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Remarks by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross at the USPTO Women's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative


Thank you, Andrei. And congratulations to the whole USPTO team on your achievement in moving from 12th place to a 2nd place tie in the U.S. Chamber’s 2019 patent rights rankings.

It is great to be here at the beginning of Women’s History Month. Women have a long history with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


Clara Barton, whom we celebrate today during Women’s History Month, was in the vanguard of female empowerment since the mid-19th Century. While Clara Barton is most famous as the prominent nurse for soldiers during the Civil War, and for founding the American Red Cross, she accomplished both after having first been a trailblazer at the U.S. Patent Office.


Clara moved to Washington, D.C., in 1854, where she was among the first women to work at the U.S. Patent Office. Hired by Patent Commissioner Charles Mason, who for the first time in government employed women clerks to work in a federal office, Clara insisted on the same salary as her male counterparts: $1,400 per year. Clara faced challenges in the workplace. In 1857, her job description was changed abruptly, and she returned home to Massachusetts.


Upon the election of President Lincoln, Clara was restored to her original position at the Patent Office and briefly served there before leaving to help the wounded soldiers during the Civil War. She earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” for her willingness to bring medical supplies and tend to the wounded during the fighting. But she is also remembered here at USPTO as a pioneer for women employees in the federal workplace.


Since Clara Barton’s early days of service, the Department of Commerce and the USPTO have become the bedrock of the American and global innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems. And I am delighted to be joined here today by Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Karen Dunn Kelley, and Deputy Director of USPTO, Laura Peter.                                                                  

Although women remain underrepresented on the list of patent holders, there have been some fascinating, though unsung, female inventors over time. For example, one of the most successful woman inventors of the 19th Century was Margaret Knight, whose machine that folded and glued paper into a flat-bottomed bag is still in use today.  


Like many enterprising inventors, she had to defend her invention in court. But unlike other inventors, she had to overcome the primary argument used against her, which was, quote: “A woman could not possibly understand mechanical complexities.” End quote. Margaret later invented 100 other devices and patented 20 of them, including a rotary engine, a shoe-cutting machine, and a window frame sash.


Then there was Josephine Cochran. After her husband died, leaving her destitute, she perfected and patented the idea of a mechanical dishwasher. Her company is now part of Kitchen Aid.   


Another serial inventor-entrepreneur was Maria Beasley, whose inventions included a foot warmer, a device to prevent train derailments, a barrel-making machine, and a dramatically improved life raft for oceanliners. These inventions made her wealthy. However, given the mores of the times, she was listed in the 1880 Census as an “unemployed housewife.”


Yet another woman inventor who overcame adversity through innovation was Mary Anderson. She invented the windshield wiper in 1905.  But it wasn’t until 1922, after the patent expired, that Cadillac became the first company to commercialize her invention.


Even more extraordinary was Sarah Breedlove. She was the first post Emancipation Proclamation offspring of her formerly enslaved family.  At the age of 20, Breedlove invented a line of hair-care products specifically designed to meet the needs of African American women.  Along the way, she renamed herself “Madam C.J. Walker,” and went on to become the first self-made female millionaire in the history of our country.


There is even a movie queen in the pantheon of female inventors. Hedy Lamarr, in addition to starring in MGM movies, developed a process during World War II for encrypting control signals to prevent enemies from jamming and diverting our torpedoes. Although not actualized until much later, her technology is still used by tens of millions of people every day in Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth products.


Meanwhile, Marie V.B. Brown devised the remote vision and door unlocking mechanisms used in today’s home security systems.


And Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar, the bullet-proof material that has saved thousands of military and police lives.


Especially impressive is Patricia Bath, the first African American female doctor to receive a patent for medical purposes. The Laserphaco Probe is now used globally to dissolve and replace cataracts. 


Frances Arnold, the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, transformed the global chemical industry with the invention of directed enzymes, a process used in industrial production, medical science, and basic research.  She has over 40 patents and was recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


There are many stories like these, but not in the numbers we would expect.


In 2016, only 21 percent of U.S. patents included one female inventor. And only 12 percent of all inventors named on U.S. Patents in 2016 were women.


The Trump Administration is committed to helping women more fully participate in the innovation economy here and throughout the world. Domestically, we are working to broaden our nation’s innovation ecosphere and to encourage more young women to study science, technology, engineering and math. STEM jobs are being created at three times the rate of non-STEM positions.


Here at USPTO, we are working with educators across the country to connect students to real-world innovation experiences and the wonders of discovery.


Our nation needs every hand-on-deck to maintain our leading edge in today’s highly competitive global economy. The links between intellectual property, business development, economic growth, and job creation are clear. IP-intensive industries account for more than 38 percent of the U.S. GDP. That’s an astounding $6 trillion in GDP, supporting some 45 million U.S. jobs.


The Commerce Department also is proud to be a partner in the Administration’s new Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative. This Initiative seeks to increase women’s global labor force participation and advancement. It intends to open new doors of opportunity for women entrepreneurs through access to capital, markets, networks, and mentorship. And it is aimed at eliminating legal, regulatory, and cultural barriers that restrict women’s ability to succeed in every endeavor in which they participate.


The whole world benefits when women are empowered to utilize all their talents and skills.


We are proud to embody and promote these ideals at the Department of Commerce and the USPTO. Today, for example, women make up about 40 percent of the USPTO’s senior workforce, including Deputy Director Laura Peter.


It is my pleasure now to ask Laura, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley, and USPTO Director Andrei Iancu, to the stage for the ribbon-cutting ceremony renaming this USPTO auditorium in honor of Ms. Clara Barton.


Thank you all for joining us today.

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