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Mothers of Invention -- Women Who Made it Happen

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I don't know what you'd do on your 63rd birthday, but I certainly wouldn't climb into a barrel and pitch myself over the edge of a deadly waterfall.

But that's exactly what Annie Edson Taylor did.

Was she proud of herself for her act of courage? Absolutely. Would she recommend it to others? Hardly.

"If it was with my dying breath," she told the gathered press afterwards, "I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall."

It was October 24, 1901, and Taylor -- a former school teacher from Bay City, Michigan -- was a widow who was perilously close to poverty. So she decided to seek fame (and, more important, fortune) by creating a publicity stunt that would guarantee financial security -- and she did it in a most unconventional way: by sealing herself inside a four-and-a-half-foot barrel which she designed; and, with the help of friends, plunging into the roiling rapids of the Niagara River. Twenty minutes later, she and her oaken vessel sailed over the brim of Niagara's legendary Horseshoe Falls, and went crashing into the churning water below.

The daredevil exploit was a rousing success: Annie emerged from the barrel, battered but alive. She would never achieve the wealth she'd hoped for (most of the money she earned from speaking engagements was spent paying a detective to find her barrel, which was stolen by her manager), but she secured her place in history: as the first person to survive the deadly Niagara drop, after nearly half a century of unsuccessful attempts by men.

Although most historians don't rank Annie's bumpy barrel trip alongside the triumphs of other feminist icons -- like Sojourner Truth or Susan B. Anthony or the suffragist foot soldiers of the early 20th Century -- I like to think of her achievement as an apt metaphor for the women's movement: her adversary was not the men who she ultimately bested in the feat, but, rather, the roaring river itself. And by claiming her right to a piece of that water -- regardless of her gender -- Annie not only proved that she could rise to the challenge, but rise above it.

As we celebrate Women's History Month, we'll be hearing a lot of the familiar stories about the women who stepped forward and addressed gender discrimination head on. As someone who participated in some of those battles starting back in the Seventies -- taking our stands and carrying our placards -- I say that's a good thing. We can never hear too much about that steady march to equality, if only as a reminder of how we got here and where we need to go.

But what about those other participants in the movement that changed the idea of who and what a women is -- those who, like Annie Edson Taylor, made their mark by defying any notion of "a woman's place" and simply setting out to do what they did best -- and, in the process, driving a stake into the landscape of equality?

There is a whole world of women inventors and entrepreneurs who we rarely hear about.

Did you know that a woman invented a product so universally successful that modern office workers continue to use it today, probably two to three times a week, if not daily?

Did you know that a glamorous movie star -- one known for her aching beauty -- was also a closet mathematician whose invention helped give birth to that cell phone in your purse?

And did you know that women have made it easier for you to drive in the rain, cure an infection, clean up after dinner, paint your toenails, design a spread-sheet, look inside your body for disease, and even settle onto the couch and indulge in your favorite sweet treat?

As my friend Gloria Steinem once said, "Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities." So this Women's History Month, let's recall our adventurous Mothers of Invention -- women who envisioned those exciting possibilities, whether it was a small idea or a grand scheme or maybe just a barrel ride over a waterfall, and sailed on to realize their dreams.

Take a look.

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