March is Women’s History Month — what would be a better way to honor and celebrate the extraordinary contributions of the women in our field than by highlighting a few of their stories. Let’s celebrate the influence of women in optics and look forward to how females will shape the future of our industry.
The “glasses ceiling” has been a tough one to break through. Historically, STEM activities have higher male representation, and the technical aspects of optics are no exception. However, when researching women in optics, several stand out, and their contributions shaped our field and translated to others.
For example, that 60-inch TV in your living room or that fancy camera which produces crisp, clear images of your pet… All made possible by 200 pages of HANDWRITTEN calculations by Dr. Estelle Glancy (1883-1975)! I’ll bet you didn’t know that much math was involved in your Snapchat selfie! Dr. Glancy’s work also contributed to advancements in telescopes and eye exam equipment and was even used in military optics. You can also thank her for your Lensometer, as she developed the first one. In 1923, she filed a patent on the first progressive lens, although it would be almost fifty years until they became the standard for presbyopic patients. Modern progressives are based on her initial design and research.
In 2018, Donna Strickland was awarded a Noble Prize in Physics, for her work primarily focusing on lasers. Along with her partner, Gerard Mourou, they worked to increase the intensity of lasers by spacing out the pulses, allowing more power to get through without breaking the laser itself. The technique called chirped pulse amplification (CPA) has become essential in the medical field. The technology they created is used in medical imaging, industrial machines, and corrective eye surgery. In an article from the Guardian, Strickland said, “I don’t think of myself as a woman in science. I see myself as a scientist.” When Strickland graduated from her bachelor’s program in engineering, she was one of only three women. As a professor at Waterloo, and a member of several boards, she is working to change those numbers by bringing more women into the department, and her daughter is studying astrophysics.
Patricia Bath (1942–2019) became the first Black woman Ophthalmologist in the U.S. in 1973. She was also the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention, the Laserphaco Probe — a laser that removes cataracts in a minimally invasive way with little risk. In 1975, she was the first female faculty member in the ophthalmology department at UCLA. In 1976 she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. This organization went on to establish eyesight as a fundamental human right.
Dr. Ella Gertrude Smith Ayer Stanton Jones (1863-1931), better known as Dr. Gertrude Stanton, became the first licensed female Optometrist, in 1899. Stanton eventually opened her optical store and employed her daughter to create a women-run business.
Dr. Molly Armstrong (1874-1964) soon followed Dr. Stanton as, the first licensed female Optometrist in Texas, who helped pass the first optometry laws in Texas and took leadership roles in several optometric associations. It was largely through her efforts that the first optometric professional liability policy was made available to optometrists nationwide, and she became a trustee of the American Optometric Association.
Just 13 years after Stanton and Armstrong were licensed (1912), there were 500 female Optometrists. In 1968, only 2% of the active optometrists were female. Female enrollment in Optometry schools has continued to grow, according to Women in Optometry, the Class of 2025 is 71% female. This number is expected to rise in future years.
Take a look at some key moments for women in optics:
1899: Gertrude Stanton and Molly Armstrong become the first licensed female Optometrists
1912: 500 female Optometrists are licensed (2%)
1920: Dr. Mae Booth-Jones becomes the first female president of an optometry school
1923: Dr. Estelle Glancy patents first progressive lenses
1973: Patricia Bath becomes first Black female Ophthalmologist in the US
1975: Patricia Bath becomes first female faculty member at UCLA’s Department of Ophthalmology
1975: Patricia Bath patents the Laserphaco Probe1976: Patricia Bath co-founds the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness
1993: Dr. Joan Exford becomes the first female president of the AAO
2011: Dr. Dori Carlson becomes the first female president of the AOA
2013: Dr. Jennifer Smythe Coyle becomes the first female president of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry
2018: Donna Strickland wins Nobel Prize in Physics
2021: 45% of Optometrists were female
Now: 71% of those enrolled in Optometry school are female
Written by: Nicole Joli