“The question is sneeringly asked sometimes, Can a woman invent?” So begins the chapter on inventors in the 1883 book Women of the Century. The answer is obviously yes—they can invent anything they want. But still, the facts are bleak. Of the more than five million U.S. patents that have been granted since 1790, only about 5 percent have a woman’s name on them. Men often took credit for women’s inventions, sometimes at the behest of women of color who feared that white consumers wouldn’t want to purchase their items. Women were often denied access to education and tools that made it possible to invent stuff in the first place. And since patents are property, it helps to be able to, you know, own property so you can file for one. Let’s give a well-deserved deep-knee curtsey to these queens, because they did do the things, make the things, and use the things, and all our lives are better for it.
“Granny Huang, Granny Huang, teach me
spinning, teach me weaving. Turning two
spools of yarn into two bolts of cloth.”
They say necessity is the mother of invention—and nothing says necessity like “Kublai Khan is invading and everyone I love is poor but still needs clothes.” The woman known as Huang Daopo grew up needing many things—not least a better living situation than the abusive foster home in which she grew up. She likely never realized that mustering the bravery to escape would lead her to revitalize an entire industry.
Around 1240 in China, things were getting pretty wild. The Mongol armies of Genghis and Kublai Khan were fighting constantly to take control of the country, and though the millions of people living in cities thrived, residents of farming towns had a way harder time—especially the women. But despite (or perhaps because of) the invasions, the Song dynasty saw much economic and technical advancement. Craftspeople would follow in the steps of the Mongol army, which had entire government offices devoted to watching over and regulating artisan families (though these were often fraught with extortion, leading some families to escape and decentralize).
The weaving industry in particular was big business (people gotta wear clothes, you know), and the Chinese were known for their complex and high-quality brocades. Though everyone wanted some sweet cotton duds, the processes for making them were incredibly inefficient. Weaving required a ton of labor: cloth makers had to clean the seeds out of raw cotton by hand, fluff it by beating the fibers using a bamboo bow fitted with a hammer, and spin it using a slow single-spindle hand-turned spinning wheel. Harder still than producing fabric was growing enough stuff to eat, and Songjiang, a town outside what is now Shanghai, was cursed with soil that was too poor to produce food crops, let alone cotton. In a country beset by strife, Songjiang’s inhabitants were suffering.
Into this harsh world Huang was born, probably around 1240 or 1245 and likely to an impoverished family, at least according to the late Yuan/early Ming scholar Wang Feng (who calls our heroine “cut from different cloth,” because never underestimate the power of puns in any era). Huang was her family name; her first name has been lost to history. Daopo is a later addition, an honorific we might equate to “Auntie Huang” or, more accurately “Huang, crone of the Dao” or “Sister Huang” (“sister” in the nun way). Huang was probably sold to another family in what was called a shim-pua marriage—basically an arranged union in which a family with a young boy adopted another family’s young daughter (sometimes as early as infancy), engaged the pair, and then raised them together to be married around twelve years old. Known as “little daughter-in-law” or “daughter-in-law raised from a child” (or, let’s be honest, “child bride”), girls in these set-ups provided another set of hands, guaranteed a cheap marriage (no bride price for the groom’s family to pay), and were thought to produce male offspring. In reality, shim-pua marriages were far less likely to be successful than regular marriages because, according to what sociologists call the Westermarck effect, you can’t really feel romantic about someone you grew up with like a sibling (unless you’re a Lannister or maybe a Winchester). Huang’s adoptive family was apparently the absolute worst to her, too. Indeed, mistreatment was common for shim-pua girls. Mothers, devastated at having to give away their own babies while raising a stranger’s, would work the adopted girls to exhaustion, often failing to provide adequate food or shelter.
So Huang bust out of there, literally. In her midteens (or possibly as young as twelve) she is said to have burst through the thatched roof of her in-laws’ home. She then ran as far and as fast as she could, hiding herself in a boat on the Huangpu River—a boat that carried her all the way to Yazhou (modern-day Sanya) on Hainan Island, off the southern coast of China. Hainan Island was home to the ethnic Li (or Hlai) peoples, who had (and still have, in fact) a unique culture and language entirely separate from those of mainland China, including their own ways of cultivating and weaving cotton. Huang lived there for over thirty years, learning Super Effective weaving and spinning skillz. She left the island around 1296, at fifty-ish years old, and returned to her hometown.
But Huang didn’t return alone. Not only did she bring back a finer, higher grade of cotton seed that could be grown locally, but she also had in her brain all the amazing Hainan techniques for turning those seeds into shirts. First, she developed a two-roller cotton gin to eliminate seeds from the cotton, which was way faster than picking them by hand. (The Western world wouldn’t see anything like it until five centuries later, in 1794, when Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin—although he probably got the idea from a woman named Catherine Greene, but that’s another, entirely-not-shocking story.) Next, Huang showed the local people a better way of bowing, which used five-foot wooden clappers tied to a wooden bow to untangle and fluff the fiber to prep it for spinning. And then (oh, no, she wasn’t done) she made a three-spindle treadle-operated spinning wheel that allowed one person to spin multiple threads at the same time—yet another innovation that wouldn’t be seen in Europe until the advent of the spinning jenny in the 1760s. With this wheel, one could make about six ounces of cotton per day, enough to start weaving in just four days.
All this innovation was huge for the town of Songjiang. In his 1366 work Chuogeng lu (Writing and Creating), the biographer Tao Zongyi says that Huang took one of the poorest regions in China and made it into one of the most prosperous; suddenly, it was the cotton production capital of the world. Since you need humid weather to weave properly (or the thread gets too brittle and cold) but less humid weather to grow the seeds, northern China would grow all the cotton and ship it down to Songjiang, where it was turned into items like belts, mattresses, handkerchiefs, and the famously gorgeous cotton-silk jacquard quilts made with beautiful interlocking and color matching (sometimes in the widely sought-after “cloud cloth” pattern featuring flowers, phoenixes, and Chinese characters). Surrounded by waterways and lots of people familiar with hemp and silk spinning, Songjiang became a national trading hub, and thousands of people’s lives were changed for the better.
Huang became a national hero. Seven years after her death, in 1330, the people around Songjiang collected money to build a shrine in her honor, and “Granny Huang” became the subject of a popular folk song about spinning and cloth making (although no doubt a little something is lost in translation). Her shrine and tomb are now in the Shanghai Botanical Gardens (though the originals were damaged somewhat during the Cultural Revolution), which also hosts a statue of her likeness at the center of a courtyard. The 2010 Chinese miniseries A Weaver on the Horizon was (very loosely) based on what we know of her life, she’s on a Scientists of Ancient China stamp, and she’s even got a crater on Venus named after her, which is pretty out of this world, if I do say so (like I said, puns rock). And it all started because she had the courage to break out on her own.