As medical science continues to grow in the 21st century, ideals of femininity will also change; but to what extent will this liberate women from their biological straitjacket? Women all over the world continue to view menstruation as their “dirty little secret.” Kiran Gandhi and Chella Quint are forcing people to confront their inhibitions, insecurities and discomforts associated with menstruation; albeit in very different ways. Ms. Gandhi ran a marathon in UK, while free bleeding” into her clothes and initiated a massive social media debate. American comedian and educationist Ms. Quint started a whole new movement called #positiveperiod, aiming to undermine stereotypes associated with menstruation. Will this be enough to dispel the fears, myths and negativity around this reality?
In August this year, a young British woman, Kiran Gandhi decided to run a 26.2 mile marathon, while free bleeding” into her clothes and initiated a massive social media debate. Free bleeding is when a woman on her period does not wear a pad or tampon (or any of the wealth of other menstrual materials out on the market these days); but, rather she bleeds freely into her clothes. For Gandhi free-bleeding at the marathon in London was a protest, as well as an awareness campaign. Gandhi explains that she “ran with blood dripping down her [my] legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons and sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist” (Wheatstone and Ridley).
Gandhi received both positive and negative responses from spectators and fellow runners. Gandhi recounts that “one person who made a ‘disgusted’ face [and] told her she had started her period in a “subdued voice”. Once her story went viral, women and men took to online forums to discuss their reactions. While many women supported this, others were completely disgusted by it. Some argued that in several developing countries, clothing is a luxury and women would much rather bleed into pads than their own clothes and under garments. While other women debated that free-bleeding is highly unhygienic and that if Gandhi wanted to support women in other parts of the world who did not have access to feminine hygiene products, she could have just launched a campaign to raise awareness.
Through her writings and very popular stand-up routines on menstruation, American comedian and educationist Chella Quint has started a whole new movement called #positiveperiod, aiming to undermine stereotypes associated with menstruation. It’s loud and in your face, and still both men and women can internalise the messages, dispel menstrual myths and try to normalise menstrual narratives.
I respect every woman’s right to choose how she should handle her period. My menstrual cycle is personal and I would not want to share it with the world and yet, I am not afraid to start a dialogue about it with my friends, family and colleagues. However, I support open and constructive discussion about menstruation. This is perhaps the most important outcome from Kiran Gandhi’s story; people are actually talking about menstruation. Essentially, the way individual women and the community internalise the menstrual narrative has a significant impact on how femininity and feminism are defined at all levels.
The narrative of menstruation in the UK
The modern menstrual narrative is a culmination of ideas that have been passed down throughout history. While the year 2015 saw Kiran Gandhi take the streets in London and bring the discourse on menstruation in vogue, the evolution of the menstrual narrative in the UK is a particularly interesting one. It is nested within the history of British medicine as menstruation became heavily medicalized between 1850 and 1950. The menstrual experience reflected the broader social roles that distinguished men from women. These roles were prescribed based on a biological interpretation generated by medical science. Studying the reproductive system of men and women became a crucial part of medicine. Doctors, scientists and policy makers needed to understand the processes associated with reproduction to regulate the population and economy. In studying the female reproductive processes, the female became a tool of science and she was reduced to her pathology. Her biology determined her social role. Medical interpretations of menstruation came to reflect, revise, and reiterate social ideas about gender differences. Thus, menstruation became deeply engrained in the societal understanding of femininity.
Medical knowledge provided the proof that was needed to solidify these interpretations as “fact.” However, facts are very much a reflection of the society in which they were generated. The realm of medicine cannot be separated from the social and cultural platform in which it operated. In contemporary society, certain terms relating to menstruation have become outdated but replaced by newer and more sophisticated terms. For example, menstrual madness or menstrual hysteria became premenstrual syndrome. Hence, the common sentiment to avoid a woman whose “PMS-ing.” Menstrual synchronicity has supplanted the “collective menstrual experience.” Unfortunately, menstrual discretion has yet to find its modern counter-part. Women all over the world still continue to view menstruation as their “dirty little secret” (Martin).
The role of the female was confined largely to domestic duties, but menstrual narratives shaped the role of women outside of the home. Researchers Bullough and Voght have argued that these narratives transformed in the latter half of the 19th century as women began to demand access to education and professional equality. In seeking to alter a medical status quo that was dominated by male doctors, there arose a need to define the incommensurability of the male and female biology. Menstruation became the face of these biological differences. It was viewed as an incapacitating illness that hindered the physical productivity of the female outside of the home. Moscucci has written that at this time, the woman’s sexual system was described in economic terms, whereby her body “was a closed system in which organs and mental faculties competed for a finite supply of physical or mental energy…” When a woman was menstruating, her body was already expending a vast amount of energy to release the blood and to compensate for the losses in blood. In trying to show that women became physically incapable during menstruation, their utility and ability to function both in the educational and professional realms were questioned.
In 1873, Dr. Edward Clarke’s writings in his volume titled Sex in Education, publicised the notion that during menstruation women were in a “critical time in their physiological development.” Showalter explains that education and work created additional physical pressure to the female body that destroyed “reproductive functions” (Ibid). This physical pressure came to embody the fatigue, pain, and discomfort that many medical intellects believed women experienced during menstruation.
Embryologist Walter Heape, during his work on “preserved uteri” from Rhesus monkeys (as mentioned in Blackman), stated that the failure to reproduce led to the degeneration of the female uterus and it manifested itself in the form of menstruation. This degeneration (of the uterus) within the body had an effect on the behaviour and the physical capacity of a woman (Moscucci). Heape’s work provided the type of “scientific proof” needed to support the claims and beliefs that menstruation physically prevented women from everyday tasks. The prevalent doctrine of female inferiority influenced the finding of scientific facts (Showalter). Furthermore, menstrual myths, which were largely propagated by medical professionals of the time, effectively framed menstruation as the culprit for potential female physical inadequacy in workplaces and educational institutions.
The female body represented a platform in which inherent gender roles were constructed (Lacqueur). These roles did not only prescribe what a woman should and should not be outside of their home; rather, they articulated the innate responsibilities of the virtuous and upright woman. Julie Marie- Strange argues that perceptions of menstruation came to favour marriage and motherhood. In this respect, Strange brings to the table the concept of menstrual madness and menstrual irregularities. She suggests “that perceived relationships between the menstrual cycle and mental health were shaped by a desire to regulate feminine behaviour and the periodic flow”. The fundamental purpose of a woman was procreation. The concepts of womanhood and femininity were rooted firmly within fertility. In the medical context, this meant that menstruation needed to be monitored.
Thus, menstrual health became correlative with mental health. When a single woman was not menstruating, it was thought that her mental state would diminish. As she was not expelling the toxic blood in her body and she was not pregnant, this particular type of female was more susceptible to hysteria. There were two solutions to this problem. The first was to re-establish menstruation and expel any impurities in the body through medical attention. The second solution and perhaps the one that is blatant in its expression of social constructs and gender roles, was marriage. Indeed, a common belief was that menstrual irregularities could be remedied through marriage.
Strange maintains that menstruation became “an indicator of fertility” and that the “desire to control menses can be read as a desire to guarantee one’s status as a real woman’. Women who opted for the marriage option were expected to send proof of their marriage to their doctor before he could make a definitive statement about her recovery. The main roles of a female as a wife and mother were synonymous with the fertile woman. Hence, in correlating menstrual madness and irregularities with marriage and pregnancy, menstruation became a prescriptive gender paradigm for the inherent ideals of a woman.
Crucial to the understanding of Strange’s theory on menstruation and control is recognising the factors in the social landscape that led to a need to control menses and regulate the female sexual system (Shuttleworth). By the 1830’s, industrialisation began to come around full swing and the division of labor and labor specialization became crucial to the economy. Competition for work was stiff and men needed to situate themselves within the new labour market (Shuttleworth). Faced with the risk of being displaced from their traditional roles, men of higher social classes struggled to retain their autonomy and control over what defined their manhood; their ability to provide. Shuttleworth writes that establishing superiority over women allowed men to prosper in a changing economic landscape and helped to keep them in their roles as providers. If men were the providers, then women needed to be defined as well; and her biology provided the perfect opportunity in which to base that definition. Thus, the “status as a real woman” was defined by the traditional responsibility of the male as a provider and his desire to hold onto that role (Julie Marie- Strange as cited in Shail and Howie).
Emily Martin explains that language was central in defining menstruation. Menstruation was viewed as “failed production” (Martin). It was the banishing of “wasteful material”. Essentially, the shedding of the endometrium signified the beginning of a new cycle because of a “failure” in fertilization. This was rebuked by challenging the processes of other organs in the body. The stomach lining is regularly shed and replaced; and yet, this same system was not described as a “failure” during this time in medical history. In discussing menstruation through negative terms such as “failed production” and “wasteful,” it consciously reflected the social expectation of a women to procreate. Essentially, if she did not, she was a failure. The individual woman played no part in deciding her social fate because the language of medicine overpowered her authority and autonomy. In this way, the language of science and the art of metaphor become integral to situating menstruation within a larger social narrative that defined women.
Menstruation into the 1900’s
New forms of an old menstrual attitude become prevalent during the early 1900’s. The advent of World War One pushed women out of their homes and into the workplaces that were traditionally filled by men (Strange). However, even with these newfound social freedoms, women still did not manage to emancipate themselves from their societal straitjacket. Strange argues that menstruation continued to be prescriptive but, the ideals associated with it were simply repackaged and marketed off to females in a more glamorous way. These ideals were based on romanticism, rather than just responsibility, and emphasised that happiness came in the form of marriage and motherhood.
In the early 1900’s, women began to take an active role in dispelling menstrual myths and took it upon themselves to educate young girls on menstruation. World War One proved that menstruation was not a physical or emotional hindrance to women (Strange). It supported a newer theory that was in complete juxtaposition to the previous ideas of menstruation; inactivity only perpetuated discomfort during menstruation. Friedenfelds (as cited by Piechowski) believes that disproving this allowed women more authority outside of the home. To what extent were women actually liberated from the confines of their biology? Strange writes, “information booklets may have reassured females that they could do ‘almost anything’ whilst menstruating, yet this freedom remained firmly rooted within a perceived framework of femininity”. Even with greater access to medical information, women still found themselves within a societal straitjacket; only this one provided greater social rights.
The framework of femininity that Strange writes about is apparent in the ways that menstrual knowledge was passed down to women. Even though women were reaching out to one another to learn about menstruation, the entire experience remained discrete. Simply because more women were taking an active role in dispelling menstrual myths does not imply that it was a phenomena that was openly spoken about in public. Piechowski asserts that menstrual discretion was expected to be a part of the process of relaying menstrual information to women. Martin writes that in encouraging discretion, women remained uneasy about actually discussing the subject of menstruation from fear of embarrassment or impropriety. The shame associated with menstruation remained (Piechowski). Discretion was used in the passing of knowledge from woman to woman and in menstrual advertising. Similarly, Strange (2000) is quick to point out that menstruation was to be spoken about in a “graceful tone”. Essentially, this goes back to the question of the extent in which the newer form of femininity differed from the definition of the “ideal woman” in the previous years.
One difference within the world of prescriptive menstrual attitudes was that women and not just men, were actively prescribing prepackaged ideals off to other women through the use of institutionalised female bodies, such as the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF). The MWF spearheaded many studies on the perceptions and knowledge of menstruation. The aim of the MWF was to reconstruct the menstrual narrative. Strange suggests that the idea of a “normative menstrual experience” remained, but changed based on the attitudes of women who were demanding greater social and political equality. Shortly after the year 1926, the MWF was published a qualitative study in The Lancet that dispelled the myth of a painful period. The study found that few women actually endured any form of menstrual pain (Strange). Studies like this provided women with the access they needed to learn about menstruation; but this proved to be a double edged sword. While some women did not feel pain, those women who did were suddenly alienated from the “normal” menstrual experience. Given in the image below is Jane Harriett Walker, founder of the MWF.
To put it candidly, the MWF had “something” to prove to the society in which they operated. The new normative menstrual experience encompassed everything from what a woman should be feeling during her menstrual cycle to how a mother should teach her daughter about menstruation. The menstrual experience was controlled and regulated, and it was meant to be a similar experience between women. Mothers were discouraged from sharing any negative menstrual experiences with their daughters (Strange). Rather, they were encouraged to present the new “scientific” view of menstruation sans the menstrual myths. The social sphere in which women were operating changed to favour greater access for women to educational and professional opportunities. New science behind menstruation was used to support these changes and to prove the physical and intellectual capacities of women outside of the home. In this way, a “collective” menstrual experience became institutionalised through social bodies like the MWF.
The narrative presented here, is in no part universal; it’s different in every country. The medicalized version of menstruation, especially in western countries, has changed the way we look at femininity over the course of our history. Today most men and women are unaware of the historical circumstances that have shaped our societal views of menstruation, probably because the subject is something that we do not speak about openly. Perhaps it is time to talk about that time of the month…
© Dhivya Shashtri,2015
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