Black History Month feels like an opportune time to shine a light on the underrated and lesser known inventor of the sanitary belt, Mary Kenner.
Mary Kenner was born in 1912 in Northern Carolina during the Jim Crow era, when the #UnitedStates enforced anti-blackness via laws and practices such as segregation. In modern day times, we have seen a similar iteration in apartheid South Africa.
Despite Mary being raised during racialised times, she was hungry to create inventions that would make everyday life easier. Some of her earlier ideas included a self-oiling door hinge and a portable ashtray attached to a cigarette box.
Mary sought to nurture her passion at university by enrolling in Howard, a historically black college/university (HBCU). At the time HBCUs were the only opportunity for black individuals like Mary to further their education, as they were excluded from traditional universities due to their race. Despite HBCU's continued relevance, they remain chronically underfunded, which in turn impacts on the financial assistance such universities can provide their students. This issue affected Mary: she couldn’t pay her tuition fees, and had to drop out of university.
It is important to note that financial barriers into higher education amongst black students compared to their white counterparts, is still a major source of concern for black students today. This issue has seen the likes of UK Rapper Stormzy creating scholarships to help black students excel in academia.
Mary went on become a professional florist, whilst still devising inventions in her free time. It was during this period (no pun intended) that she invented the sanitary belt. The invention allowed a moisture proof fabric to be attached to inside a woman’s underwear and predates the adhesive maxi pad. The sanitary belt was a game changer for women who menstruate, as it allowed them to navigate their daily lives without fear of leaks in public.
Although Mary invented the sanitary belt sometime in the 1920s, it was not till 1957 that she was able to afford the patent for her design.
Despite her revolutionary design, Mary did not receive the accolades or financial compensation that you may have expected. Mary was approached by various companies, notably the Sonn-Nap-Pack, who were interested in marketing her design. However, they withdrew all interest once they found out that she was black...Instead, many companies waited till Mary’s patent had expired and then copied her design, ensuring that Mary did not profit from her invention.
These injustices did not deter Mary from creating and design new aids for everyday use. Of note was her invention of the toilet paper holder, initially designed for the visually impaired and people living with arthritis.
Mary’s experience highlights how structural, institutional and individual racism can marry together to reduce a person of colour’s ability to thrive in a society that refuses to recognise their contributions. Many people still view racism as an individual, almost ‘lone wolf', act. Many people believe that because they are not shouting the ‘n’ word or dressing up in a white cloak whilst brandishing a burning cross, that they are not susceptible to being agents of racist systems and ideologies.Your inaction validates the erasure of stories like Mary’s.
Your silence helps to reproduce false narratives about race.
Racism is as covert as it is overt.
Mary lived in a world where black people were unable to go to the same schools, or even drink from the same water fountains as their white peers. Racist laws ensured that black people were not free to marry who they loved. It was therefore unsurprising that Mary’s brilliance was not enough to shield herself from the full torrent of racism.
Additionally, Mary’s story teaches us the role that one’s intersectionality plays on how we show up in the world and how we are treated.
The term intersectionality, coined by the black civil rights writer Kimberle Crenshaw, describes how the different social and political identities we hold, go some way to reproducing oppression and at times privilege. In the case of Mary, she was a woman and black in a society that did not recognise the rights of people of colour. Moreover, Mary’s sanitary belt was connected to periods, a natural bodily function that undeservedly continues to carry shame and stigma. It was almost inevitable that her status in society and creation would work against her in a world that continues to take a colour-blind approach, particularly to the experiences of women of colour.
Stock Image by Vulvani.
We need to ensure that women of colour and black inventors as a whole are not continually relegated to a footnote in history. We need to actively rebel against the white narratives that the media and institutions portray to us. We need to seek out alternative narratives that are not readily accessible to us and share the resources within our sphere of influence and platforms that we nurture. We need to be intentional and interrogate information that we consume. We need to do away with assumptions and stereotypes about radicalised groups.
Most importantly, in this special month, we need to remember and understand that black history did not begin at slavery and end at our emancipation. We were building civilisations before slavery and patenting works of ingenuity way after.
To reject previous notions, requires deep introspection and the commitment to change even when the process is uncomfortable.
What’s waiting for you on the other side you may ask? A richer and fuller appreciation of history that is both yours and mine.
My final question - are you willing to do the work?
To find out more about black history
The Black Curriculum @theblackcurriculum
Boukman Academy @boukmmanacademy
Liz Folarin @the_bipoc_bookcase is a social worker and anti-racist educator who believes in diversifying racial narratives via the use of books by black authors and facilitating reflective discussions. Check out her reading list here and join her online book club here