“Can you see my sanitary belt through this dress?” Wait, what?
Today, we are honoring Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, our
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was an African-American inventor. She grew up in North Carolina where her father relentlessly encouraged both her and her sister to explore their creativity. This lead to a life of inventing for the siblings. Kenner invented the original version of what we now know as the maxi pad. Except back then it was an actual “sanitary belt”… Weird. Her invention involved an actual elastic belt that held the pad in place (before the days of self-adhesive). Originally, you had to secure the pad with safety pins, later on came clips. Think a jock strap crossed with suspenders.
If you’ve ever read Judy Blume’s popular young adult novel, ’ Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret ’ then you may remember the sanitary belt. The main character Margaret uses one when she gets her first period. Hopefully you read the book after getting your period or your Mother explained that it was outdated. Because let me tell you, for those of us who read it in pre-internet world, before getting our periods… It was VERY confusing/terrifying.
After inventing the sanitary belt she continued to improve it and later patented the sanitary belt with a moisture-proof napkin pocket. However, this wasn’t patented until 1956, which was nearly thirty years after she had already invented it. If you think periods are taboo now, just imagine what it was 80 years ago. Women were also strongly discouraged from business of any kind, and a black female inventor was unheard of at the time. Kenner reached out to many companies regarding her invention and the first major company to take interest changed their mind when they discovered that it was invented by a black woman. And that is why there is no such thing as a sanitary pad today. Just kidding… Thanks to her resiliency, her invention clearly changed the world of feminine care forever. The sanitary belt led to the invention of the self-adhesive maxi pad in the late 70's. Despite the success of Kenner's inventions, she continued to work at a floral shop. She ended up owning her own floral business in Washington DC, which she spent the rest of her life running. Kenner stated that her inventions were never about money, she just wanted to help make life easier for people. Helping others was her passion. In addition to the sanitary pad she invented a bathroom tissue holder, back washer that mounted to the shower wall, and a carrier attachment for walkers. Over her life she held five patents. For refusing to suppress her creativity because of her gender and for changing the period game forever, we thank you Mary!!!!!
PS- Judy Blume did modernize her novel in the 1990’s and replaced ‘sanitary belt’ with ‘pad.’ But for some of us who had hand-me- down books, we were not so lucky as to receive the updated version… Thanks Mom.
Below are some photos of sanitary belts throughout the years. Contrary to what they may look like, they are not medieval torture devices...