Prejudice is morally wrong. It’s also immensely foolish, producing self-inflicted wounds for individuals, companies, and communities.
If you refuse to hire certain workers because of their sex, race, or religion, you will end up with a less-productive workforce and a less-profitable enterprise. If you refuse to befriend people who are different from you in these and other ways, your life will be far less rich and interesting. And if your government refuses to offer equal access to schools and other public services to blacks and other minorities, your community will be poorer for it.
To say that discrimination is irrational is not to deny its reality and persistence. Human beings have done incredibly foolish things to ourselves and others for as long as we’ve been around. For example, consider how much better off we’d be if past generations had been more willing to hear and act on good ideas regardless of their source.
In 1912, Mary Beatrice Davidson was born into a family of inveterate tinkerers in Monroe, North Carolina. Her father and grandfather had patented such inventions as a clothing presser for travelers, a stretcher design for ambulances, and a tricolor signal light for trains.
Mary caught the bug early. At the age of six, she came up with a self-oiling door hinge. In her teens, she turned her attention to the issue of sanitary products for women. Although sanitary belts and napkins were in existence by then, they were crudely designed and poorly marketed. For years, while working in a variety of other occupations, Mary experimented with a much-improved version of a sanitary belt with easily adjustable straps.
Finally, in 1956, Mary Kenner (her married name) possessed both the prototype and the money necessary for a federal patent. Shortly afterwards, the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company approached her about selling her invention. Dreams of long-denied acclaim and financial security passed before her eyes — but it was not to be.
You see, once the company discovered the holder of the patent was not only female but also African-American, they backed away from doing a deal. So did other potential manufacturers. It wasn’t until after the patent expired that her innovations were widely adopted.
Other female inventors from North Carolina enjoyed more financial success during their lifetimes. Just before the Civil War, Clinton native Abigail Carter designed a new kind of work overalls for her husband, a railroad engineer. His co-workers loved them and asked Abigail to make them some, too. Eventually the Carters opened the country’s first manufacturing plant for overalls. A few years later, Harriet Morrison Irwin obtained a patent for her hexagonal house design. Irwin, the daughter of Davidson College’s founding president Robert Hall Morrison, was the first women in the country ever to secure an architectural patent. Quite a few homes were then built according to her design.
Some decades later, Raleigh native Beulah Louise Henry, whose grandfather W.W. Holden had been governor of North Carolina, launched a spectacular career as an inventor with a 1912 patent for a vacuum-sealed freezer for storing ice cream. Her subsequent creations ranged from designer umbrellas and children’s toys to sewing machines and typewriters. At last check, no American woman has ever had more patented and marketed inventions than Henry.
Though they were privileged with more opportunities than Mary Kenner had enjoyed, each of these North Carolinians had to contend with the prejudices of foolish men. How much more might they have accomplished in its absence? And for every Abigail Carter, Harriet Morrison Irwin, and Beulah Louise Henry, there were many, many other women whose promising new ideas were either swiped, mangled, or ignored.
That makes them victims of discrimination, yes — but they weren’t the only ones. Millions of potential consumers and employees lost out, too.
There was a lot more to Mary Kenner than victimhood. She was happily married, fostered and adopted multiple children, and kept tinkering with inventions into her 70s. Her lost economic opportunities, though, were also our own.