A quick Google search for ‘menstrual pad’ credits its invention to Benjamin Franklin. But don’t believe everything you read; this revolutionary advancement in reproductive healthcare was actually developed by a Black woman by the name of Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner.
In 1957, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, filed for her very first patent: a belt for sanitary napkins, an idea she created when she was 18 years old, long before the modern-day maxi pad and at a time when at a time when women were still using uncomfortable and unsanitary cloth pads and rags during their period. While tampons were readily available to women during the 1930s, they were deemed too “indecent” for regular use. As a result of these restrictive societal expectations, along with the stigma surrounding menstruation, women were often confined indoors during their periods.
It was Kenner’s idea that aimed to challenge this status quo. Her patent featured an adjustable belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket. The inventive design, which used the belt to keep pads in place, would significantly decrease the likeliness of leakage, and ultimately gave women the freedom to comfortably leave their homes while menstruating.
However, Kenner’s invention and success were curtailed by racial and gender discrimination. It took Kenner more than 30 years after her initial creation to finally secure the patent for the sanitary belt in 1957. “One day I was contacted by a company that expressed an interest in marketing my idea. I was so jubilant,” she said. “I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come my way.” A company representative drove to Kenner’s home outside of Washington D.C to discuss her product. “Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped. The representative went back to New York and informed me the company was no longer interested.”
Undeterred, Kenner continued inventing for all of her adult life. She eventually filed five patents in total – more than any other African American woman in history – including a shower wall mounted back washer, a toilet-tissue holder, and a special attachment for a walker or a wheelchair that included a hard-surfaced tray and a soft pocket for carrying items.
As the case of Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner shows, the creativity, ingenuity, and achievements of Black women have long been overlooked – or just flat out erased. From Alex H. Parker who designed the central heating furnace, to Marie Van Brittan Brown who created an early version of the modern home security system, Black women have blazed trails in science and technology, art and literature, reproductive justice and politics, and much more. During Black History Month, we illuminate their contributions, struggles, and achievements, and play tribute to these overlooked heroes.