Kara W. Swanson


Over twenty years ago, Susan Brownmiller stressed the need to "get a grip on the corset" when considering femininity. In patent law, the "corset case," Egbert v. Lippmann (1881), is a canonical case explicating the public use doctrine. Using a historical exploration of Egbert, this paper seeks to "get a grip" on the corset as part of the burgeoning project to consider the intersections of gender and intellectual property from a feminist perspective. The corset achieved the pinnacle of its use by American women during the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century. It was both the near-constant companion of the vast majority of women in the United States and a technological wonder. Like the more celebrated technologies of the era, such as the telephone, the telegraph, and the light bulb, the corset was the product of many inventors, who made and patented improvements and fought about their rights in court. As American women donned their corsets, they had a daily intimate relationship with a heavily patent-protected technology. The corset was deeply embedded both within the social construction of gender and sexuality as a marker of femininity and respectability, and within the United States patent system, as a commercial good in which many claimed intellectual property rights. Getting a grip on the corset, then, offers a way to simultaneously consider gender, sexuality, and patent law.

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