Visible Women

This inventor could have revolutionised periods. Why was she ignored?

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re celebrating Mary Davidson Kenner, who created an innovative new menstrual pad in 1956 – but who was overlooked because of her race. 

What did she do?

Mary Beatrice Davidson (known as Beatrice) was born in 1912 in Charlotte, North Carolina, into what can only be described as an inventing family. Her dad Sidney, a preacher, and her sister Mildred were both obsessed with inventing things. Sidney had three patents and Beatrice grew up sketching gadgets that solved domestic problems, including a self-oiling door hinge and a convertible top for cars.

In 1924, the Davidson family moved to Washington DC and Beatrice began hanging out at the United States Patent and Trademarks Office, checking the records to see if any of her ideas were original. Lots were. Beatrice went to university, but dropped out for financial reasons – she went on to work, and in her spare time continued coming up with inventions, dreaming that one of them could make her fortune.

When WWII came, she went to work for the federal government. In 1951, she married a colleague, James ‘Jabbo’ Kenner and took the surname Davidson Kenner. 

What sanitary towels looked like in the UK in the first half of the 20th century 

Why was she a trailblazer?

By then it was the Fifties – basically the dark ages for menstruating women. Commercial tampons had been invented (in the Thirties), but it took at least a decade for them to go on limited sale in many countries, and their use was far from widespread due to them being considered indecent *hollow laughter*.

Various forms of sanitary towels were about too, but they were hard to get hold of and expensive. Most women who wanted to get on with life without bleeding over everything had to come up with their own methods of period-wrangling: usually involving washable cloths pinned into knickers. None of them very comfortable or failsafe, especially when doing anything active.

In 1956, Beatrice submitted a patent for ‘a device for supporting catamenial pads or sanitary napkins on the body of the wearer in a highly efficient and satisfactory manner’. The patent diagram shows a belt that sits around the waist with two straps that clip at either end of a large, mattress-style pad. The revelation of this was that the pad would stay in place.

An old-fashioned American ‘sanitary belt’ of the kind pioneered by Davidson Kenner

Three years later, Kenner updated her invention with the addition of a ‘moisture proof napkin pocket’ – an attachment to go under the pad that made it less likely blood would spill onto clothes.

But though the technology was adopted and marketed by big brands, it was not to make Beatrice’s fortune. She later said: “They sent a company representative, with a chauffeur, to my home… Sorry to say, when they found out I was black, their interest dropped.”

At the end of the Fifties, Beatrice opened her own florists. While women enjoyed the revelation of the sanitary belt until the stick-on pad was invented in the Seventies, Beatrice continued to invent things inspired by her needs around the home. In 1976, she won the patent for a tray for wheelchairs; in 1982, a toilet-paper dispenser. 

She went on to become the holder of five separate patents – more than any other African American woman. 

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Illustration: Bijou Karman. Other images: Getty Images / Joshua Yospyn for The Washington Post via Getty Images