Image used with permission from @meganwinstonephoto (Instagram).

Menstruation is a topic that is becoming increasingly visible in the cultural zeitgeist but despite this, we are still living in a society in which many young people do not have adequate access to the products they need to allow them to attend school comfortably.

In my DPhil project at the University of Oxford, I am taking oral histories from individuals who reached menarche (their first period) in the 1960s. By exploring the impact of secrecy and enforced discretion on these people’s experiences, I hope to give context to our current struggles, and help to furnish us with a way of ameliorating the situation.

Menstruation has been a highly charged subject in Western societies dating back to Ancient Greece. While attitudes have changed significantly according to culture, religion, and class over the course of recorded history, menstruation has typically been discursively constructed as symbolic of female ‘otherness’ and conceptualised as in some way polluting or unclean.

In Medieval Europe, however, menstruation was seen as a vital cleaning process, unique to female requirements, and it was believed that failure to produce adequate menstrual fluid could cause breast cancer, suffocation, heart palpitations and even death. Sex with a menstruating woman was believed to cause leprosy, and any child conceived would either be stillborn or leprous.

Victorian medical treatment of menstruation was ideologically consistent with the era’s wider pathologisation of normative female behaviour. Throughout the nineteenth century, male medical professionals treated menstruation as symbolic of female inferiority and weakness: definitive proof that women could not participate in society as equals to men. Menstruation was characterised as a disease that struck women down each month and rendered them incapable of functioning in education or work.

In the context of growing demands for female representation in professional life, medical ideas about menstruation were mobilised to call into question women’s capacity for work and education, their mental and intellectual capacities, and even their sanity.

In Britain, women were unable to qualify as doctors before 1876. Those seeking to join the profession faced strong opposition, and constant criticism of their capacity to compete with men. Dr Henry Bennett, writing in 1870 for the British Medical Journal claimed that women were ‘sexually, constitutionally and mentally unfitted’ for medical practice. Despite this, in the wake of the 1876 Medical Act, female doctors began to qualify across Britain, and the Association of Registered Medical Women (ARMW) was founded in 1879 with a total of nine members. By 1917, the ARMW had changed its name to the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF) and boasted 190 members.

Originally focused on supporting medical women who were contributing to the war effort, the new Federation’s field of interest soon became far more diverse. Throughout the 1920s, the MWF grew in numbers, and its focus expanded. As more and more medical women joined its ranks it became a kind of pressure group, through which issues that had been previously overlooked by the male medical elite could be explored. The MWF chose to undertake research into specifically female-focused issues, aiming to change the experiences of female patients, and extend opportunities for female physicians.

MWF members quickly noticed that there were huge gaps in modern medical knowledge, specifically concerning female bodies. They attempted to ameliorate adolescents’ experiences of menstruation by re-writing the accepted medical discourses of pathology. This was achieved by surveying school children in order to create a picture of ‘normal, healthy’ adolescent menstruation, and publishing leaflets to try and dispel the myth and rumour which surrounded the topic and offer practical advice. While this research was hugely beneficial, these female doctors were still tied to cultural ideas which perpetuated secrecy and discretion. This subconscious enforcement of menstrual etiquette by relatively liberal female doctors who were attempting to assist young girls shows how pervasive the discourse of menstrual concealment and etiquette was.

Archives of the Medical Women’s Federation. Wellcome Collection.

In my work I try to avoid words like ‘sanitary’ or ‘protection’ (who are we protecting?) and the notion that better access to pads and tampons would help menstruating individuals to stay ‘clean’ or ‘hygienic’. This is because this language of hygiene and the perception that periods are in some way dirty is part of the wider historical discourse which has denied menstruating individuals so much. The perception that menstruation is shameful and embarrassing is socially constructed, and its enforcement is a form of discipline which limits people who have periods from being able to engage with the world in the same way as their non-menstruating peers.

The constant fear of discovery, of failing to ‘pass’ as non-bleeding, leads AFAB (assigned-female-at-birth) individuals to spend a portion of their life concerned about where the nearest bathroom is, if they have enough pads/tampons with them, whether they can afford more if they need more, if there will be shops close by that sell them, if they have blood on their jeans etc. – a constant inner monologue. Rebecca Ginsburg suggests this fear of discovery is a method of social control which prevents those who menstruate from being able to engage fully with larger political and social issues at those times of the month.

It is important to remember that the blood that comes from the vagina of a menstruating woman is no more or less dirty than a nose-bleed, but there is an entire industry devoted to its concealment. The types of products which are advertised in the media (since the ban on mentioning period products on TV was lifted in 1979) are disposable pads and tampons, which are not only expensive but can also have adverse health implications and a negative impact on the environment. Yet, they are discreet and limit women’s contact with their own blood, which is perceived to be the most important thing in our cultural discourse surrounding periods.

If menstruation wasn’t perceived as dirty, unclean and polluting perhaps alternative products like menstrual cups – which are less harmful, carry little to no risk of potentially deadly Toxic Shock Syndrome, involve no contact with the harmful bleach and cotton fibres present in disposable pads and tampons, and only need to be replaced every 5-10 years – would be considered more socially acceptable. If menstruation wasn’t perceived to be shameful, perhaps there would be research into menstrual management items which wasn’t performed by companies that own the majority of the market – which would help to prevent tragedies like the Rely incident.

Opposition to the taxing of tampons and pads as ‘luxury goods’ is not a new fight, although it has only garnered media attention recently. A campaign against having VAT on these items began in 1981, just eight years after the tax was introduced, but several major newspapers refused to publish articles on the issue in the 1980s because it was perceived to be distasteful. Due to the historic social taboos surrounding menstruation, discretion is privileged over all other considerations, hiding issues like this from the general public.

The idea that in order to succeed in society as a menstruating human one must ‘pass’ as non-bleeding for one week of each month is as embedded in our culture today as it was throughout the throughout the twentieth century and the centuries preceding it. Treating menstruation as a ‘taboo’ topic which must be concealed has led to a culture of secrecy that I feel has directly contributed to problems menstruating adolescents experience today, and uncovering elements of this history seems to me to be imperative. 

Alice Billington is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford. She began to focus on the history of women after having her son in 2015 just before the start of the final year of her undergraduate degree. Being a mother, and pursuing further study, demonstrated to her the ways that women are treated differently once they have had children, and the difficulties they face maintaining a position as a respected individual in society. This helped to tie her personal intersectional feminist beliefs with her academic pursuits, and led to her interest in feminist, women’s and gender history.

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