Full disclosure, before we jump in: this week’s post is all about periods, menstruation and the ingenious woman who helped us stop the flow and keep crushing it, four weeks a month, 12 months a year.
Alright, ladies, now that the men have stopped reading: how are everyone’s plans to dismantle the patriarchy going? Still on schedule? Anyone need some trail mix and/or a fresh batch of highlighters?
Just kidding. Obviously we can all talk about periods without blushing. Ours is an evolved culture, where men wear buns and women #freethenipple and sitcom dads face greater challenges than buying feminine products for their daughters.
Look how much we’ve grown since the 1930s, when Mary Kenner couldn’t get a patent for an early iteration of the maxi pad because she was a black woman.
At that time, women’s choices for period protection were pretty limited. We’d discontinued the use of the Red Tent, but the remaining choices weren’t much better.
Most women used cloth or rags, which were unsanitary and forced them to stay close to home. An early form of tampons existed, but they were seen as indecent. Basically, for a week every month, women could stay in the kitchen or be labeled a French whore.
Enter: Mary Kenner.
Kenner was born in North Carolina in 1912. Her father encouraged Kenner and her sister, Mildred, to be creative and think beyond the world they were born into. Both women ended up becoming successful businesswomen and inventors.
While operating her own floral design business in Washington, D.C., Kenner invented the sanitary belt. It was a pre-adhesive version of the maxi pad, where the absorbent fabric attached to a belt inside a woman’s underwear. It allowed women to leave the house without fear of wardrobe malfunctions.
She applied for a patent, and pitched the product to five companies. Four turned her down. One agreed to sell the sanitary belt until they learned she was a black woman. Then they turned her down.
Kenner was undeterred. She wasn’t inventing for the money or the fame. She was inventing because she saw a need and wanted to help fill it.
Kenner refined the design, adding a moisture-proof napkin pocket. Eventually, she got a patent for the design in 1956, decades after she invented it. This paved the way for the invention of the modern maxi pad in the 1970s.
And in case you think she’s a one-trick period pony, Kenner is also responsible for the toilet paper dispenser model we use today. Next time you take a square (and let’s hope there’s one there!), thank Mary Kenner.
Mary Kenner was a veritable BINGO board of taboos – a black woman inventing period protection that allowed women more freedom in their everyday lives. She never made a dime off of her inventions. She’s not often featured on Black History Month bulletin boards. She’s not the unexpected breakout star of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret?
But every woman owes her a debt of gratitude. Whatever your period protection of choice, she paved the way for companies to start taking the market seriously and creating products that gave women freedom of movement. She wanted you to be able to do whatever you wanted – be an inventor, or a florist, or a CEO, or President of the United States of America – without worrying about your period.
She’s the definition of a shero, and when I think of Kenner, and all the important, groundbreaking women, particularly women of color, who are forgotten to history, I get a little choked up.
And no, it’s not because I’m on my period.