Law+Media+Innovation

Women Inventors Get No Love from Monopoly or the Patent Office

Women inventors have been receiving patents in the United States since 1809, but they still face significant challenges. This article outlines the history of

Earlier this month, Hasbro, Inc. made one of the most tone-deaf announcements I’ve witnessed in the year of our Lord and Savior 2019. Hasbro, the largest toymaker in the world by stock market value, happily announced the impending release of,

the first-ever game in the Monopoly franchise that celebrates women trailblazers with Ms. Monopoly. The Ms. Monopoly game marks the first time in the franchise’s history where a new character will grace the cover – and while Mr. Monopoly is a real-estate mogul, Ms. Monopoly is an advocate whose mission is to invest in female entrepreneurs.

Looks and sounds beautiful, right?

It is, no….was, beautiful, until I kept reading and watching the unforced error that was the creation and rollout of Ms. Monopoly.

Toward the end, the Hasbro press release mentions that,

Ms. Monopoly is also the first-ever game where women make more than men – a fun spin in the game that creates a world where women have an advantage often enjoyed by men. However, if men play their cards right, they can make more money too.

Ahhh, here’s the magic. Women allegedly start out with $1900 in Monopoly money, while men get $1500. In addition, women get $240 each time they pass go, to men’s traditional $200.

Ohhhh…okay. I suppose this is one way to oversimplify and under-address the real disparities that exist between women and men in the workforce.

Also missing from Hasbro’s announcement was ANY MENTION of the literal first inventor of the game, a woman named Elizabeth Magie. Magie received a patent for a “Game Board,” which she also called “The Landlord’s Game,” on January 5, 1904.

These are the drawings from the actual issued patent, which you can view at this link via Google Patents.

Monopoly’s inception is credited to Charles Darrow, a then-unemployed salesman who became the first millionaire game designer in history after Monopoly’s release. However, historians and writers pretty much agree that Magie is the true *first* inventor of the game.

Magie did end up selling her game to the Parker Bros. for $500, but she never reaped the true financial rewards of the game’s success. In fact, in her 1940 census response, she described herself as a “maker of games” with $0 in income.

The day of the 2019 Hasbro announcement, Mary Pilon, who wrote “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” tweeted:

To review, the first female-themed Monopoly game in history comes out, and the announcement doesn’t even pay homage to woman who invented the game. And, it suggests to kids and others who play the game that all women need is a few more dollars than men and *voila,* problem solved?

This gif fits so many occasions happening in the world right now.

No. Just, no.

This recent instance of discrediting the patents and innovations of women inventors has persisted since the time that women first started receiving patents (and, of course, long before). Women inventors get no love in the innovation ecosystem, and this has been true from the earliest days of America’s history.

Mary Dixon Kies of Connecticut is the first known woman to receive a patent, which she got in 1809 for a straw hat making technique. Her technique made hats more durable and more quickly, and it was readily adopted by the New England hat-making industry.

1809. Can you imagine? This was a time where women had no political power and very little social power. Women typically could neither own land nor enter into contracts. Women certainly could not vote. But, women could apply for and receive patents.

Mrs. Kies had to have some serious moxie to even file the application during this time period. 

Hat making techniques may sound trivial, but her invention was important because it came at time when the United States was at war with various European countries. The U.S. had stopped all trade with France and Great Britain, which made for a very difficult life in this country. The hat economy in New England at the time was very robust, but it was being crippled because of the lack of trade due to the war. 

The impact of  Keis’s invention in Massachusetts alone was the equivalent today of nearly $5 million the year after her patent was granted. This industry was actually one of the few that continued to prosper during the War of 1812. 

Pretty good start for women inventors, right?

Not so much. While all of the details aren’t clear, what we do know is that Mary Dixon Kies never saw many of the profits of her invention. She ended up dying penniless and in relative obscurity in Brooklyn. 

So, even from the outset, there were clear gaps in the patent system that negatively impacted women inventors. Mary Dixon Kies, even though she had followed all of the legal steps, still was seemingly excluded from the tangible, financial benefits of patenting.

Women inventors have experienced difficulties from the beginning, and things are only marginally better today. For example, current data shows that only 20% of all U.S. patents name at least one woman inventor.

And it gets worse. In the past ten years, patents with only women inventors make up about 4% of all U.S. patents. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office,

[t]he growth in women inventorship, as measured by the share of patents with at least one female inventor, is almost entirely due to women’s participation on gender-mixed teams.

Source: Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents

Numbers globally aren’t much better. The World Intellectual Property Organization has reported a “record high” of 17% of applications coming from female inventors.

Much has been written about why these numbers are so low, and even the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is making efforts to identify and tackle these abysmal rates.

This is a problem that must. be. addressed. And not just because it is socially impermissible.

An inaccessible patent system is costing both industry and society money, and this ultimately stunts the growth of the global innovation ecosystem.

In the U.S. for example, some estimates note that including more women (and people of color, which I’ve written about here, here and here) in the innovation ecosystem, including the patent system, would increase the country’s GDP by up to 582 billion dollars. each year.

This is an expensive mistake, and we aren’t just paying for it in terms of dollars lost. There are diseases likely going uncured, technological advances not being made, and companies failing each day because of stubborn gender barriers and the lack of recognition of women as important innovators.

And don’t even get me started on the Forbes 100 Most Innovative Leaders in America list.

The Forbes list had one woman on it–there wasn’t even a picture of her included in the list!

It is high time that the country and the world take dramatic action to improve access to domestic and global patent systems.

We owe more to the legacies of women like Mary Dixon Kies and Elizabeth Magie. And today’s women inventors deserve better.

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