Voltaire said he never saw female inventors. A study on female entrepreneurs in 19th-century France reveals a very different reality.
PARIS — Steve, Larry and Sergei, Jack, Elon, Brian and Joe, Travis too. And also from here in France: Frederic, Alain, Jean-Baptiste, Eric ... Only men. The pioneers of Apple, Google, Alibaba, Tesla, Airbnb, Uber, and French startups Blablacar, Carmat, Criteo and Withings are all male. This fact seems to echo, through the centuries, the words of that old misogynist Voltaire, in his Philosophical Dictionary: "Very learned women are to be found, in the same manner as female warriors; but they are seldom or ever inventors."
The reality, however, was different, according to a recent discovery by economic history professor Zorina Khan of Bowdoin College, who scrutinized what happened in 19th-century France. In this piece of the past, there is great value for our future.
At first glance, it's all very simple. In an article published in 1900 on Le génie de l'invention chez les femmes, or, "The genius of female invention," doctor Antoine de Neuville explains that French women invent nothing, unlike American women. And if they register patents when they run a company, it's only to take hold of their employees' discoveries. Only the production of corsets wasn't covered by this iron law!
This sweeping judgment however reveals that, in Dr. Neuville's eyes, it was normal for women to manage businesses and patent inventions. Zorina Khan took an inventory of all the patents registered in France during the first half of the 19th century. Women registered 2.4% of the total. A tiny proportion, but two times higher than in the U.S. over the same period. And the law, at the time, hindered female initiatives by placing wives under the legal supervision of their husbands.
Closer examination reveals that the number of patents registered by women included processes that were indeed developed by women, such as the feeding bottle, patented by a midwife, Marie Breton, in 1824 and 1826. There were many female inventors for the corset — here, Neuville was right. They were also very active in almost every aspect of printing. Eugénie Niboyet, a feminist writer, obtained a patent in 1838 for a type of indelible ink. Eulalie Lebel, the daughter and wife of printers, soon to be abandoned by her husband, registered four patents with her son Henri for printing methods that were distinguished with medals during the Paris and London industrial fairs.
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French author, journalist and early feminist Eugénie Niboyet — Photo: Nadar/Wikimedia Commons
But the most impressive, at the time, was the "rise of the widows." The death of a husband was of course an emotional and often financial challenge, but it was also the opportunity to release energies and reveal potentials. According to Khan's calculations, more than 40% of women distinguished by rewards during industrial exhibitions were widows.
A brand still testifies of this dynamism today: the Veuve Cliquot champagne. In 1805, when she was 27 years old, Barbe-Nicole Cliquot took the helm of a small champagne business after her husband's death. This came with a technological innovation: She invented riddling, which allows more limpid wines. And a commercial innovation as well: She sent her representatives throughout Europe, whatever the difficulties. In 1814, her ship arrived first in Saint Petersburg to sell to the Russians the champagne that they would crack open in honor of Napoleon's defeat...
Upsides of "heir capitalism"
During the 19th century, many other widows achieved economic success through innovation. After the death of her husband in 1806, Dietrich's widow reoriented the Alsace steel company towards mechanical construction, leading to many innovative patents. She would later also be a pioneer in industrial design.
As for the widow Gévelot, she perfected her late husband's cartridges, registering a lot more patents than he'd ever done. Sensitive Armfield was the daughter of a English industrialist who emigrated to the French Indre-et-Loire department in 1806, where he funded the creation of a spinning mill. She married her father's partner, who died in 1828. She then took the helm of the business, introduced new technologies, brought over two entrepreneur brothers at her side, and received medals for her work. The company still exists today: It's called Toiles de Mayenne.
These stories are the proof that women knew how to innovate in an industrializing France. It's possible to learn two lessons from this for the future. First, the role played by family businesses. Most female successes of the early 19th century happened within family businesses, taken over by widows or daughters.
"Heir capitalism," as dubbed by the economist Thomas Philippon in 2007, can admittedly limit profitability, raise risks of bankruptcy, and foster general conservatism. But it can also let talents blossom that wouldn't have otherwise. Capitalism will find its future not only in major listed companies, but also in the diversity of models, where private equity, family businesses, cooperative groups, companies with social objectives will come into action.
The second lesson is simpler: When humanity will have found a way to truly give a voice to the Lauras, Yasminas, and Ninas, it will be on the right path towards true growth.