Tampon flower artwork. (Katrina Harrison/Flickr | CC BY-NC)

Flowers and Lady Charlotte: Talking about Menstruation, Past and Present

In some ways, 2015 was the year of the period in social media. Thinx panties, which claim to absorb menstrual blood without the use of a tampon or pad (even on heavy days), were named a “best invention” of 2015 by Time and made the rounds on Facebook. News outlets featured Kiran Ghandi when she completed the London marathon tampon-free in April, proudly displaying her blood-stained clothing as she ran. Meanwhile, in Ireland, some women responded to their state’s continued ban on abortion by tweeting information on their periods to the Prime Minister. Comedian Grainne Maguire explained, “Since we know how much the Irish state cares about our reproductive parts… I think it’s only fair that the women of Ireland let our leader @EndaKennyTD know the full details of our menstrual cycle.”

That these incidents shocked some reveals how the actual workings of the female body continue to be taboo. Ghandi mused on her marathon experience, “As I ran, I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist. … Because it is all kept quiet, women are socialized not to complain or talk about their own bodily functions, since no one can see it happening.” Similarly, Maguire, who received both positive and negative feedback for her Irish period-tweeting campaign, responded:

“Women are fed up with being told our bodies are gross and embarrassing and we can’t talk about them. You can’t talk about your body, and you don’t have any power over it — whether it’s your period, or a choice to carry a pregnancy to full term or not. Your body is gross, and embarrassing, so shush. We say, ‘If you [the Irish government] are so involved in our bodies — well, here are the details. Strap in.’”

26 miles | 26 years | 26th of April

A photo posted by Kiran Gandhi (@madamegandhi) on

Women’s bold attempts to talk about menstruation in 2015 inspired this particular historian to ponder how far we’ve come compared to centuries past. The notion of menstruation as polluting, of course, is far from new; in early modern England, “experts” interpreted a woman’s “courses” “as a harmful flux that polluted the environment and harmed the female if retained.”1 Although little was written by women themselves explicitly discussing menstruation, the historical record hints at a dialogue, often cloaked in coded language. Women referred to “Termes,” “flux,” “courses,” “natural purgations,” and even “the time of your wonted grief” in early modern England.2

Discussing periods without actually mentioning “menstruation” or “periods” certainly continued. Girls in early twentieth-century Ireland were told that the blood that magically appeared when they were a certain age was a secret gift from the Blessed Virgin Mary.3 When it comes to measuring the thoughts and words of ordinary American women, we again have scant evidence. The diary of nineteenth-century wife and mother Mary Poor clearly demonstrates her attempts to track her period and prevent pregnancy.4 For more marginalized communities, including African-American women, sources are even scarcer. The memoirs and oral histories of midwives such as Alabama’s Margaret Charles Smith, however, reveal that some women did indeed discuss menstruation. Smith remembered of her own menarch “… I didn’t know what was happening. I reckon I was fixing to die. I slept in the bed right there beside Mama, and I saw that blood … She just told me ‘Margaret, you’ve seen your flowers. You are a young lady.’”5

Megyn Kelly (left) and Donald Trump (right).
Megyn Kelly (left) and Donald Trump (right).

Perhaps 2015 represents a turning point in ending the silence, shame, and coding involved in menstruation communication. Or perhaps not. Donald Trump’s much-repeated response to Megyn Kelly in August — after Kelly mediated the Republican debate, calling out Trump on previous misogynistic comments, Trump dismissed her by claiming she had “blood coming out of her wherever” — may have received some backlash but didn’t hurt him in the polls. And in March, Instagram created controversy when it removed a picture of a woman with a visible period stain, claiming that the photo violated Instagram’s “Community Guidelines.”

There’s a lot at stake here when it comes to communicating about women’s bodies and health. Studies conducted in 20076 and 20127 demonstrated that low-income African-American girls generally know less about menstruation than their white or middle-class peers. And silence and a lack of communication among women about menses and fertility can lead to increased rates of venereal disease and unintended pregnancies.8 Multiple studies also affirm that girls continue to learn about their bodies, menstruation, and sex not through any “official” means but primarily through conversations with others — female family members, friends, and peers. These dialogues are thus central to women’s health concerns.

When Anne, a seventeenth-century princess of Denmark, wrote to her dear friend Lady Sarah Churchill, she referenced her courses. “I have not yet seen Lady Charlotte which I wonder very much at for I used to be very regular and I cannot fancy she has taken her leave for nine months…,” she wrote. As the two wrote about the quirks of “Lady Charlotte,” they communicated about their bodies and cycles while sharing a private joke.9

Almost 400 years later, our veiled discussions of one of the female body’s natural emissions continue. And so does the dignity and humor of women like Princess Anne. In mid-2015, some tweets to Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny read: “@EndaKennyTD Just got a heavy flow … Pads or tampons??? I’m clearly unable to make this decision myself” and “Oh and! If anyone should ever ask your advice @EndaKennyTD, tell them removing one’s mooncup in the shower is like a Dexter reenactment.”

Utilizing whatever communication tools available, women past and present found and continue to find ways to talk about the taboo, recognize the very real functions of their bodies, and resist the silence surrounding the period. Strap in, indeed.

Notes

  1. Bethan Hindson, “Attitudes Towards Menstruation and Menstrual Blood in Elizabethan England,” Journal of Social History 43, 1 (fall 2009): 89. Return to text.
  2. Patricia Crawford, “Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 91 (May, 1981): 47-73. Return to text.
  3. Elaine Crowley, A Dublin Girl: Growing Up in the 1930s (New York: Soho Press, 2003), 138. Return to text.
  4. Janet Farrell Brodie, “Menstrual Interventions in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” in Regulating Menstruation: Beliefs, Practices, Interpretations, ed. Etienne Van De Walle and Elisha P. Renne (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 44. Return to text.
  5. Margaret Charles Smith and Linda Janet Holmes, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife (Columbus: Ohio State Press, 1996), 33. Return to text.
  6. Spring Chenoa Cooper and Patricia Batholow Koch, “‘Nobody Told Me Nothin’’: Communication about Menstruation among Low-Income African-American Women,” Women and Health 46, 1 (2007): 57-78. Return to text.
  7. Lisandra Rodriguez White, “The Function of Ethnicity, Income Level, and Menstrual Taboos in Postmenarcheal Adolescents’ Understanding of Menarche and Menstruation,” Sex Roles 68 (2013): 65-76. Return to text.
  8. Kelly Orringer and Sheila Gahagan, “Adolescent Girls Define Menstruation: A Multiethnic Exploratory Study,” Health Care for Women International 31 (2010): 831. Return to text.
  9. Patricia Crawford and Laura Gowing, eds., Women’s Worlds In Seventeenth-Century England (New York: Routledge, 1999), 15-16. Return to text.

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