The True Story of the Sanitary Pad

November 22, 2022

By Period Dignity Team

If I told you to write down every historical figure you know the likelihood would be that the list was overwhelmingly white men, with little diversity or historical nuance. Why is this?

Because the reality is that our history classes continue to be taught from a perspective clouded by the influence of the racial biases. With that in mind, it means that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are left unappreciated by the general public. So today I’m bringing to you a figure who should never fade into the background of history but stand out as one of the most influential figures in the 20th century, Mary Beatrice Kenner. An African American inventor who designed the original sanitary belt which would become the foundations for menstrual pads, a product which changed the menstrual experience completely.

Growing up in North Carolina, Mary Beatrice Kenner came from a family of inventors and creatives with her maternal grandfather, Robert Phromeberger inventing a tricoloured signal light for trains, her Father, Nathaniel Davidson who invented a clothes presser that would fit in a suitcase and her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith patented the game Family Treedition which has been manufactured in different formats including Braille. Yet Kenner’s own interest with invention and creation began at a young age where she had an eye for creations to make everyday life easier. When she was only six years old, records report she had her first idea for a self-oiling door hinge, which while it didn’t come into fruition shows her creativity from the beginning. Throughout her childhood Kenner’s ideas would keep coming and when, at aged 12, her family move to Washington, D.C. she would adventure to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to see if anyone had beaten her to patent any of her ideas.

With Kenner’s natural ingenuity and intelligence she enrolled at Howard University after graduating high school, but sadly dropped out after she was unable to afford tuition. Over the years, she took odd jobs, becoming a federal employee during WWII before finally becoming a professional florist putting her creativity to use. Working fulltime didn’t stop her from creating in her free time and by 1957 she saved enough money to file her first patent, an elastic belt that held sanitary napkins in place, decades after she first designed the belt.

Kenner’s moisture proof napkin pocket built into the belt was an ingenious method of preventing leaks which many women experienced due to the cloth pads and rags used at the time, with the sanitary belt becoming the basis for the modern day period pad. However, Kenner’s inventions did not escape the ingrained discrimination against black people as was found when one company interested in marketing and selling Kenner’s idea dropped the project upon learning that she was black. It was due to this racism that it took thirty years before Kenner was able to patent the belt in 1957.

In her lifetime, Kenner patented five different inventions, continuing to hold the title for most patents filed by an African American woman. Some of her inventions include a serving tray and soft pocket which could attach to a walker, designed following her sister becoming sick with multiple sclerosis and a backwash which could attach to the wall. All of which were inventions based on making everyday life easier and increasing quality of life; and her sanitary belt did exactly that. As it revolutionised the experience of menstruation, bringing comfort during a time where support with menstrual health was limited.

However, the systematic racism and discrimination against black people affected Kenner’s ability to get patents, market and sell her inventions. Meaning when Mary Beatrice Kenner died in 2006 she had not experienced any riches or wealth from her invention of the sanitary belt, nor had she won any awards for her design.

Yet, what we can ensure is that her legacy and her innovation, which made our modern menstrual products possible, is recognised and that she is remembered as an inventor of change.

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