A Woman to Know: Lillian Gilbreth

Why not try to be both smart and pretty? A success at both marriage and a career? — Lillian Gilbreth

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the things Lillian Gilbreth invented:

  • the little trash cans you open with a tap of the foot

  • the small compartments in a fridge for storing eggs and butter

  • attachments for your water hose so it wastes less water

  • efficiency apartment kitchenettes

  • sinks with drying racks built into them

  • a washer and dryer at the average housewife's waist height

  • the kitchen rolling cart

  • an electric can opener that cuts lids more efficiently

She also wrote multiple books, including textbooks still taught today and two memoirs of her time mothering 12 children (made famous in one of her kid's own books, later made into the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen"). She tested many of her "psychology of work management" techniques on her children, giving them each age-appropriate chores and tasks to manage the household most efficiently.

Her husband Frank was also an inventor, and because many of his inventions didn't have to do with "women's work," his patents were seen as more prestigious, and many people mistakenly assumed Lillian was her husband's assistant or "junior partner." But Lillian's inventions changed women's lives; in saving time in the kitchen and laundry room, housewives were finally liberated. They could make time for jobs, careers, creative pursuits and more. Lillian obsessively tracked "steps" in each of her inventions, asking testers "How many steps would this save the average woman?" She traveled around the country interviewing more than 4,000 different women about their house work, measuring her inventions to accommodate different lifestyles.

As two of her children remembered later in life: "If the only way to enter a man's field was through the kitchen door, that's how she'd enter."

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