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Black History Month spotlight: Mary Kenner—The unsung pioneer of women’s health

While scientific advancement is generally considered a collaborative effort, there are many unsung heroes whose individual contributions to that progress have been overlooked by history. Unfortunately, that’s especially so when it comes to members of the African-American community and triply so when it comes to women or advancements made on behalf of women-centric issues. 

So, as an African-American inventor and a woman working on behalf of women’s issues, Mary Kenner was never a likely candidate for widespread acclaim. Nevertheless, she persisted. And her work continues to make an impact today, touching nearly every woman on the planet at some point in their lives.

It all revolves around the topic of menstruation—another subject most people, including many women, try to actively avoid. But just because something is uncomfortable or unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Mary Kenner saw past the discomfort to help create the adjustable sanitary belt, one of the first innovations that made the experience of having a period easier.

Last updated on 
February 22, 2024
Mary Kenner
In this article

Born this way

In a way, it almost seems Kenner was destined for such a fate despite the hefty odds stacked against her. She came from a family of inventors, including her grandfather, who invented a light signal for trains; her father, who created and patented several inventions; and her sister, who created and patented board games.1 She also spent most of her life in Washington, D.C., not far from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

By age six, she was reportedly already showing a knack for the family business, working on innovations like self-oiling hinges.1  And it wasn’t long before her cleverness helped earn her a spot at the renowned Howard University, though financial troubles meant she could never finish her schooling.

Thankfully, a formal education often has little to do with a formidable mind. Kenner kept at her passion, even after dropping out, and just over a decade later, in 1956, it led her to one of her most important innovations.

A change is going to come

It’s hard for many women to imagine life without the sanitary pads and tampons we use today. But remarkably, those innovations weren’t widely used until the 1980s.2 

Tampons were once restricted primarily to medical use. They didn’t become widely available for personal use until the 1930s.3 Even after tampons were available, most women used more affordable and easy-to-obtain pads. 

But early versions of pads were also different from the kind we have today. Before they had wings to help them cling to underwear, there was only a single adhesive strip on their back. Before the single adhesive strip was added, sanitary belts were used to help keep pads in place.2 

Before the mid-century, these pads, by and large, weren’t disposable, either. Women commonly used cloth or other methods to trap menstrual blood. Keeping these less formal applications in place was a recurring, frustrating, and often embarrassing issue. 

The shifting cotton cloths could occasionally become a hygienic concern, leading to leaks, chafing, irritation, and other issues.

Kenner’s invention helped put an end to all that.

Kenner's invention helped put an end to the issues and annoyances associated with the cotton cloths.

Step by step

Sanitary belts weren’t necessarily new, with the use of the tool being traced at least back to the 1800s.3 But Kenner’s work improved on the design. 

Traditionally, the belt wrapped around a woman’s waist. It included two straps, one in the front and one in the back. These straps would end in clips meant to clip a cotton rag into place.

Kenner’s innovation made the belt adjustable, allowing women of all sizes to use the device comfortably or as comfortably as possible. She also did away with the clips, connecting the middle strap and thoughtfully adding a moisture-resistant pocket instead to help secure the pad or cloth.

In hindsight, it’s the kind of innovation that a woman could only imagine. Most men at the time likely had little idea or concern over what women went through every month. At the same time, most women were culturally encouraged to present themselves as “perfect,” to resist “complaining” about anything, let alone something as seemly as menstrual troubles, and to stay away from unpleasant conversations altogether.

But unfortunately—and also indicative of the times—it was the kind of woman Mary Kenner was that ultimately stood in the way of her success.

Fallout

In an early indication of how important the adjustable menstrual belt was thought to be, Kenner received no small amount of attention around her invention. One company in particular contacted Kenner to say they were sending a representative down to Washington, D.C., to speak with her personally about marketing the idea. (1)

But once they saw the color of her skin, they thought otherwise about following through.

“I was so jubilant... I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come my way," Kenner explained of the initial interest in one interview. “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."1

Instead, Kenner’s patent on the idea eventually lapsed, allowing manufacturers to use the design freely. Despite its comfort and hygienic value, she never made money on the adjustable belt.

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Moving forward

Yet, despite the setback, Kenner never stopped inventing. She secured five patents in her lifetime, the most of any Black woman.1

Her most famous innovation, the adjustable sanitary belt, maintains its place as a pivotal stepping stone in menstrual product history. The connected strap can easily be traced to pads secured by adhesive. And the values of a moisture-resistant pocket are also reflected in more modern products.

Kenner passed away in 2006 at the age of 93. And though she lived a long and full life, her innovative achievements were mostly unrecognized when she died.

Today, we work to reverse that oversight, helping bring to light inventions that helped change the world, even when their use, or inventors, may have made people uncomfortable. Because innovation, intelligence, and integrity should know no boundaries. And Mary Kenner’s work helped break so many of those barriers down.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner Sanitary Belt, Walker, Toilet Tissue Holder. (n.d.). Lemelson MIT. Accessed January 2024. 
  2. Menstruation and Modern Materials. (2020, May 7). Science Museum. Accessed January 2024. 
  3. Feminine Hygiene Products. (n.d.). Smithsonian. Accessed January 2024. 

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