THE BLOG
04/01/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

From Christmas Seals to Kevlar

On March 27, I had the pleasure of attending the 2014 induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women. Stephanie Kwolek, my nominee, was one of the women being honored. Knowing how important it is to write women back into history, I am pleased to be able to share the stories of great Delaware -- and American -- women, all of whom have a place in the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women.

Abolitionist, educator, lawyer, and women's rights activist Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1823, the oldest of 13 children. During her amazing life, she had many firsts to her credit. She fought for improvements in the human condition for all men and women. Active in the efforts to abolish slavery, she was part of the Underground Railroad and, in 1853, the first African-American woman newspaper editor in North America. The audience for her paper (which she co-founded), The Provincial Freedom, were displaced African Americans living in Canada. After a career as a teacher, during which she established schools in several states, she became the first woman to enter Howard University's law school and the first African-American woman to earn a law degree (1883). In the meantime, she had turned her attention to women's suffrage, testifying before Congress on women's right to vote, and voting in a national election. One of the descendants of this amazing woman is a friend of mine who lives in Denver. Mary Ann Shadd Cary has also been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

A strong believer in women's suffrage, astronomer Annie Jump Cannon was born and raised in Dover, Delaware. She improved the scheme of stellar classification that is still used today. Cannon's interest in astronomy was nurtured by her mother and facilitated by a makeshift observatory in the attic of the home in which she grew up. She attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which had just recently opened. There she studied physics and astronomy and became interested in spectroscopy. After her 1884 graduation, she returned home. After her mother's death in 1893, she did postgraduate work at Wellesley and then at Radcliffe College. Her work at the Harvard Observatory began in 1896 where she simplified and perfected the existing system of classification of stars. During her career, she classified an estimated 350,000 stars that were published in volumes that came to be known as The Henry Draper Catalogue. Annie Jump Cannon has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Unlike Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Annie Jump Cannon, social worker Emily Bissell was an antisuffragist. She was born and lived most of her life Wilmington, Delaware where she helped sponsor the city's first free kindergarten and the first public playground in the state. In 1904, she helped organize the Delaware chapter of the American Red Cross and became its first secretary. This affiliation would be determining in her life. In 1907, she sold the first American Christmas seals in the lobby of the Wilmington post office to benefit a small tuberculosis treatment center in which her cousin was involved. In that first year, she raised $3,000. In 1908, she expanded the sales of Christmas seals to a national campaign that raised about $135,000. Much of the rest of her life would be dedicated to eradicating (or "stamping out") tuberculosis. Bissell was also active in securing the passage of Delaware's first child labor law and the state's first maximum-hour law for women in industry.

From Christmas Seals to Kevlar. Stephanie Kwolek is best known for her invention of Kevlar, the lightweight yet very strong polymer used in bulletproof vests and many other products. In fact, when she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995, she was escorted to the stage by a policeman whose bulletproof Kevlar vest had saved his life. Kwolek spent 40 years with DuPont during which time she obtained 16 patents for a variety of groundbreaking materials and devised new processes in polymer chemistry. Kwolek had shown an early interest in science. Intending to pursue a career as a doctor, Kwolek graduated with a BS in chemistry from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in 1946. She accepted a position as a chemist in the rayon department with DuPont planning to save the money she needed to attend medical school. In 1950, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, and became so interested in the polymer research in which she was involved that she decided medical school was no longer in her future. In addition to Kevlar, Kwolek worked on Lycra spandex fibers used in athletic clothing and Nomex, which is fire resistant and used by firefighters. Stephanie Kwolek has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Each of these women is one of the more than 850 women profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. The "First State" of Delaware -- and all of the U.S. -- can be proud to stand on the shoulders of and remember these remarkable women.

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