Why chastity belts are a myth (but the exclusion of women from innovation is REAL)

innovation Mar 18, 2021

Chastity belts are a myth. There was no “once upon a time in medieval Europe…” when knights going out on crusades locked their wives up in belts of metal to keep them chaste .

The whole story was invented hundreds of years later to make medieval people seem backward. My personal theory is that it also filled the function of telling women to not demand so many rights:

-Hey ladies, be “grateful” for all the progress we have already made here, at least nobody is putting you in a chastity belt anymore…

Anyway: if you have seen a chastity belt at a museum: it’s basically fake news from the 18th century.

There was however a different type of belt invented in 1954. That’s when Mary Kenner from North Carolina invented a sanitary belt with a pocket for menstrual pads and saved up money in order to patent it.

Kenner (who was a florist) was eventually contacted by a company interested in marketing the idea. This was before the invention of adhesive pads and her belt was arguably a big breakthrough. Kenner obviously got enormously excited:

-       I saw houses, cars, and everything about to come to my way!

She took a meeting with the company. But after that their interest dropped.

They had discovered that Mary Kenner was black.

Her patent expired and she never earned any money from the fact that millions of women started using her belt.

Now this is a (very sad) story about something economists call “lead user innovation”.

Lead user innovation” basically means that people who suffer from a problem are also uniquely equipped to solve it. Everything from skateboards to the personal computer were developed by users first - then picked up by the industry. Also: not surprisingly a lot of innovation relating to menstrual products has been done by women.

The concept of “lead user innovation” was pioneered by professor Eric von Hippel over 30 years ago. To most people it makes a lot of sense. But for businesses its practical value has been questioned because these “lead user innovations” require a lot of costly research to find.

Well, do they really?

I can actually see some really low hanging fruit here that nobody seems to be picking….

In the global economy women influence 80 percent of all consumer decisionsStill 90 percent of all technological products and services are designed by men.

If we believe in “lead user innovation”, isn’t this a terrible waste?

Take Bumble. The dating app founded by Whitney Wolfe Herd is designed to deal with most of the problems women experience on other dating apps (stalking, fear, harassment… ). Since women are at least half of the gigantic online dating market was it really that surprising that Bumble became a huge success and turned its founder into a billionaire?

Lara Mendonça, head of product design at Bumble put it like this recently :

“Solving problems for women is something that will solve problems for everyone. Part of that is a principle that I believe in that when you choose a vulnerable user, instead of an average user, you are designing for more people and designing a product that will be better for people in general.”

Now, wouldn’t a good way to bring in some more of this type of innovation be to well, hire more women to develop technological products and services? Because it makes NO sense that 90 percent of all technological products and services are designed by men, if women influence 80 percent of all consumer decisions.

Yes I know these figures are DEPRESSING and FRUSTRATING. I should probably make this newsletter more positive. But hey! At least they are not putting women in chastity belts anymore!

Happy Thursday!



This inventor could have revolutionised periods, why was she ignored?

How Bumbles clever design helped the app go public

The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth Making Process, by Albrecht Classen

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