Monday, June 29, 2020

An “Innocuous Looking” Box: The Rape Kit, Innovation, and the Matilda Effect

(Source: Public domain from
Martha “Marty” Goddard invented the rape kit, but until recently, never received credit.

She fought for years to have her idea accepted by law enforcement and the courts, to have sexual assault treated as a crime and not, as author Pagan Kennedy writes, a feminine delusion. 

Goddard was sometimes encouraged, sometimes funded, but often ignored and belittled.  She herself was raped by someone pretending to be a supporter.

She died an exhausted, penniless alcoholic.  Her heartbreaking story is told beautifully by Kennedy in the New York Times Sunday Review.  But Goddard’s idea would, as Steve Jobs encouraged, go on to dent the universe. 

I invite you to read Kennedy’s compelling article.  I hope that, one day, it becomes a book.  It will make you angry and frustrated and maybe want to cry.

Based on my own reading of innovation, I have a short postscript to add.  But first, the basics:

While working at a crisis hotline for teens in Chicago in 1972, Goddard came to realize that many girls ran away from home to escape sexual abuse.  That’s when she envisioned the first standardized rape kit. She wasn’t trying to dent the universe; she simply wanted girls and women to have the opportunity to present their stories in a legal world that judged what they wore and where they happened to be as evidence exonerating the men who assaulted them.

When Goddard offered a written description of her idea to Louis Vitullo, a Chicago police sergeant and chief microanalyst in the city's crime lab, “he screamed at her.  He told her she had no business getting involved with this and what she was talking about was crazy.”

Not long after that meeting, Sgt. Vitullo invited Goddard to return, presenting her with a prototype of the kit she had described and taking ownership of the idea.  The trademark for the Vitullo Evidence Collection Kit was filed in 1978.  The sergeant’s obituary in 2006 was titled “Man Who Invented the Rape Kit.”

A Postscript: The Matilda Effect

This kind of theft is so common, so usual for a man to take credit for the intellectual capital of a woman, that it has a name: the Matilda Effect.

I first encountered this issue when researching Eli Whitney and his cotton gin for Innovation on Tap.

Whitney’s story involves Catharine Greene, widow of General Nathanael Greene and proprietor of Mulberry Grove, a plantation in Georgia which hosted Whitney as a guest in 1793.

Greene would prove to be a remarkable entrepreneur.  It was her personal network that first introduced Whitney to the problems of cotton processing, her encouragement that set him working on the cotton gin project, and the equity in her plantation and willingness to play angel investor that provided financing for his startup expenses. 

Nonetheless, when Whitney filed his patent for the cotton gin in 1794, he listed himself as the sole inventor.

Matilda Joslyn Gage, c. 1871 (Source: Schlesinger
Library on the History of Women in America) The mother-in-law
of L. Frank Baum (author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"), 
Matilda has an incredible story of her own.
In 1870, Matilda Electra Josyln Gage (18261898) offered a different version of the Whitney story.  “It may, perhaps, be unknown,” she wrote, “that the invention of the cotton-gin, one of the greatest mechanical triumphs of modern times, is due to a woman.  Although the work on the model was done by the hands of Eli Whitney,” Gage added, “yet Mrs. Greene originated the idea, and knowing Whitney to be a practical mechanic, she suggested his doing the work.” 

On at least one occasion, Gage concluded, Whitney had been stumped and intended to give up until Greene provided him both encouragement and a practical, mechanical solution.[1] 

In 1993, science historian Margaret W. Rossiter coined the term "Matilda Effect" in Gage’s honor to describe the systemic denial of contributions by women scientists in research.  She found Matilda Gage especially appropriate because Gage herself had been largely forgotten despite her seminal role in women’s suffrage. 

Rossiter lists examples of the Matilda Effect, including the case of LiseMeitner, who labored for decades with Otto Hahn in Germany on nuclear fission, only to be stunned in 1944 when “he alone had been awarded the Nobel Prize for one of the biggest collaborative discoveries of the century.”[2]  Likewise, Rossiter notes, it took from 1906 to 1971 and twelve editions before the series American Men of Science was finally renamed American Men and Women of Science.

Pamela Bauer Mueller’s novel, Lady Unveiled: Catharine Greene Miller, 17551814, brings the Matilda Effect to life by providing a version of the invention of the cotton gin that assigns Greene the role of primary collaborator.  In Mueller’s story, Whitney has solved the problem of separating seeds from cotton staple but is stumped because the staple remains stuck on the wire teeth, jamming his machine. 

“I have reached the end of my road,” Whitney says, and “I am prepared to abandon this machine altogether.”  That’s when Catharine Greene picks up a hearth brush from the fireplace, waves it over Whitney’s failed model like a magic wand, and says, “Perhaps this brush’s stiff bristles would help you remove the lint from the teeth!”[3]  Then she quickly flicked the cotton fibers off the wires and onto the table.  Whitney stands amazed at Greene’s elegant solution.

More than good storytelling, this is a real possibility.  In an 1832 sketch of Whitney, author William Scarborough described Catharine’s suggestion of a hearth brush, prompting the inventor to add a second cylinder for cleaning the lint and seed from the teeth of the primary cylinder.[4]  This sketch was written just seven years after Whitney’s death, and has as its source Dr. Lemuel Kollock (17661823), a close friend and confidant of Greene’s.  Kollock served as executor of Catharine’s estate, and supported Whitney at his final patent trial in Georgia.  If Catharine had confided the truth of the invention of the cotton gin to any one person, it would have been Dr. Kollock.

Where Matilda Gage credited outright the invention of the cotton gin to Greene, other historians take a more nuanced position.[5]  Scholar Autumn Stanley may have come closest to the bullseye when she wrote, in her 1993 Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, that “Catherine Greene almost surely did not invent the cotton gin ‘instead’ of Eli Whitney, but" without her help, Stanley concludes, “Whitney might have failed.”[6]

Catharine Littlefield Greene c. 1809 (Source: Telfair
Museums) attributed to Jame Frothingham
Today, Catharine Greene would almost certainly have been listed as a co-inventor on the cotton gin patent.  The fact that she did not receive credit, as Margaret Rossiter suggests, was a fate that befell dozens of American female inventors.

Still, against all odds, some prevailed. The first American patent awarded to a woman was granted in 1809 to Mary Kies of Connecticut who invented a way of weaving straw and silk to make hats.  Six years later, Mary Brush received a patent for improvements to the corset.  The third went to Sophie Usher in 1819 for a process that turned violet water and cream of tartar into toilet lotion.

Ten women received patent awards by 1828, but it was the eighth and ninth who continued to break especially important ground.[7]  In 1826, Phoebe Collier received a patent for sawing wheel rims, and two years later Elizabeth Buckley patented the sheet iron shovel.  Both inventions were clearly outside the domestic sphere, further proof that contributions by women should not and could not be limited to household goods and dress. 

By 1876, women accounted for 859 American patents, about one-half percent of all those granted.[8]  Eight years later Judy W. Reed of Washington, D.C., became the first black woman to receive an American patent, for a mechanical dough kneader.[9] The fact that women were not admitted to schools that taught sciences or higher mathematics and were generally excluded from mechanical trades in the 18th and 19th centuries made these early patent awards all the more remarkable.

Goddard and Her Innocuous Box

Goddard continued fighting to have the rape kit accepted, finally convincing the giant New York City police department to adopt her innovation in 1982.

As its use grew, the rape kit overwhelmed a system unprepared and often unwilling to adapt. By 2000, New York City had 16,000 untested kits.  In 2009, investigators found an abandoned parking garage in Detroit where police had stored 11,000 untested kits from as far back as 1980. In 2015, before the Justice Department finally intervened to help break the logjam, the US had a backlog of 400,000 kits.

A central theme of Innovation on Tap is that the most influential innovations in history often have little to do with technology or the latest whizz-bang breakthrough. They don’t even involve new stuff—only a combination of the old, combined in a new way.  They arise the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s combination of Thomas Jefferson (b. 1743) with rap (circa 1980) turned Broadway and the US on its head.

The power of these kinds of low-tech novel combinations comes in binding people and information together in new, more powerful ways.

The rape kit that Goddard conceived included test tubes, slides and protective packaging, a comb, sterile nail clippers, and a bag for the victim’s clothing.  It also had a card with information about counseling and medical services. It cost all of $2.50.

This “innocuous looking” box could not have been any simpler.  But, it:

  • Replaced a system designed to destroy evidence with one designed to preserve it.  It taught nurses, for example, how to collect evidence suitable for lab work and (in an intended kindness to the victim) not discard bloody clothing. 
  • Connected medical professionals with law enforcement and both with lawyers, judges and juries. It assembled--sometimes unknowingly and even reluctantly--a support team for the victim.  
  • Encouraged the report of assault.
  • Created a chain of custody.
  • Impressed, relieved and swayed jurors by introducing science in support of emotional, conflicting testimony.

Most of all, it worked, helping convict its first rapist in 1979.

The rape kit was a collection of everyday material brought together with simple instructions, but, Kennedy writes, it was really “a new way of thinking about prosecuting rape.” 

Goddard died in 2015. “Writing this,” Kennedy concludes, “I dreamed of one day seeing one of the original kits displayed in the Smithsonian, among the parade of great American inventions.”

With a picture beside it of Martha Marty Goddard, of course, an innovator whose innocuous looking box dented the universe.

[1] Matilda E. Joslyn Gage, Woman as Inventor, New York State Woman Suffrage Association, pamphlet, No. II, Vol. III, February 1870, 32 pages.

[2] Margaret W. Rossiter, “The Matthew Matilda Effect in Science,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 23, No. 2, May 1993, pp. 329.

[3] Pamela Bauer Miller, Lady Unveiled: Catharine Greene Miller, 1755-1814, Jekyll Island, GA: Piñata Publishing, 2014, Kindle edition, Loc 148.

[4] William Scarborough, “Sketch of Eli Whitney,” Southern Agriculturist, August 1832.

[5] See Denise E. Pilato, The Retrieval of a Legacy: Nineteenth-Century American Women Inventors, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000, 11.

[6] Autumn Stanley, Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, 48.

[7] C.H. Claudy, “Women as Inventors,” Scientific American, New York, Vol. CVI, No. 15, April 13, 1912.

[8] Warner, Deborah J., “Women Inventors at the Centennial,” Dynamos and Virgins Revisited: Women and Technological Change in History, Marth Moore Trescott, ed., Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1979, 104.

[9] B. Zorina Khan, The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development, 1790-1920, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 134.

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