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Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men

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It all starts with a rolling suitcase. Though the wheel was invented some five thousand years ago, and the suitcase in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that someone successfully married the two. What was the hold up? For writer and journalist Katrine Marçal, the answer is both shocking and simple: because “real men” carried their bags, no matter how heavy. It all starts with a rolling suitcase. Though the wheel was invented some five thousand years ago, and the suitcase in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that someone successfully married the two. What was the hold up? For writer and journalist Katrine Marçal, the answer is both shocking and simple: because “real men” carried their bags, no matter how heavy.   Mother of Invention is a fascinating and eye-opening examination of business, technology, and innovation through a feminist lens. Because it wasn’t just the suitcase. Drawing on examples from electric cars to bra seamstresses to tech billionaires, Marçal shows how gender bias stifles the economy and holds us back, delaying innovations, sometimes by hundreds of years, and distorting our understanding of our history. While we talk about the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, we might as well talk about the “Ceramic Age” or the “Flax Age,” since these technologies were just as important. But inventions associated with women are not considered to be technology in the same way.


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It all starts with a rolling suitcase. Though the wheel was invented some five thousand years ago, and the suitcase in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that someone successfully married the two. What was the hold up? For writer and journalist Katrine Marçal, the answer is both shocking and simple: because “real men” carried their bags, no matter how heavy. It all starts with a rolling suitcase. Though the wheel was invented some five thousand years ago, and the suitcase in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that someone successfully married the two. What was the hold up? For writer and journalist Katrine Marçal, the answer is both shocking and simple: because “real men” carried their bags, no matter how heavy.   Mother of Invention is a fascinating and eye-opening examination of business, technology, and innovation through a feminist lens. Because it wasn’t just the suitcase. Drawing on examples from electric cars to bra seamstresses to tech billionaires, Marçal shows how gender bias stifles the economy and holds us back, delaying innovations, sometimes by hundreds of years, and distorting our understanding of our history. While we talk about the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, we might as well talk about the “Ceramic Age” or the “Flax Age,” since these technologies were just as important. But inventions associated with women are not considered to be technology in the same way.

30 review for Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men

  1. 5 out of 5

    David Wineberg

    When I reviewed Katrine Marçal’s first book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner, I was most pleased with her directness, her mastery of her theses and her comfort in landing punches. I very much looked forward to her next book. Four years later, I am not only not disappointed, but delighted to have her take me down another path to make basically the same points and more. She is adding great depth to feminist positions. Mother of Invention bemoans the all but total lack of respect for women as valid co When I reviewed Katrine Marçal’s first book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner, I was most pleased with her directness, her mastery of her theses and her comfort in landing punches. I very much looked forward to her next book. Four years later, I am not only not disappointed, but delighted to have her take me down another path to make basically the same points and more. She is adding great depth to feminist positions. Mother of Invention bemoans the all but total lack of respect for women as valid contributors to the economy. Only 3% of venture capital funds go to women. Women are relegated to so-called women’s work, which is paid far cheaper than men’s work. Their inventive and innovative skills are dismissed out of hand. Far worse than merely insulting, it means that humanity misses out on all kinds of leaps forward because only half the populations gets to contribute to growth. The book begins with several intriguing stories to show just how much we might be missing. Karl Benz’s wife Bertha took the first Benz car on the world’s first long distance trip in 1888. She didn’t tell her husband, but took the kids to visit their grandmother, 56 miles away. With no highways and a car capable of going 10 miles per hour, it took 15 hours to get there. There not being telephones in common use yet, she had no idea her mother was away herself, so they turned around and went home. But along the way, she had to deal with a clogged fuel line, which she cleared with her hatpin, running out of fuel, which she remedied by buying a jar of a chemical mix from a store, using a garter to insulate an ignition wire, and asking a shoemaker to make leather covers for the brakes, which had never experienced such work as going down hills. Not only could she drive, but she knew the car inside out. Bertha Benz had invested her whole dowry in her husband’s wild automobile dream, and then persuaded her parents to advance her some of her inheritance. The .75 horsepower, three-wheeler worked, and Mercedes-Benz soon became the biggest automobile brand in the world, thanks in no small part to Bertha Benz. Marçal also spends a lot of time on electric cars, which are now coming back into use. The first versions were relegated to women, because she says, they did not: make the exciting automobile noises, require the strength to crank them into running, or break down and need manly attention to get them going again. Electric cars came with plush seats and glass vases. And roofs, which gasoline and diesel cars only adapted later on. And it’s because of women that we have electric starters on gas cars, after a man tried to help a woman start her car, only to have the crank fly off and hit him in the face. He died of gangrene not long after. Another story tells how women were finally able to fly alone thanks to the addition of wheels to luggage. The invention of the wheel itself apparently was no eureka moment, but a 5000 year tale of incremental steps –ending with wheels on luggage. The rollator, the wire basket on wheels used by the elderly and disabled to help carry stuff and also to rest on, was invented by a Swedish woman suffering from polio. She couldn’t make herself into the aggressive CEO her invention needed to succeed, and ended up selling it to a local manufacturer for a pittance. There’s a wonderful story about an army of master seamstresses sewing together the 4000 pieces of early astronauts’ spacesuits, and all the trouble NASA had with them because they weren’t engineers or bureaucrats. They did not fill out the forms, report the progress or prove the spaceworthiness of their work. But there was no question they had the best design, the best materials and the best workmanship of all the firms wanting the contract. Their company was Playtex, which had women front and center from the beginning. The biggest reason they had the jump on everyone else was latex. Decades earlier, latex began to appear in women’s corsets and bras, giving them flexibility they had never known before. This same flexibility was key to astronauts being able to bend and maneuver, and differentiated the company’s bid for spacesuits from all the others. The fact that a bra maker beat out all the macho engineering firms was not a proud moment, apparently, because women’s underwear was hardly manly space-age stuff. Marçal puts it in her terms: “ILC (International Latex Corporation) understood that the bra was a piece of engineering, just as they understood that their latex patent could allow astronauts to move on other celestial bodies—in addition to streamlining a woman’s waist. They understood that sewing was a technology, and that soft things can perform hard functions. “Above all, they managed to build an organization that reflected this. “And that is why they could innovate. And that’s what took us to the moon.” There’s also the story of Paulette Grégoire, who took Teflon and used it in a pan - in 1954. The company her husband built out of that concept was and is called Tefal. The point is, given the chance, women have contributed mightily. Imagine if they were treated as equals. From these stories, Marçal eases into inequality and all its ugly aspects. Her command of this feminist realm is total and comfortable. She can be sarcastic and damning, or firm-minded and evenhanded, as required. It is a pleasure to read her confident and self-assured take on everything: “In 2019, just over one percent of Swedish venture capital was invested into companies founded by women. The choice of the word ‘skewed’ here is in itself interesting: We’re talking about money in more than ninety-eight percent of cases going to men. But fine, let’s call it ‘skewed.’” And “The problem isn’t that the men have snatched all the high-paid jobs: The problem is that certain jobs are high paid because they are filled by men.” She then presents her analysis of how women got to be paid so much less than men. Women’s work was considered having to do with the body, which required no salable skills, as everyone could and did do it. So cleaning, childcare, elder care, housework and salons were cheap women’s work. “The body reminds us of all those things we find uncomfortable: our vulnerability and our reliance on others. The very things that we have been taught to see as ‘female.’ After all, this is what the patriarchy has always been about—taking the parts of the human experience that scare us, labeling them as female, and marginalizing them,” she says. Art was produced by men; women made craftwork. Wizards were employed by kings. Witches were burned at the stake. Men’s work required education, experience and skills that women’s work did not. Employers took terrific advantage of this attitude by breaking jobs down to tiny increments and underpaying women to perform them. This is the system the world still operates under today. “Human exploitation isn’t anything particularly new. It’s basically the oldest business model in the world,” she says. Worse perhaps, is the whaling model she says rules capital. In the 1800s, when whale oil ran everything that was important to commerce, whaling expeditions were risky, dangerous and a terrible gamble. Innovative capitalists invented a new way to fund them. They packaged multiple whaling expeditions, figuring if just one out three made it back with a shipload of blubber, the profits would be more than enough to compensate for the total loss on the others (Marçal takes readers on a typical expedition to show how it all came together – and fell apart). This model has come down to us as venture capital, enabling billions to be made by a few hundred people in the world, who understand they will lose on most of their investments, but score so highly on one or two it doesn’t matter about the rest. This kind of aggressive investment also requires the recipients to be world-beating, aggressive, single-minded and fearless themselves. No holds barred, go for the monopoly ahead of all else, and never be afraid of offending. To Marçal, this is all but a pure prescription for males, or what we have driven them to be, and the numbers have shown it all along. Only women who can prove more manly than men need apply. I particularly liked her analysis of where “innovation” is taking us now. Marçal says we are not employing innovation to make things better for humans; we are forcing humans to adapt to innovation. She says 9-5 weekdays is not a natural or even beneficial state of affairs. Work should be adapted to the desires and requirements of humans. The book was written before the lockdowns eased, but we can see the same thoughts expressed by what amounts to a general strike by low-pay workers. They are refusing to go back to work under the pre-pandemic rates and conditions. US President Joe Biden has his own solution: “Pay them more,” but it clearly goes far deeper than that. Marçal’s take is more detailed: people want freedom from exploitation, like they see in the ultra-rich. They want respect for their lives. Keep your nights and weekends, one half of minimum wage waiter’s job. No thanks. She sees the new economy dividing into new segments: the ultra-rich, the people who service them, and the rest. And it’s so-called women’s work that will succeed. It’s the life coaches, caregivers, social workers and yoga instructors who will continue to be gainfully employed in the post pandemic, AI era. The truck drivers, machinists, warehouse workers and delivery guys are the ones at risk. How will men handle this reversal? She spends a great deal of time on Friedrich Engels and his discovery of exactly the same situation in mid 1800s, during the first industrial revolution. Brand new factory jobs went to lower-paid women, and skilled men fell into unemployment. From that, men learned to take over, become far more aggressive and ruthless in business, and push women back into running the home and family. It was good for 150 years, but now artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are again putting men out of work. Or, as Marçal puts it, “Serena Williams beats Gary Kasparov.” The evidence she presents shows we have always favored new tech. It colors our language and approaches differently from era to era, whether it’s in religion or business or relationships. We now speak of our brains as computers, needing to reboot and so on. We used to speak in farming terms, then in factory terms, and for the moment, high tech.) And that’s wrong, she says. We need to build an economy based on what is real – women giving birth not just to future generations, but to all the new developments we achieve along the way. “We aren’t used to appreciating how important feelings, relationships, empathy, and human contact are to the economy. Or how central these things are to humanity as a whole. We are used to thinking of them as some sort of cherry on top—the frills that everything else may eventually lead to, as opposed to perhaps the most fundamental social infrastructure of all. Which is precisely what it is. This is what the robots may come to show us, and with this the new technology actually has the potential to make us more human, not less. “ The book, as you can see, is both varied and focused, entertaining and profound. All kinds of great stories are available to make Marçal’s feminist points. She’s not angry or embittered; she seeks to make her stances irrefutable and her outlook positive. This is a different kind of feminist writing, one that earns the reader’s respect and then even gratitude. Because the way she puts things, it’s a terrible loss to all of humanity that women don’t count. David Wineberg

  2. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Interesting study on how inventions that benefited women were not picked up, until they become something that capitalism to make a profit from. The example on the cover, that of suitcases with wheels, was largely ignored as a product, even though many women had jerryrigged their suitcases, so they could roll. The same thing with the walker, for the elderly, that came with a seat. It was invented by a woman who needed that feature in order to be able to get around. But this too was largely ignored Interesting study on how inventions that benefited women were not picked up, until they become something that capitalism to make a profit from. The example on the cover, that of suitcases with wheels, was largely ignored as a product, even though many women had jerryrigged their suitcases, so they could roll. The same thing with the walker, for the elderly, that came with a seat. It was invented by a woman who needed that feature in order to be able to get around. But this too was largely ignored, until there were people who needed it more. Frustrating reading of all the inventions that got stolen from female inventors, or were made later, once the men could find a way to make a huge profit from them. Thanks to Netgalley for making this book available for an honest review.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sivvy

    I’ve long pondered why it was that, as a species, we put humans on the moon before we realised that suitcases with wheels would be a good idea. Turns out the latter existed back then but were deemed “too feminine” to be worth investing in . . . and so it begins. Marcal’s book is a fascinating review of how the undervaluing of all things female impacts our technological progress and damages us all. It seems to drift a little towards the end and could perhaps have benefitted from some more specifi I’ve long pondered why it was that, as a species, we put humans on the moon before we realised that suitcases with wheels would be a good idea. Turns out the latter existed back then but were deemed “too feminine” to be worth investing in . . . and so it begins. Marcal’s book is a fascinating review of how the undervaluing of all things female impacts our technological progress and damages us all. It seems to drift a little towards the end and could perhaps have benefitted from some more specific examples, but still an interesting, if depressing, read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne Wilkinson-McKay

    This was the perfect follow up to Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner. It was far more detailed and in-depth and described how the “feminine” has been devalued and therefore any innovation concerned with “soft” values, such as love, caring, homemaking etc has been thought of as lesser than those concerned with tough technology such as cars, planes and computers. However, this is not a “men-bashing” tome. Katrine explains that anything that makes women’s lives easier also makes men’s lives easier. The This was the perfect follow up to Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner. It was far more detailed and in-depth and described how the “feminine” has been devalued and therefore any innovation concerned with “soft” values, such as love, caring, homemaking etc has been thought of as lesser than those concerned with tough technology such as cars, planes and computers. However, this is not a “men-bashing” tome. Katrine explains that anything that makes women’s lives easier also makes men’s lives easier. There is a superb chapter comparing Garry Kasparov and Serena Williams, and another explaining the gig economy which was very informative. Great book. Highly recommended.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Justine

    Thanks to NetGalley and Abrams Press for providing an ARC!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Juju

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I liked the first 2-3 ideas presented in this book but after that it went downhill. The book pretty much follows an extremely one-sided view of women's place in today's society and how to measure their worth. To argue that one needs to be an influencer to be economically successful is ludicrous. To measure success in dollars and not in societal impact or general happiness is ludicrous too. To blame climate change deniers, which can be female as well, on the fact that we say mother earth and not I liked the first 2-3 ideas presented in this book but after that it went downhill. The book pretty much follows an extremely one-sided view of women's place in today's society and how to measure their worth. To argue that one needs to be an influencer to be economically successful is ludicrous. To measure success in dollars and not in societal impact or general happiness is ludicrous too. To blame climate change deniers, which can be female as well, on the fact that we say mother earth and not father earth just ignores any kind of sensible explanation, say lack of information or misinformation. I am disappointed.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bougon Yves

    "The credit crunch of 2008 held the world economy back for 10 years. Meanwhile, the ongoing female credit crunch has been holding the world economy back since... well, for ever. (...) There isn't a single country on the planet in which women collectively don't have less money and less economic opportunity than men. The fact that men have money and women don't is one of the factors that fundamentally shapes our world. Naturally, it also plays a huge part in determining which innovations become a "The credit crunch of 2008 held the world economy back for 10 years. Meanwhile, the ongoing female credit crunch has been holding the world economy back since... well, for ever. (...) There isn't a single country on the planet in which women collectively don't have less money and less economic opportunity than men. The fact that men have money and women don't is one of the factors that fundamentally shapes our world. Naturally, it also plays a huge part in determining which innovations become a reality and which ones don't."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sidney

    Marçal’s book is extremely interesting, explaining how some of todays most used inventions were deemed unnecessary until a man basically thought to use it. Wheels on suitcases meant you were weak until it didn’t, the electric car took a backseat until now. The book is written well and easy to understand!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    I feel this book has a undermining title. It is a fascinating look not just at inventions but how the entire structure of gender has impacted how we view both technology and modernisation. Also includes one of the best considerations of the 2020 year of the initial reaction to the Covid pandemic that I have read to date. Highly recommended.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Shayaalh

    Such a great book!!!! Never have I been blown away by ideas and how they were linked this way. Final chapters were dull and the author could’ve done with a concluding chapter instead, but it was still wonderful. Also wtf was that chapter on witches kinda unnecessary.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Thierry Heck

    Makes for a fun companion piece to Caroline Criado-Perez' "Invisible Women" and Helen Lewis' "Difficult Women" to form a sort of "Those Darn Uppity Women" trilogy! :-) High recommendation! Makes for a fun companion piece to Caroline Criado-Perez' "Invisible Women" and Helen Lewis' "Difficult Women" to form a sort of "Those Darn Uppity Women" trilogy! :-) High recommendation!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Johnson

    Very readable non-fiction book with lots of interesting facts throughout. This book shows why it is important to have all people represented in rooms where decisions are being made. Highly recommend reading this book!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ron Frampton

    A book on how gender bias stifles the economy and holds us back for innovations.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Tanya Kirk

    3.5*

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mairead

    Fascination, thought-provoking

  17. 4 out of 5

    Claire Bishop

    This book is brilliant. Full of research and information that I had no clue about, it really does showcase how our history and evolution has been shaped by gender. It’s definitely worth a read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Emily Martin

    I won a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways. I am a steward for a Little Free Library and I'm excited to share this one with the community! I won a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways. I am a steward for a Little Free Library and I'm excited to share this one with the community!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tanja

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lyndsey Jenkins

  21. 4 out of 5

    saranimals

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rikki

  23. 4 out of 5

    Annie

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stef

  25. 4 out of 5

    Fiona

  26. 4 out of 5

    Grisselda

  27. 5 out of 5

    David Bowes

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sonya Dutta Choudhury

  29. 4 out of 5

    Matina Georgiou-Rooney

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lillie

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