March is the Women’s History Month celebrated globally to highlight the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society. The month corresponds with the International Women’s Day which is marked globally on March 8.
As part of Face2Face Africa’s commitment to informing and connecting black people around the world, we have resolved to devote each day of the month of March to celebrate black women inventors and to highlight their inventions.
Before the advent of disposable pads, women were using cloth pads and rags during their period. Tampons were available for women but they were discouraged from using them because they were seen as not decent.
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Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, an African-American inventor and her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith founded an alternative in 1956 – a sanitary belt. Three years later, Mary invented the moisture-resistant pocket for the belt. This gave women a better substitute for handling their period, even if it was not as comfortable as the modern sanitary pad.
Kenner’s sanitary belt with its moisture-proof napkin pocket made it less likely that menstrual blood could leak. Her invention was patented 30 years after it was introduced because the company which was initially interested in her invention rejected it when they realized that Kenner was African-American. Nevertheless, Kenner went on to invent a lot of household items throughout her adult life.
Along with her sister Mildred, Kenner patented a bathroom toilet tissue holder that allowed the loose end of a roll to be accessible at all times.
She further patented a back washer that could be attached to the wall of a shower to help people clean parts of their back that were hard to reach. Mildred, who was struck with multiple sclerosis at a young age, invented a children’s board game that explored family ties. In 1980, she trademarked the game’s name, “Family Treedition.” Her game was subsequently manufactured in several fashions, including the Braille language.
Mary was the more prolific inventor of the two as she eventually filed five patents in total, more than any other African-American woman in history. The two sisters did not have any professional training, and they never became rich from their inventions. They made inventions ultimately to improve the quality of life.
The sisters were both born in the town of Monroe, N.C., Charlotte. Mildred was born January 31, 1916, and died in 1993. Her sister, Mary was born May 17, 1912, but passed away at the age of 84.