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5 Black Women Revolutionizing How We Manage Our Periods

These leaders are advocating for taking the shame away and innovating technologies for reproductive health.

Women's Health

We've all been dealing with a menstrual period for quite some time, and many of us know a lot about the best pads, tampons, and cups that work for our cycles and respective lifestyles. But did you know that a black woman actually revolutionized the menstrual pad in its early inception and was able to patent five inventions, more than any other African American woman in history?

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, who grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and inventors, bought her first patent, which was for the sanitary belt, in the 1950s---well before disposable pads would become the norm. It featured a "moisture-proof napkin pocket" that would help women avoid leaks that ruin their clothes. Discrimination would keep Kenner from becoming rich from her pursuits, according to reports, but she did it for the love and was still a pioneer as a black female patent-holding inventor.

Here are five other black women who have been leaders in the realm of women's menstrual health and have empowered black women around the world to take charge of their own reproductive advocacy:

Crystal Etienne, Founder, Ruby Love

Image via Ruby Love

Crystal Etienne founded this company, formerly known as PantyProp, to offer undergarments with absorbancy that gets rid of the need for tampons or pads. The brand is even one of the first to offer swimwear (I live!) and has an amazing backstory of entrepreneurial triumph. Etienne took $25,000 to start the company in her home in 2015 and reportedly made $300,000 in its first year. It would eventually see sales upwards of $10 million by its third year. Along with period underwear, the brand has period kits, activewear, and double-sided pads, and it recently landed a $15 million investment deal to continue the company's expansion.

Beatrice Dixon, Founder, The Honey Pot Co.

Image via Instagram/@iambeadixon

This brand includes tampons and pads that are chemical-free, 100% cotton, and herbal-infused. They also have feminine care feminine care systems (with the same awesome qualities) that feature wipes and washes to cleanse, refresh, soothe, and balance, and you can take a quiz to figure out what system works for your needs. Beatrice Dixon founded the company after struggling with bacterial vaginosis---a common condition that affects 29% of women ages 14-49 and has a higher prevalence among black women (51%) than their white counterparts (23%). After not being able to find remedies that were natural and effective, she decided to be the change she wanted to see. After "an ancestor" visited her in a dream, she worked to formulate plant-based products for the nether-regions, and The Honey Pot Co. was born.

Linda Goler Blount, President & CEO, Black Women's Health Imperative (BWHI)

Image via Black Women's Health Imparative

Linda Goler Blount oversees the strategy and implementation of this organization's initiatives which work toward health equity and reproductive justice for black women. Last year, the BWHI launched an initiative called the Positive Period! Campaign, raising funds to provide 2,000 menstrual cups for women and girls in Kigali, Rwanda and Atlanta, Ga. in partnership with the Freedom Cup Company. Purchases of the cups will be matched 3-to-1. The organization has also hosted talks with women in an effort to lift the shame related to menstruation and reproductive health issues in the black community and has forged relationships with other diaspora communities to open dialogue on the issue, raise awareness for more advanced gynecological and reproductive healthcare resources and research for black women.

Tanika Gray Valbrun, Founder, The White Dress Project

Image via The White Dress Project

This founder suffered from excessive bleeding and other symptoms of uterine fibroids and decided to start her own organization where women could find information, sisterhood, and advocacy. She was also able to rally for the passing of a resolution to make July Fibroids Awareness Month in Georgia, and the campaign continues for other states. Fibroids, benign tumors that cause heavy bleeding and pain and can lead to infertility, are more prevalent among black women (with studies showing that 60% will have them by 35). They can wreak havoc on your menstrual cycle, self-esteem, and overall quality of life, so having resources that centralize support for black women is key especially since there are still disparities for us in terms of healthcare resources and treatment related to our reproductive systems and maternal health. The White Dress Project sponsors events where women wear white to lift the shame and honor healthcare leaders as well as other fibroid survivors including Real Housewives of Atlanta's Cynthia Bailey.

Shanicia Boswell, Founder, Black Moms Blog

Image via Instagram/@shaniciaboswell

Shanicia Boswell's platform isn't totally dedicated to menstrual health but Boswell covers issues like "free bleeding" and reproductive health for black women, along with content that advocates for African American maternity health and parenting resources. She's even hosted a "Period Party" in Atlanta last month as an "educational celebration on period health, fibroid prevention, and natural family planning." She's used her platform to promote its "Menstrual Drives" where donations of tampons, pads and cups are given to local homeless women. She also sheds light on stories of black women entrepreneurs and innovators who promote healthy living for black women.

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Featured Image by Shutterstock

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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