Get inspired by this trio of remarkable women.
Imagine a woman earning a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. Imagine a black woman mathematician performing complex calculations that help the United States fly into space. Imagine an actress, known as the most beautiful woman in the world, becoming a technology innovator.
Not hard to do, right? Women do impressive things like this all the time … now. But when these three women were making their mark on the world (in 1894, 1969, and 1942, respectively), most women could only dream about having such remarkable careers. Julia Morgan, Katherine G. Johnson, and Hedy Lamarr dreamed it, and then they did it—paving the way for future generations of women in STEM.
In honor of International Women’s Day, I’d like to introduce you (or reintroduce you) to these three women who were so far ahead of their times. I already knew about them, but the more I learned about them, the more I was blown away by their achievements.
Get ready to be inspired by:
Julia Morgan (1872–1957)
Writing about Julia Morgan is a thrill for me—not only because I’m in awe of her accomplishments, but because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have seen first-hand many of her architectural marvels. We both attended The University of California, Berkeley, albeit there were just a few years in-between.
Morgan was accustomed to being the only woman in the room. She was one of the first female engineering majors at UC Berkeley. She was the first woman admitted into the architecture program at École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the first woman to graduate from the prestigious school.
One year after Morgan became the first licensed woman architect in California, Mills College hired her to build a 72-foot bell tower called El Campanil. It was built from reinforced concrete in the red-tile roof Mission style. Like its creator, El Campanil was also a pioneer; it was the U.S.’s first free-standing structure of its kind and the first multi-story reinforced-concrete tower west of the Mississippi River.
A few years later, in 1906, an earthquake leveled much of San Francisco. Historic buildings fell to the ground, and fires took out others. But when the debris was cleared, El Campanil was left standing strong. Suddenly, reinforced concrete (and the woman who’d used it to build a bell tower) were in high demand, and companies like the Fairmont Hotel hired Morgan to build their new structures.
Her career spanned 46 years, during which she designed more than 700 buildings, mostly in California. Among them is Hearst Castle, the breathtaking estate she designed for publisher William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, California.
Morgan gained her last “first” in 2014, more than 50 years after her death, when she posthumously won the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal. She was the first woman to do so in the award’s 107-year history.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
I knew of Hedy Lamarr as a famous Hollywood actress, but I learned about her story in the book The Only Woman in the Room.
Hedy Lamarr was a stage name. She was born Hedwig Eva Kiesler, the only child of a wealthy Jewish family living in Vienna, Austria. Her father, a bank director with a curious mind, doted on his daughter and often took her for long walks where they discussed the inner workings of machines, from printing presses to street cars. By age 5, she was taking apart her music box and other toys to learn how they worked. While her father taught her about technology, her mother (a concert pianist) taught her to love the arts, and Lamarr began taking both ballet and piano lessons at an early age, and she went on to study acting in Berlin.
Early on, Lamarr’s brilliant mind and musical talent weren’t what caught people’s attention. Her beauty was. Director Max Reinhardt discovered her in an acting class when she was 16 and cast her in a small film role in 1930.
At age 19, she married Fritz Mandl, a wealthy munitions mogul nicknamed The Merchant of Death. His social circles included Hitler (who had just come to power in Germany) and Mussolini. Lamarr and Mandl hosted dinner parties with these powerful men and others, and Lamarr was privy to confidential discussions—including one where Hitler shared his plan to eliminate Jews from German society. Imagine being a Jewish woman and hearing that!
Lamarr’s husband didn’t just have questionable taste in friends. He was also controlling and abusive, and she was very unhappy in her marriage. She later described this period of her life:
“I knew very soon that I could never be an actress while I was his wife … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded—and imprisoned—having no mind, no life of its own.”
Lamarr left her husband in 1937, but her marriage wasn’t all in vain. She had learned a lot about the technical side of his munitions business, as well as from dinner-table conversation about war. But as a newly single woman, it was her beauty, not her brains, that helped her land on her feet. Movie mogul Louis B. Mayer discovered her in London and signed her to a multi-film contract with MGM studios.
Lamarr’s first movie, Algiers, co-starred Charles Boyer and was a huge hit. She quickly became famous and, for years, she was widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world. However, as Lamarr once put it, “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks . . .” On film, she typically played a seductive femme fatale, but in real life, she was more interested in machines than men, and she spent much of her time off camera inventing things.
This caught the attention of Howard Hughes, whom she met and dated during her time in Hollywood. An inventor himself, Hughes encouraged her love of innovation and even gifted her a small set of equipment to use in her movie trailer so she could conduct experiments between takes. Hughes also gave her private tours of his airplane factories, taught her about aviation, and introduced her to the scientists in his employ.
One of the original “women in tech,” Lamarr had many noteworthy inventions, from an upgraded stoplight, to a tablet that dissolved in water to make a soda similar to Coca-Cola. But her most important invention was a torpedo guidance system—technology that she developed alongside composer George Antheil, whom she met at a dinner party. Their invention let U.S. soldiers fighting in World War II communicate across different radio frequencies to prevent their German enemies from decoding messages.
That same technology, which gave the Allies a leg up in the war, later became the basis of modern technology such as WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
It took decades for Lamarr to get the credit she deserved, but in 1997, at age 84, she received the American Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. In Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, author Richard Rhodes recounts Lamarr’s response when the Foundation called to tell her about the award: “Well, it’s about time.”
In 2014, she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Better late than never for a woman who deserved so many awards.
Katherine G. Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine Johnson was one of the brains behind the complex calculations that helped the United States venture into space. In 1969, she helped successfully send the first man to the moon. Her work is highlighted in the film Hidden Figures, about the pioneering African-American women at NASA. This film is a “must see.”
Johnson joined Langley Research Center as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), an organization that would eventually become NASA. Despite her being black and a woman, she moved up the ranks due to her undeniable talent. She became known as a “human computer” because of her mathematical genius and ability to calculate space trajectories with very limited resources and only the most rudimentary technology. She became invaluable to NASA and was soon assigned to the all-male flight research division.
Johnson was the brains behind many of the most famous trips to space. She calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard in 1959 when he became the first American to travel to space. She also worked on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962 and Apollo 11’s trip to the moon in 1969. She retired from NASA in 1986.
Johnson co-authored 26 scientific papers and penned a memoir entitled My Remarkable Journey. Many books have been written about her, including Hidden Figures (which profiles Johnson and three other black women who were integral in the U.S. space race), along with her biographies and even inspirational children’s books.
In 2015, President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed on American civilians.
An inspirational woman to the end, Johnson spent the rest of her life encouraging women and girls to be assertive, adventurous, and curious, and to never believe for a second that women aren’t good at science.
“Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing,” she famously said. “Sometimes they have more imagination than men.”
Remembrance from her Granddaughter
In an Essence article several years ago, Johnson’s granddaughter Laurie Hylick beautifully summed up what her family’s matriarch meant to marginalized women everywhere:
“I knew my grandmother was smart, because she was the only person in the world who I knew could multiply three-digit numbers in her head. She didn’t even have to write it down or think about it or anything. If you gave her a three-digit number to multiply, she could figure it out within seconds, so I knew she was brilliant, and I knew that she worked for NASA for 33 years.
When I asked my grandmother about the racism and sexism that I imagined she faced at NASA, she told me, ‘I went to work. They told me what to do. I did my job. I did it right, and I did it well. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black. It doesn’t matter if you’re White. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman. If you know what you know, you’re good.’”
It’s that kind of attitude (and one heck of a brain) that made Johnson a star in her field, and an inspiration to women across generations and around the world. Like Lamarr and Morgan, Johnson didn’t let stereotypes or societal norms stand in her way. They all charted their own paths to success, blazing the trail for other women to follow in their footsteps.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, let’s all take the time to celebrate the power of women. While we’re at it, let’s think about how we can encourage and support the young women in our lives and create a better world for them to work in some day.