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Throughout history, in many cultures, menstruation has been fraught with shame, controversy and misinformation, and has been politicized as a debility that served as the basis for denying women equity in education, employment and citizenship.
In her most recent book, “Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology” (Lexington Books, 2008), Sharra Vostral explores the history of menstrual hygiene products and how they can serve as artifacts of control and empowering tools for change.
“There’s a stereotype that women don’t like or use technology,” said Vostral, a professor of gender and women’s studies and of history. “Obviously, that’s not true for all women. Thinking of menstrual hygiene products as a technology shows how women have been manipulating, using and learning about technology for many years. Women are actually very skilled and resourceful, but we often don’t value the ways that women tinker with technologies to adapt them to their needs.”
In ancient times, women inserted papyrus in their vaginas as tampons; in the early 1900s they retro-fitted the first mass-produced sanitary napkins to make them better fit their bodies.
During the 1870s, some physicians viewed pregnancy as women’s “natural state” and menstruation as evidence of “disease.” More affluent women were advised to avoid physical and even scholarly activities during their periods to avoid harming themselves in some way.
Feminine hygiene products, currently a $2 billion-a-year industry in the U.S., were first mass-produced by Johnson & Johnson in 1896, which sold them through Sears and Roebuck catalogs with the brand name Lister’s Towels. Marketing campaigns for menstrual hygiene products have reflected and tried to capitalize on women’s changing attitudes and societal roles. About 1920 when passage of the 19th Amendment gave U.S. women the right to vote, advertising campaigns for menstrual hygiene products employed the rhetoric of science and personal fulfillment, linking use of the products to good hygiene, white upward mobility and emancipation.
During World War II, when large numbers of women entered the workforce, marketing campaigns for tampons indicated that usage reduced the number of sick days women took during their periods, thus enhancing assembly-line efficiency and bolstering patriotism. However, menstruation was a “Catch 22” for female pilots, who were prohibited from flying during their periods but required to report the time and duration of their periods to physicians, who would then study possible effects of menstruation on their capabilities as pilots. Female pilots who experienced painful cramps also were required to report to the infirmary when menstruating, which then necessitated a trip to the hospital. They faced possible discharge from the military if this became a pattern. Thus, female pilots became adept at concealing menstruation or “passing” as non-menstruants to keep their jobs.
In the early 1980s, menstruation was one of the rationales that some lawmakers bandied in opposition to women being compensated at higher combat pay rates, Vostral said.
As feminists battled for equal rights during the 1960s and 1970s, menstrual hygiene product names and promotional campaigns reflected these societal attitudes and tried to appeal to women’s sense of empowerment. Currently, ads for oral contraceptives that suppress menstruation for months at a time and menstrual hygiene products portray menstruation as an inconvenience that can be overcome or eliminated.
Although the medical community now views menstruation as a natural process, menstruation still is stigmatized, viewed as a debility that makes women less rational, less capable than their male counterparts. Menstruation is sometimes perceived as a liability, and some women feel that they have to “pass” to demonstrate that they have overcome it.
“Society still sees something wrong about menstruation,” Vostral said. “You still hear people joking about it and attributing it to a woman’s period when she is angry or upset. It’s not to say that there aren’t real issues of premenstrual syndrome, but it’s the value that’s placed on those symptoms that matters. We don’t say the same things about men’s bodies, ‘diseasing’ bodily processes with such derogatory ideology the way we do women’s bodies.”
Given that the average woman will spend about six years menstruating during her lifetime, “it’s a big deal,” Vostral said. “It’s part of women’s experiences. There are thousands of books about the U.S. Civil War, which none of us have experienced. So why can’t we talk about menstruation? It does relate to many women.”
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