Social History of Menstruation: From Silence to Celebration

History of Menstruation - illustration of woman cradling the moon in her hands, while she sits in a garden
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Periods! It’s that time of the month again. Menstruation is a marvel unique to girls. However, it has often been surrounded by taboos and myths that exclude women from many facets of socio-cultural life.

Even with modern methods and menstrual products, it can still be vexing. How must it have been for our forebears with their limited resources? What challenges did they face? How have periods changed? How did the concept of menstruation evolve through different eras and cultures? What were the products and resources available?

The quality of menstrual education in a society determines people’s understanding of the process; it’s time for some menstruation history.

Menstruation products
The Fleurcup menstrual cup is a hygienic and reusable protection for women during their period, an alternative to tampons and pads.

 

Menstruation in Ancient History

The female half of the population gets periods. It’s a natural occurrence every month when the uterus sheds its lining or endometrium. This essential female body characteristic is a rite of passage for young girls that can still be shrouded in mystery today, depending on where they live and cultural norms. Let’s see how women from various cultures and nations dealt with their periods and were treated during their time of the month.

Menstruation is derived from the Latin word for the month, ‘mensis,’ and the Greek word for the moon, ‘mene.’ Most women start a new period every 28 to 29 days, similar to the moon’s 29.5-day orbit around the Earth. This similarity led many ancients to believe that a woman’s mid-cycle and moon phases were linked. Because of this connection, the moon is often personified as a fertility goddess in myth.

Ancient Mayans believed menstruation was a punishment for the moon goddess sleeping with the sun god. As the myth goes, her blood was stored in thirteen jars, which were transformed into snakes, insects, poison, and diseases.

In ancient North and South America, men feared the universe might fall into chaos unless women’s cycles were monitored and synchronized. Several modern studies have disproven the theory that women living near one another synchronize their periods.

Curiously, women in the past often had lighter periods than women experience today. This may be because pre-industrial societies had a higher rate of illness and malnutrition. Back then, women got their first period later and menopause earlier. Without effective birth control, women spent many of their reproductive years pregnant and breastfeeding. So those women might expect an average of 150 periods, while women nowadays typically get about 450.

In earlier times, women couldn’t access effective menstrual products as they do today. They resorted to whatever was convenient and absorbent when dealing with their periods. The Ebers Papyrus, the oldest existing medical document, dating back to the 15th century BCE, records that women in ancient Egypt fashioned tampons out of soft papyrus rolls.

Egyptians also used menstrual blood as a beauty product. They believed that it could lift sagging breasts and skin!

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates describes women making tampons out of lint or lamb’s wool wrapped around lightweight, absorbent wood. Sea sponges were also used for this purpose. After paper was invented in China in 105 AD and later introduced in Japan during the 6th century, the new material led to women using rolled-up paper fixed in place with bandages.

In Hawaii women utilized the fluffy part of the Hāpu’u fern, a tree fern growing all over the Hawaiian islands. Women in Indonesia employed vegetable fibers, and in equatorial Africa, they used rolls of grass. Native American women fashioned pads out of moss and buffalo skin. The Cherokees, the North American Indians of Iroquoian lineage, believed that menstrual blood was a source of great feminine strength and had the power to destroy their enemies.

The Roman philosopher Pliny, the elder, stated that if a menstruating woman were stripped naked and walked around the fields, it would make the insects fall off crops, and she could scare away the thunderstorms and lightning. Pliny also states that a menstruating woman could turn linen black, make a razor go dull, and wine sour. In many cultures, men have viewed menstruation as unclean and extended their contempt to women; women were portrayed as unequal, and patriarchal history used menstruation as proof of their inequality.

In traditional Judaism, a menstruating woman is called Niddah, and she is regarded as unclean; anything she touches is contaminated. If her husband touches her, he is unclean until the sun sets. Men and women are restricted from having sex during menstruation and for a week after. The woman is impure until she cleanses herself in a ritual bath called a mikvah. In Hindu culture, husbands are similarly restricted from touching their woman during menstruation and believe that sex during this time might result in the birth of an evil-minded offspring.

But not every society viewed menstruation negatively. Guru Nanak, the 15th-century founder of Sikhism, condemned treating women as impure during menstruation. He taught that periods were God-given and vital phenomena for the birth conception of females. Buddhism also takes an enlightened view on menstruation and relieves women from taking bows during prayers, encouraging them to make themselves as comfortable as they wish during their periods.

 

Menstrual Huts and Retirement

Women worldwide turned taboos in their favor by going on strikes from sex and doing domestic chores. Or even retiring to menstruating huts or tents. This is common to many cultures and may either be imposed as a form of temporary banishment or undertaken voluntarily as a form of temporary seclusion. Either way, women are segregated from men and mingle only with other women.

Many Native American women, including the Ojibwe, will neither cook for their husbands nor do household chores for ten days during their period. Instead, they move to a separate tent and spend the time free from distractions and worries about the opposite sex, directing all their energies to meditation. Sometimes moon rituals are performed; it’s a time for cleansing the spirit and renewing sisterhood.

In northeastern Pakistan, women in the Kalasha Valley call their communal menstrual home Bashali. Childbirth also occurs in the Bashali, considered the holiest place in the village, where it may also be the most prominent building. It would be filled with women gossiping, laughing, singing, or sharing advice. The Bashali is off the limits for men and presided over by the fertility goddess Dezalik.

Among the Mbuti hunter-gatherers who inhabit the Itauri Forest in eastern Congo, gender equality is well established, and they celebrate a girl’s first period with joy and celebration. She is escorted into the Alima hut, a large temple at the center of the community. Older women would give her practical lessons on her days inside the hut about boys and sex. Together the women sing ancient songs.

In Australia, Aboriginal women, during their initial menstruation, would live in menstrual huts built by their mothers. When their period is over, they will take a ritual bath, and the house is burnt down.

To this day, Jewish women in Ethiopian Highlands must stay in a hut for seven days, and they are not allowed to cook anything but must feed on coffee and roasted grains. Many women express mixed feelings regarding this. Some enjoy the quietness and days off from work and take time for themselves and away from men and other chaos. Others would describe the fear and depression along with cold and lack of food.

Hindu women in Nepal must reside in a Chhaupadi hut for five days during their period. Too many women and girls have perished in a Chhaupadi hut due to snake bites, severe colds, and suffocation through a lack of ventilation. Because of the fatalities, Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed the use of the huts in 2005, but the ban is widely ignored.

 

Medieval Era and Other Strange Theories

In medieval Europe, blood was seen as a carrier of toxins; hence menstrual blood was viewed as highly contaminated, and it was widely believed that drinking it would result in leprosy. Midwives would offer herbal medicines for pain relief from menstrual cramps. These formulas were never written down and dispensed secretly to avoid incurring the displeasure of the Church. The Catholic Church regarded women as fundamentally unequal and preached that the misery of childbirth, menstrual cramps, and other discomforts were punishments for Eve’s sin.

During menstruation, women would have to find resources to stop the blood from staining their clothes. Some would let go of the blood to flow into their chemise freely. Others would slip a cloth under the skirt and wash and reuse it after every use. Clothes were not mass-produced and expensive; every fabric piece was valuable and painstakingly recycled.

During the early 19th century, male doctors began displacing midwives and performing obstetrics. For many mothers-to-be, it was not a happy progression. The midwives brought masses of practical experience and often had traditional herbal knowledge. Some physiological theories their male replacements formed posed more danger to women than childbirth or illness.

While Victorian-era women more or less carried on as usual during their periods, they did take heed of some traditions about menstrual health. Since at least the time of Hippocrates, doctors (and laypeople) had subscribed to a humoral understanding of the body. They believed the four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm, must be correctly balanced and circulated in the body to maintain health. Menstrual periods were thought to rid women’s bodies of excessive blood. Excess blood was thought to stagnate and cause illness. Bleeding with a lancet or leeches was a popular 18th-century treatment that persisted into the next century.

The West is not free from the stigma surrounding menstruating women. In 1995 Newt Gingrich declared that women are unfit for combat because “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days.” This stigma has historically put the health and lives of women at risk. In the past, women who voiced any range of symptoms, including sexual desire, loss of appetite for sex, and frantic were often diagnosed with ‘hysteria,’ a diagnosis not recognized by today’s medical authorities, and forced to enter an insane asylum or to undergo a surgical hysterectomy.

Women on their menses would often take preventive measures to dispel any fears. They wore perfumed herbal pouches around the neck or waist to hide the odor of blood and would even carry the remains of a cremated toad near their core as a cramp remedy!

The late Victorian era saw the introduction of the Hoosier sanitary belt. This device consisted of a cloth belt with a pouch to attach a washable and reusable sanitary pad. Ungainly and uncomfortable, but also the outlier of a brand-new industry.

 

The Evolution of Menstrual Products

In the early 1800s, bloomers came into fashion, and these garments were crotchless so that women could relieve themselves without removing their layers of skirts and corsets. Women fixed strips of cotton and flannel into the gap to absorb the blood. While rubber pads, invented in the 1850s, saved clothes from bloodstains, they also trapped bacteria, worsened odor, and led to rashes and infections. In the late 1800s, the Hoosier belt was invented. This contraption allowed detachable, washable pads to be utilized. They were bulky and uncomfortable, but it was progress of sorts.

As the year 1900 dawned, more women were entering the workforce, fighting for the right to vote, and attending universities. But predictably, menstruation was used as an excuse to deny women the rights and freedoms enjoyed by men. It was proclaimed that women’s vulnerability made them unfit for certain social roles and equal rights. In a statement against equal participation, Dr. James MacGregor Allen stated that in intellectual labor, men would surpass women because nature would not periodically interrupt their thoughts and actions. He wasn’t the only academic with outlandish views.

Harvard physicist Professor Edward H Clark proclaimed that education and its demands would be detrimental to female health; hence it would be wise for women not to pursue education. He spoke out against the upper-class trend of sending women to college.  As he succinctly and ridiculously put it, “Brain work and stomach work interfere with each other if attempted together.” The irony in his position was that he completely ignored the mental and physical health of working-class women who worked during their period every month.

During World War 1, nurses discovered that cellucotton, a type of cheap bandage made of wood pulp, effectively absorbed their period blood. This discovery inspired Kotex disposable pads, which were introduced in 1919. But they could have sold better, as women hesitated to go to the drugstore and ask for them. Stores set up tables with Kotex wrapped in plain brown packaging so that women could leave a nickel in the jar and walk out discreetly with their purchase. But these measures, meant to make things easier for women, also spread the idea that women should be ashamed of their periods. When the fashion changed from long layered skirts to shorter hemlines, a trend promoted to some degree by the Montgomery ward catalog, this also led to higher sales of Kotex.

The menstrual cup, invented by actress Leona Chalmers, also failed to sell well as it was widely believed that inserting it into the vagina compromised female virginity. The product was considered only for married women, while single females wore bulky belts underneath loose clothes. Dr. Earle Haas and Gertrude Tendrich developed the tampon and, ultimately, the brand that would be Tampax. Initially, tampons faced resistance, but by the 1960s and 70s, adoption increased rapidly as women appreciated the freedom the product gave them. TV commercials also gave tampons and Tampax legitimacy and acceptance.

In the 1950s, the pill was approved to regulate menstrual cycles and help women deal with period irregularities. In 1974, Stayfree introduced the maxi pad, the first adhesive pad, which became an instant hit. Once feminine hygiene products were established as a profitable business category, advertisers developed campaigns to convince women that using tampons had nothing to do with losing virginity.

The word ‘period’ was first mentioned in national TV advertisements by Friend’s star Courtney Cox. Tampons and pad marketing began looking for new ways to make periods more comfortable for women. Redesigned menstrual cups, like the Fleurcup, also made a comeback among some women who felt the method was more comfortable, less expensive, and better for the environment than pads.

It’s different in the developing world. In many rural areas in India, women don’t have the money to buy sanitary pads or even clean cloth to absorb their periods. Instead, they resort to padding their underwear with soil or even ash. The practice leads to vaginal infections and other uterine diseases in women.

Looking Ahead

Today, tampons and cotton pads are unaffordable to many women and girls in too many nations and communities. Advocates are protesting the inequality of the taxes many countries add to the price tag of menstrual products on the grounds of gender-based inequality.

The notion that menstruation should be kept secret still prevails in parts of the world, both in developed and developing countries and this will take time to change. Many women still struggle to talk about their periods, what they go through, and the level of pain they may experience. A lack of understanding regarding the topic makes men disregard women’s feelings.

But change is happening. Women are talking more comfortably about these issues with less fear of judgment from others. New products and medicines make periods easier than twenty years ago, allowing women to live their lives more fully.

Given the global environmental crisis, many have advocated for sustainable menstrual products. The menstrual experience will continue to evolve and the hope is that it improves for women globally.

 

Edited by Michael Moss

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