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The Partial Promise of Feminine Hygiene Patenting

In 1926, the nascent sanitary napkin industry was in peril. Women, all a-flutter about their rights and whatnot, were proving resistant to giving up their maternally derived tendencies to make their own sanitary products. Traditionally, women sewed pads from castaway fabrics, hence the phrase “on the rag.” Meanwhile, companies eager to join the menstrual hygiene game were missing out on valuable consumer dollars!

So one company, Johnson & Johnson, sought a team of efficiency experts to investigate: Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, a husband-and-wife duo who held degrees in psychology and industrial engineering (and in their spare time, raised twelve kids).

Frank died before the contract started, so Lillian upheld the market-research business alone while the kids did the housework. It was an unusual move at the time, but women had been able to vote for a full six years by then, so some believed equality between the sexes had finally been achieved. Johnson & Johnson seemed to feel that her status as a career woman and single mother might boost their marketing efforts. That she was also in the process of inventing the field of industrial psychology—making her, at the time, the standalone expert in the world on how consumers might feel about products—surely played a role in the hire.

Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Moller Gilbreth, courtesy of the
Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Gilbreth determined that “catamenial bandages,” as the products were then known, were not selling well because they did not address women’s needs. After all, Johnson & Johnson’s main competitor was not other companies: it was their intended customer base, who had fulfilled their own needs just fine for generations. Commercially-available sanitary napkins were uniformly bulky, heavy, and uncomfortable, which Gilbreth proved by interviewing around a thousand women of diverse ages on the topic of their monthly needs. She outlined therefrom a matrix of availability, adequate clothing protection, comfort, disposability, and inconspicuousness. Johnson & Johnson saw salability in her ideas, and generated patent after patent after patent based on her findings. The company quickly outpaced other feminine hygiene product makers, who strove to improve their own designs when Johnson & Johnson’s new lines emerged, just to stay in business. (For more on Lillian Gilbreth’s story, see Vern Bullough’s “Merchandising the Sanitary Napkin” and “‘Selling’ Women” by Rayvon Fouché and Sharra Vostral.)

Today, some 6,434 patents for sanitary napkins have been granted. They have become uniformly practical, ensuring comfort, absorbancy, and disposability—and can even be made to be biodegradable, odor-absorbing, or otherwise unnoticeable when worn and disposed of as advised. Gilbreth’s efforts however, and the thousand or so other women she worked alongside, are unacknowledged in the realm of intellectual property: the rights to profit from their discoveries in the feminine hygiene field—patents—are about 95 percent male-owned.

Equality between the sexes indeed.

It’s frequently cited that, nearly a century after achieving the right to vote, women continue to make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, but only 18 percent of the U.S. Congress and continue to earn, on average, a mere 77 percent of what men do. But gender bias is even clearer in patents, which are held by a pool of inventors who are only 7.5 percent female. Commercial patents have been granted an even smaller percentage of women, 5.5 percent.

This has shifted slightly over time, however. A massive push before the turn of the century had women earning science, technology, engineering, and math degrees twenty or thirty times more frequently than in years past, and a change in patent holdings was clear: In the 1990s, 1.4 percent of all patents issued in the United States named at least one female inventor. By 2002, this percentage had grown to 10.4.

The wage gap has shifted a bit, too. It narrowed by approximately half a penny every year—at least until a decade ago, when it stagnated completely (PDF). Women’s participation across all patent-earning fields dropped during that same time period. Progress toward gender equality, in other words, came to a halt.

Such stagnation is usually attributed to a mythological “ambition gap” between men and women. Women, it is often said, simply don’t ask for what they want. This has been debunked by two different studies of the U.S. labor force, however. It turns out, women do ask for as many salary increases as men, but their requests are granted less frequently.

This disparity holds true for patents, too. In 2010, the National Women’s Business Council found that the United States Patent and Trademark Office had record-high numbers of successful female applicants. Yet a gender bias remains: “The ratio of successful female patent applicants to successful male patent applicants varies from a low 73.36% in 1986 to a high of 93.57% in 2002,” the report states (PDF). Which means that, even in the best of years, only 6.43 percent more women than men are denied patents.

Gilbreth’s single-mindedness in ensuring women had access to menstrual products they might actually use allowed the feminine hygiene industry to survive—even thrive. Over the last century, countless contraptions have been added to the market, some more thoroughly considered than others.

Take, for example, the lowly sanitary napkin disposal bag. It is possible that you have never seen one, so let me explain: they are bags, first and foremost, a fact central to their mockable status. Usually paper, although occasionally plastic, they are intended to house soiled feminine products. They can often be found inside the stalls of women’s restrooms, although never on the shelves of your local drug store. They may be festooned with happy, ladylike figures engaging in playful activities, such as tennis or dancing, or decorated with gay flowers. Some may feature a stick figure in a dress delightfully throwing an object into the garbage. Others recall a traditional—frequently, Victorian—notion of femininity, and can thus convey decorum. (The ad copy for a stainless steel disposal receptacle, into which such a bag is meant to be placed, similarly claims that it “adds a touch of class to any restroom.”) Discretion is important—these bags do hold a specific kind of garbage from which other garbage, presumably, must be protected—but on the whole, sanitary napkin disposal bags strive to express ease, tranquility, or even “fun.”

The bags’ light-hearted design schemes contrast starkly with their manufacturers’ branding strategy. The latter can be found on product descriptions in office supply catalogs, promotional copy that is therefore intended for the purchaser rather than the user. Sanitary napkin disposal bag producer Scensibles, in the section of its 2012 annual report labeled, “The Problem,” states: “It’s bigger than you think. Now let’s talk about it …”—the subtext of which is that women’s hygiene is a massive but unacknowledged disaster that only you, from your noble perch as office supply manager, can address. The website Teens ’n’ Parents goes a step further: “Disposal of Sanitary napkin is the major problem polluting the environment [sic],” it states. (This is particularly laughable if you consider the pollutive output from any sanitary napkin manufacturing plant ever.) The nicknames used when the products appear in books and films and on TV are no less alarming: sani-bag, feminine hygiene receptacle, lady bag, and even, “vagina bag”.

The ambivalence in the bag’s marketing strategies is fascinating. While ads intend to browbeat the purchaser into addressing “The Problem” of seeping lady juice with a hefty order of sanitary napkin disposal bags, the product itself goes out of its way to assure users that they are behaving correctly, without effort, and should even be enjoying themselves. One suspects that these bifurcated messages are not an accident, as each are meant for a different audience. Case in point: a recent trade magazine op-ed by Scensibles founder Ann Germanow pits the issue as plumbers (95 percent men, nationally) and company bill-payers (CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, as an example, are 98 percent male) versus tampon users, i.e., women. “A recent janitorial services blog confirms that if no acceptable alternative for disposal is offered, women ignore the signage and flush anyway,” she states authoritatively.

Certainly, the message embedded in the product’s very existence is gendered, wordlessly reminding women that their monthly waste must be pre-bagged, a clear indication that it is more disgusting than all the other forms of waste, combined. “The number-one bacteria hot spot in a woman’s restroom is the ‘sanitary’ napkin disposal unit,” Germanow contends. It is also a breeding-ground for neoliberal subjectivity, a consistent feminine stressor only to be assuaged by the relentless purchase of beauty products. If their impact on the psyche seems brutal, the bags’ impact on the planet may be worse. The paper waste, plastics, and manufacturing byproducts created will surely fail to decompose in our lifetimes.

All that being said, sanitary napkin disposal bags do much to promote gender equality in the realm of scientific invention.

There are some 3,978 existing patents that include the term “feminine product disposal,” but few of these patents are for bags intending to house soiled feminine hygiene items. In sum, slightly fewer than fifty patents have been granted for sanitary napkin disposal bags—each, legally speaking, a unique take on personal containers intended to whisk lady-waste away. Considering that they really are only bags, it is astounding that almost fifty different patents have been awarded to folks for innovating methods of putting unseemly waste inside a container before it goes into a larger receptacle for regular garbage disposal.

In truth, bags intended for the exclusive disposal of used sanitary napkins are made unnecessary by Gilbreth’s efforts. Menstrual products today continue to be self-contained, unnoticeable, and spill-proof, as per her 1926 findings. And most women’s restrooms do come equipped with small trash containers for such waste, which could, in a worst-case scenario, be wrapped in toilet paper, conveniently located in the immediate vicinity. If unforeseen and mysterious circumstances have kept a small trash container from each individual stall, most definitely there will be a trash container in the restroom proper, outside the stall. If other women must see you and acknowledge that you menstruate, well then, they likely to do the same on a regular basis. Supposed defenders of the sanitary napkin disposal bag—manufacturers, plumbers, and building owners, for the most part—remind us that the primary purpose of such bags is to remind women that sanitary products are not to be flushed down the toilet. How shockingly inefficient! Plumbing lessons in home-ec classrooms would do just as well, with less waste.

All in all, sanitary napkin disposal bags are capitalism’s ideal form: a destructive, saleable, disposable, cheaply manufactured good with little to no unique functional value around which a dedicated audience can be created and profits derived therefrom.

However, as misogynistic as the bags themselves are, their design and manufacture do promise a gender equitable future: of forty-six patents for feminine hygiene personal-sized waste containers, fourteen are held by teams including at least one man and at least one woman. Twelve are held by men, and twenty by women. (Counts are mine, and based on gender naming conventions. The Patent and Trademark Office doesn’t actually track applicant gender.)

Therefore, by these counts, a percentage of profits from the sani-waste bag industry go to 30 percent mixed-gender teams, 26 percent men, and 44 percent women. Or, to get even more specific, patents on bags that protect trash from truly offensive girl garbage are owned by a staggering 59 percent female inventors.

This is where capitalism gets interesting. Because the profits into which these bags are eating are not those of the 2 percent of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, nor are sani-bags being purchased with the 77 cents that women are taking home for each male coworkers’ dollar. A predominantly masculine economy, driven by a fear of girl blood, is funding a pool of nearly 60 percent female inventors.

Lillian Gilbreth would certainly have been proud. Gender equity is finally within reach! The question that remains is if we want it under these conditions.