When I was researching my first book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (2009), one of the most frequent questions I got was a skeptical “why are you writing about that?”
So when I started fielding frequent calls from reporters around 2015, it was a surprise. They had the impression that the world had suddenly entered a new era of menstrual openness and innovation, casting off thousands of years of taboos, and they wanted me, the historian, to confirm.
I talked to many more reporters than actually quoted me in their articles because I saw my primary job as a historian as bursting their bubble. No, this was not a revolution overturning all of history and tradition. Women, and advertising copywriters, had been “throwing off the chains” of menstrual taboos, attempting to create the modern period, for over a century. It was an ongoing process, one that, frustratingly, never seemed quite to be accomplished, but much progress had been made. After all, it’s hard to find stories these days about girls who assumed that they were bleeding to death when they got their first periods, or whose mother told them to find an old rag and pin it in their pants, or said that periods were “bad blood.” Generations of women had made concerted efforts to make menstruation more manageable, less fraught, and less stigmatized for themselves and their daughters.
I suspected the thumbnail history of revolutionary change was a clever marketing ploy by Thinx, the period underwear taking New York City by storm. What company doesn’t want to be the vanguard of innovation? And it was great free press.
As it turned out, while marketing was part of the media hype (as it was for Kotex and Tampax in the past), with a few years’ distance, I do see a bigger pattern of renewed, broad-based energy around periods and equity, building significantly on the historical patterns I documented in The Modern Period. Two recent books trace the outlines of this activist flowering and make their own contributions: Jennifer Weiss-Wolf’s Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, and Bridget Crawford and Emily Gold Waldman’s Menstruation Matters: Challenging the Law’s Silence on Periods.
Both books are by legal scholars, and cover much of the same ground: access to menstrual products in the US and abroad, “luxury” taxing of menstrual products, discrimination at work and school, environmental impact, technological innovations, and trans issues. Periods Gone Public is a non-technical, fun, and easy read with lots of anecdotes and period puns, while Menstruation Matters gets into the nuts and bolts of legal argumentation and regulatory strategy. Both offer a host of ideas for activism and advocacy.
Arguably the most important policy change these scholars advocate is the provision of free menstrual products in prisons, schools, and other government buildings. Menstrual products are sometimes withheld as purposeful humiliation in prisons, and even when deprivation is not deliberate, it is still degrading. Low-income students too often hesitate to come to school because they cannot afford sufficient pads and tampons. In daily, public life, no one would expect people to carry their own toilet paper around, but menstrual products are treated as if they are optional, when we all know they aren’t.
In The Modern Period, I argue that the modern menstrual management promoted since the early twentieth century by educators, advertisers, and women themselves allowed a very broad swath of Americans to present themselves in public as “middle class.” You didn’t need to be able to buy a house or a car to meet the standards of cleanliness and poise that Americans increasingly saw as indicative of middle-class respectability; you just needed enough to buy Kotex, plus the education you could give your daughter with one of the company’s free pamphlets. But while this twentieth-century middle class was much broader than the small group of elites that had constituted the “middle class” of the nineteenth century, it still left a lot of people out. Weiss-Wolf, Crawford, and Waldman propose extending this marker of bodily respectability and dignity to the poorest among us, including the incarcerated. This is truly a meaningful extension of the “modern period,” and I hope they are successful.
Alongside her writing, Weiss-Wolf initiated a largely-successful nationwide campaign to repeal the “tampon tax” that in many states taxed menstrual products as luxuries, visiting statehouses across the country and Kamala Harris at the White House. The material impact of this legislative change is small. Its symbolic impact will hopefully be larger. No one should be penalized for menstruating, and if they are, it should be understood as discrimination.
Both books address the important question of gender and menstruation, and trans men’s need for respectful treatment of their periods. The books agree on a “both/and” approach, suggesting that we can and should talk about “menstruating people” as well as “menstruating women.” Weiss-Wolf emphasizes the need for political pragmatism: it is easier to get bipartisan support for eliminating tampon taxes and requiring free and adequate period products in prisons if she can speak to lawmakers and voters in more familiar language. Crawford and Waldman include an important discussion of why using gender-neutral language and acknowledging that trans men menstruate does not preclude making equal protection constitutional arguments about menstruation on the basis of sex.
These books’ both/and approach is important. For thousands of years, women have been culturally tied to their reproductive functions and sexed bodily emanations. Disgust at women’s bodies and oppression under patriarchy have been co-produced, each justifying and reinforcing the other. This history has to be acknowledged to recognize and combat current stigma. Simultaneously, trans people face intensive patriarchal oppression, and the gendered stigma of menstruation sparks patriarchal outrage at men who menstruate and male-bodied people who do not menstruate but wish they did. The traditional concept of “polluting” menstrual blood reflects fear of female bodies polluting male spaces and prerogatives. Cis women and trans people can work together to demolish this tradition and break the patriarchal barriers of sex and gender.
Progressives have raised concerns about the environmental impact of disposable menstrual products since the 1960s, and both books take up this issue once again. I appreciate that they both wisely balance an environmentalist preference for reusable products such as menstrual cups and cloth pads with an understanding of social justice concerns. Where clean, running water is not readily available and women and girls do not have private spaces to wash and dry reusables, they may not be appropriate or safe. And cultural concerns about health and virginity may inhibit the use of menstrual cups. Therefore, both books focus on wider access to disposable products, with some advocacy for versions of disposables that mitigate environmental harm. One additional possibility that flows from these discussions is that we could specifically encourage privileged women who already use tampons to switch to reusable cups. Those who can afford to take more environmental responsibility ought to consider doing so.
In Menstruation Matters, Crawford and Waldman discuss the regulation of menstrual product contents at length. They raise a number of health concerns, for example about pesticides in the cotton used for tampons, that have been persistently discussed in feminist health circles over decades but more or less discredited by mainstream medicine. They are inclined to give the concerns credence, proposing tighter regulation and advocating the encouragement of products such as organic tampons via government sourcing for any government building bathrooms that stock menstrual products. I am not convinced. Dr. Jen Gunter, obstetrician and author of The Vagina Bible, is highly skeptical of the “alternative” practitioners who question the safety of mainstream menstrual products. The alternatives themselves are not proven safe; it’s hard not to think of the sea sponges that were promoted as “natural” menstrual care in the 1970s and 80s, but turned out to carry dirt and potentially dangerous bacteria. And even if the products Crawford and Waldman advocate are innocuous, they are likely to cost more and work less well than the name brands.
Periods Gone Public and Menstruation Matters were published before the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, and touch only very lightly on topics such as menstrual tracking apps and privacy. I hope that Weiss-Wolf, Crawford, and Waldman will be turning their smart, creative, feminist intentions to that topic next. Twentieth-century women envisioned a modern period in which they could talk about menstruation without stigma when they so desired, but also had the know-how and the menstrual technology to control their periods and not have them inadvertently revealed in public. Today, we may want the government to supply menstrual products to all who need them, particularly as they interact with government institutions. But what happens when a state government, public school, or publicly-funded health clinic wants to track periods to know when a person is likely pregnant? With abortion illegal in half the country, the stakes of the modern period are high. We may need Weiss-Wolf to write Periods Gone Private next.