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The award-winning The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Johns Hopkins, 2009) is the story of how Americans in search of middle-class status radically altered their most intimate bodily practices in order to become “modern” in their own and others’ eyes.
Drawing on a rich combination of in-depth archival research and 75 oral history interviews, I show how Americans from a wide range of ethnic and regional backgrounds collaborated with sex educators, physical educators, advertisers, menstrual products manufacturers, and medical experts, innovating in ways they explicitly named as “modern.” They took the risk of abandoning centuries of popular medical tradition and intuition in favor of having bodies which did not leak, smell or reveal their insides, or impede personal and workplace efficiency. Having a modern bodily self-presentation and self-control was perceived as critical to joining the middle class, and necessary to entering a growing women’s white- and pink-collar job market.
Modern menstrual management was eminently affordable, and became a significant part of what allowed the vast majority of Americans, by mid-century, to think of themselves as middle class. This nuanced exploration of the history of menstruation sheds new light on the history of popular modernity, the rise of the middle class, and the relationship of these phenomena to how Americans have cared for and managed their bodies.
Listen to a 2017 podcast about The Modern Period with Dr. Katy Clancy, anthropologist and host of the Period. podcast.