Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday. Today, I’d like all of the women readers to thank Beatrice Kenner. Because of her, we can all breathe a little easier. Men, keep reading at your own risk. Or, go and get your wives and daughters, they’ll want to read this!
Some of the most common forms of protection for women during their cycles were grass, rabbit skins, sponges, rags, menstrual aprons, homemade knitted pads, or other kinds of absorbents. Usually, women used some form of a rag back in the day. This is why “she’s on the rag” is a popular expression used to refer to a woman who is menstruating. Then, here comes Mary to the rescue…
While she did not invent the modern version of the Maxi Pad, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner invented the sanitary belt, the first version of the pad.
Mary was born in Monroe, North Carolina on May 17, 1912 and came from a family of inventors. Her sister invented a children’s board game that explored family ties called “Family Treedition.” Mary’s father Sidney Davidson, patented a pants presser in 1914. According to historian and former U.S. Patent Examiner Patricia Sluby, a maternal grandfather of the daughters was a man of German and Irish descent who invented a tricolor train light. It’s safe to say that inventing things was in Mary’s blood.
Mary is known most for her invention of an early version of the menstrual pad. Many of us are too young to know what the sanitary belt was. The sanitary belt was an actual belt that was used to hold pads in place before the invention of self-adhesive maxi pads.
Mary invented the sanitary belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket but the company that showed interest in the pads rejected the invention because Mary was a black woman. For this, the sanitary belt didn’t come into widespread use until 1956, thirty years after its invention. Learning this has taught me the power of patience and how everything comes to be in its time. It may have seemed like a lifetime to Mary but eventually, her invention saw the light of day. Mary received five patents for her invention between 1956 and 1987.
While mostly known for her invention of the sanitary pad, Mary had other groundbreaking inventions like the toilet paper holder and the mounted back scrubber and washer for showers. Mary has been an entrepreneur from the start, operating her own floral business in Washington D.C. when she was not inventing things.
Adhesive Maxi Pads (an adhesive side that stuck to the lining of a woman’s panties, the modern pad) were invented in the 1970s so the sanitary belt did not last very long. Nonetheless, without it, someone would not have thought to make things easier by eliminating the belt and just going with the napkin. If you Google Sanitary Napkins (or talk to your mom or grandmother) you’ll learn that the belt was uncomfortable and inconvenient and while tampons existed, using them for younger women was considered sexually improper. (A pretty good article to study up on the evolution of pads can be found HERE.) But life happens in stages and good things come to be because someone took a risk on something others may not have found useful. Mary’s invention helped women who didn’t want to use tampons to get by and paved the way for all of the pads currently on the market.