boobed woman for tens of thousands of years up til then really in constant pain?

  23. Well, in China, women used to have a special cloth wrap that could be used to tie up the breasts snugly. It was a base garment, so never worn anything like visible. Shaped a bit like a sports bra.

  24. The mop?

    Scrubbing bubbles?

    Butter-flavored PAM?


    The ball gag?

    (I am so kidding. Masala_Skeptic put me up to that. Honest :) )

  25. From a mother’s point of view: Disposable diapers. As I breastfed my children exclusively and they never had an ounce of formula, which is really important in raising healthy kids, not what kind of fabric you put on your kid’s bottom, I refuse to listen to any “environmental” lectures on the subject.

    Another highly underrated invention is the little “ding” that lets you know you left your car lights on. That battery saver has saved my bacon innumerable times!

  26. Yes, my list wasn’t anywhere near comprehensive. Women are all over the place in the development of computing, practically from the very beginning. The women mentioned here don’t even scratch the surface.

  27. qcgrrl: I think the argument against disposable diapers is more focused on the crapload (no pun intended) of disposables piling up in landfills, rather than the remote possibility of them being unhealthy for kids. There are a few out-there “organic” freaks who will accuse you of poisoning your children if you expose them to anything besides organic cloths and foods, but it’s the supposed wastefulness that’s more of a factor.

    I don’t mean to offend; I’m not a mother and do not intend to be one for quite a few years, so I’m not in a place to be criticizing any mothers. Disposables certainly seem easier to use and buy, and being the germaphobe that I am, cloth diapers kind of scare me anyway. But 3.4 million tons of used diapers a year (please correct me if this statistic is incorrect) piling up in a landfill scares me too. Let’s hope science has some better answers soon. (Something like this, maybe?

  28. I read a study about 10 years or so ago that claimed that cloth diapers (or “nappies” as we call them) are easily just as damaging to the environment as disposables, given the amount of water and electricity that it consumes to maintain them.

    gDiapers look very cool, but I do have to wonder about how big the environmental footprint is associated with their manufacture.

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