The National Museum of Civil War Medicine asked me to write a blog post about how women handled menstruation in the nineteenth century, as historical background for an episode of PBS’s Civil War medical drama Mercy Street. Our stereotype of the Victorians is that they were delicate ladies swooning on settees during their periods. As I explain, that was not the reality for most women. Read the post here.
“Having sex on your period is absolutely safe,” reassures OB-GYN and talk-show regular Dr. Laura Berman. Like most sex experts in the past half-century, Berman is ready to demolish old menstrual taboos and usher in a modern period. And like many educators, physicians, and cultural critics who have written about menstruation, she frames her recommendations within a historical narrative: in the old days, religious proscriptions and folk traditions labeled menstruating women as “dirty” or “unclean” and therefore unfit for intercourse; now, in the light of modern science, we know better.
When it comes to menstruation, this sweeping narrative arc can feel persuasive, since ancient attitudes have in fact been strikingly persistent. And yet, the leap from the biblical book of Leviticus to the twenty-first century obscures as much history as it reveals. It turns out, when we listen to a range of voices, from natural philosophers to medical writers, to ordinary women and men discussing their experiences, the history of menstruation and sex is more complex. All of these parties gingerly navigated the shift to the modern period, with results that are perhaps less fully liberatory than advocates like Berman might acknowledge…
One of the most popular ads at the Superbowl this year was “Like a Girl.” Respected documentary director Lauren Greenfield asked a series of girls and boys, “show me what it looks like to ‘throw like a girl.’ ‘Run like a girl.’ ‘Fight like a girl.’” Teenage girls and boys performed a caricature of silly, incompetent running and throwing. Young girls, though, ran fast and threw hard. They didn’t know, yet, that girls are incompetent. It concluded, “Let’s make #likeagirl mean amazing things.”
I cried. So, clearly, did many other people: the ad ranked #4 in most-watched ads on Google since it went viral in June, successful enough that Proctor and Gamble paid big bucks to air it during the Superbowl. Do you know what that means? We all got teary-eyed together over a maxipad ad. Yes, that commercial was created to promote Always brand menstrual hygiene products.
Interviewed at Huffington Post, Elissa Stein, the co-author of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, complained that the commercial was unsatisfactory because it didn’t actually talk about menstruation. To her, this meant that the ad was part of a pattern of refusing to talk about periods, and therefore implying that menstruation is dirty and disgusting and taboo.
After spending years interviewing women born from the first years of the twentieth century through the 1980s and delving into Kotex’s archives for my book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, I see it differently. The “Like a Girl” commercial gets at the heart of what women explained to me that they wanted when they made menstruation “modern.” They wanted control over their bodies, so that they could do what they darn well pleased, whatever day of the month. They used newfangled tampons (introduced in 1936), because it meant they could run and swim during their periods. They gave their pre-teen daughters Kotex pamphlets so they wouldn’t be shocked and worried when they bled. They turned away from old ideas about the dangers of exercising or swimming during menstruation.
Women became more willing to talk about menstruation, but they insisted that it be on their own terms, when they felt like complaining about PMS or asking a boyfriend to pick up pads, not when it was forced by a visible stain or incapacity from a chafing menstrual pad. Modern menstrual products were supposed to make it easier to focus on running and throwing, not on menstruating. The Always ad reflects what the modern period is all about: the dream that our menstrual status just really shouldn’t matter.
Why do we get weepy over the “Like a Girl” commercial? Because we see that we’re still fighting for everything that modern menstrual care and modern attitudes toward periods was supposed to help us accomplish. We have modern periods. We have capable bodies. And yet once we hit puberty, we still understand that “like a girl” is an insult. Modern periods were a start, but they aren’t the end of the story.
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Ask someone to talk about her experiences with menstruation for a couple of hours, and she will usually laugh: “What on earth would I have to say for that long, on that subject?” And then, as it turns out, she will tell story after story. In researching The Modern Period, I interviewed 75 diverse American women and men, old and young, about the role this relatively mundane bodily event had played in their lives. Their stories were funny, and moving, and generously intimate. It was a pleasure to spend years collecting, sifting, interpreting, and weaving together these narratives, because they are revealing in two registers simultaneously: the deeply personal, and the seismically social. A story can be simultaneously about a first, awkward attempt to use a tampon and about how Americans became “modern.” Taken together, the stories I collected show how Americans created their modern identity in the very details of how they cared for and thought about their bodies on a daily basis.
Read the rest here at JHUP blog.
* My book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, is on sale for $30 hardcover!
When you were 14, if you had your period, but your parents couldn’t buy you pads or tampons, would you have gone to school? It’s unimaginable, right? It would have been too gross and humiliating to even consider. Better to pretend to be sick, and deal with the missed work and the bad grades.
In many parts of the world, that’s exactly what happens. And that means that girls don’t get educated, even where they have access to schools…