The Politics of Body Discourse: Feminine Hygiene & Women’s Rights

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French scholar Michel Foucault captured the centrality of the body in the politics of oppression when claiming it as an “object and target of power, a field on which the hierarchies of power are displayed and inscribed.” Despite woman’s natural reproductive power, for most of western history a patriarchal culture appropriated the power over the female mind and body from women and dispossessed them of voice and control of their bodies. Only in the past fifty years have women in the United States gained political and social equality and control of the discourse about the female body. Both the power of choice and the freedom to express a feminist voice emerged out of centuries of activism. The expansion of women’s rights fostered the evolution of menstrual technologies.

To conceptualize the importance of feminine hygiene products as evidence of the evolution of a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body, a brief overview of seminal scholars who paved the way for women to speak in their own voices about issues considered culturally taboo is important context. For most of western history women were considered the weaker sex and subjugated by law and religion. In the nineteenth-century as ideas of equality and justice expanded in the United States, especially with the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution after the Civil War, the benefits of full citizenship and the vote were reserved solely to men. Marriage, often an economic rather than emotional union, was known as “civil death” as women lost freedoms once married. Women could not use contraception, banned by the Comstock Law of 1873, get divorced in some states, vote in most states until the 1920s or even sit on a jury until 1967 in South Carolina.

But women were not silent. In the 1838 Sarah Grimke used anti-slavery activism as a platform to argue for female equality. Ten years later at Seneca Falls, women expanded the argument and pushed for full political inclusion, an effort that culminated in the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The effort for political inclusion was often divisive, especially when more radical suffragists engaged in the effort. Victoria Woodhull, a true rags to riches femme extraordinaire, was known for her open sexuality. At one point she lived in a home with her ex-husband, lover and spouse and was the mistress of Cornelius Vanderbilt while operating a New York brokerage firm. Her liberation from prescriptions of propriety augmented her suffrage activism and led many powerful suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony to shun her. Only when she married a powerful Englishman did her money and power earn her some status with the British suffrage movement. She was a pioneer in body politics by virtue of her lifestyle. Despite the limitations of citizenship in the nineteenth-century, and despite being circumscribed of basic rights, women resisted.

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Only in the last century has the female body emerged in western scholarship as a site of political resistance to patriarchy. While the civil rights movement for women by the 1960s included mandates for subsidized day care and the addition of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, it succeeded in achieving reproductive rights and government subsidized Planned Parenthood. Modern feminists recognize that the body is not only the basis for subjugation and oppression in western history but also a site where resistance is enacted. Helene Cixous summed this idea perfectly with her statement: “Woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield. In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women… As a militant, she is an integral part of all liberations.” Cixous defines the movement where women came together, called for action and used their once oppressed and objectified bodies as militant forces to show their power and push for political change.

Among the most radical feminists to use the female body as a site of protest are artist Judy Chicago and poet Adrienne Rich. In 1971 Chicago founded the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State and demanded female artists resist the inherent patriarchy in academic art. She urged women to produce art that highlighted women’s bodies and to use art as a platform for change and power. Likewise, Adrienne Rich, who was institutionalized for being lesbian by her husband and parents, used poetry to eroticize the female body and openly express sexuality and female love in her work.

Judy Chicago’s “Red Flag” is one of her most famous works of art:

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In addition to the radicalization of protest, scholarship emerged that addressed the portrayal of women in advertising and identified the deployment of female prescriptions and stereotypes in media. Although the image of women as sex objects in media decreased after 1961, the stereotype of women as housewives and dependents remained constant, and sexism in advertising increased through the 1990s.

Sexism in advertising:

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Today after decades of incredible achievements for women, the Women’s March on the day after the election of Donald Trump revealed at once how far women have come, and yet the work left still to be done. These posters and protest signs made for the Women’s March are a clear example of the progression in dialogue about women’s bodies and rights.

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Tampons and technologies of menstruation serve as objects that offer a lens into the evolving status of women and control over their bodies. Feminine hygiene has evolved with the expansion of rights for women. Discussion about periods is a form of resistance often underrepresented in the literature on women’s rights. This is likely due to the cultural stigma surrounding menstruation that dates back to writings in ancient times.

Menstruation was not celebrated at any point in history. The stigma is clear in ancient times where the “curse of Eve” served to exclude and isolate women for seven days a month. Eve’s curse pointed the birth of sin to a woman, and her punishment was to serve God in painful childbirth, great sorrow and menstruation. Biblical Judaism and most ancient religions implemented rigid laws regarding menstruating women. Women were secluded during the menstrual period and considered unclean and cast aside. Leviticus 15:19 states:

Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean. If any of you touch her bed, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. If you touch any object she has sat on, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. If a man has sexual intercourse with her and her blood touches him, her menstrual impurity will be transmitted to him. He will remain unclean for seven days, and any bed on which he lies will be unclean (KJV Bible).

Outside of biblical occurrences, myths behind menstruating women were universal. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote in the 1st century CE: “If a woman strips herself naked while she is menstruating, and walks round a field of wheat, the caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other vermin, will fall from off the ears of corn … bees will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman … linen boiling in the cauldron will turn black, the edge of a razor will become blunted.” In 1878 letters to the British Medical Journal claimed that menstruating women would cause bacon to putrefy. In 1916 the medical registrar Sir Raymond Crawford wrote that farmers still believed that menstruating women would prevent milk from turning to butter or hams to cure. And even more recent, the pediatrician Béla Schick who died in 1967 believed that menstruating women released plant-destroying substances called ‘menotoxins’ through their skin and proved it by conducting a “study” with cut flowers. Sure enough, the flowers arranged by menstruating women died sooner, and Schick claimed it as proof.

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Even today in some parts of the world, menstruation is culturally taboo. In present day Malawi menstruating women must bathe separately from their families, are forbidden to cook, can’t share a bed with their husband, must not plant seeds, breastfeed or dry their menstrual cloths outside for fear of witchcraft. Half of girls in Malawi miss one to two hours of school while they’re on their periods — more than the absence due to malaria. This cultural practice is often seen in lesser developed countries who hold similar taboos towards menstruating women. Not only are women shamed on their periods, but also they usually have little to no access to tampons or pads due to expenses, rural locations, and women’s low status in society. Although these taboos are present in modern day countries, stigmas and cultural reproach to menstruation date back to the ancient times.

There is very little documentation about periods among ancient peoples. This is likely due to the fact that most scribes were men, and history was mainly recorded by men. It’s generally unknown what women used as ancient tampons or pads because of the lack of documentation on how periods were handled. Assumptions that ragged cloths were used and then re-washed, tampons were made of papyrus or wooden sticks wrapped in lint, or loincloths in Egypt were circulated, but no one really knows what women in fact used during this time.

In the medieval era there was scant documentation on how menstruation was handled among women. This lack of information is largely due to the low status of women in society in this period. Women were repressed, objectified and considered property. There was no voiced concern over women’s health because women did not have control over the discourse about their bodies, reproductive rights or their health in general. Additionally, there was plenty of religious shame associated with menstruation, especially in medieval Christianity. Societal disapproval on menstruation was perpetuated by the biblical belief in Eve’s curse. To hide the shame they felt associated with their periods, medieval European women often carried nosegays of sweet-smelling herbs around their necks and waists, hoping it would neutralize the odor of blood. It is presumed women used ragged cloths and re-washed them in privacy while menstruating. Not until the late nineteenth-century did concern grow around the notion of whether bleeding into one’s clothes was healthy and sanitary.

The emergence of menstrual technologies occurred as women’s status in society slowly began to evolve. Prior to World War I, silk pantaloons, linen rags tied at the waist, and diapers held by pins were the known technologies in the western world. Disposable linen and wool emerged in the 1880s along with disposable travel towels. The creation of a specific way to handle a period coincided with the beginnings of concern for women’s wellness. This was the first instance commercialized menstrual care was seen in the western world.

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World War I marked a turning point in menstrual technology. Nurses on the front brilliantly observed the absorbency of cellulose bandages and used them during their periods. They could use the new absorbent fabric and easily burn them after use. With the new fabric, women could have more mobility during their periods. Again, the idea that improvements in menstrual technologies coincided with women’s status is evident. Women were out in the workforce supporting the war effort, and mobility during menstruation was vital.

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During the Second World War, William Morris, the British car manufacturer, paid for disposable sanitary pads for all the women in the British armed forces. They were called ‘Nuffield’s Nifties’. The sanitary pad made of cotton wool covered in cotton gauze was held in place with an elastic belt round the waist. After use, it was placed in a paper bag. This was a huge turning point in menstrual technologies because the belt ensured stability and eliminated the worries of how to keep cloth in place when moving.

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In 1969 a glue used in space exploration was adopted to secure the cotton into a panty and the unbelted pad replaced all of the contraptions required to secure protection. This glue was revolutionary as it secured the pad with no need of a belt, pins, or ties that were difficult to maintain during a period. This discovery is most similar to the modern pads used today with an adhesive bottom that is removable when necessary.

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The tampon was invented in 1929 by Earle Haas using two cardboard tubes and cotton wool compressed into a tampon (French for ‘plug’, originally a medical term for a dressing jammed into a wound). Four years later, he sold the patent for Tampax for $32,000 to Gertrude Tendrich who made tampons with a sewing machine and an air compressor out of her home. However, tampons were not widely popularized, until decades later.

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Tampons were incredibly controversial from their inception and many women protested their use on religious and cultural grounds. The rise in the use of tampons coincided with the feminist movement of the sixties and by the seventies television ads to promote the use of these items found the way on public TV. However, radical feminists used “bleed ins” and art to move menstruation from the status of unclean and hidden to front and center of feminist discourse.

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Today in the western world, and more developed countries, menstrual technologies are still evolving and invoking controversy. A big push towards eco-friendly tampons and pads is occurring. Inventions like the diva-cup, unwrapped tampons and reusable underwear are up-and-coming. As well, there is an effort to end the so-called tampon tax; a sales tax on feminine hygiene products in some states. Women around the world have come together recently to protest these policies and taxes in the ongoing fight for women’s rights.

As the election of 2020 comes to a close in a matter of days, remembering The Women’s March of 2017 reveals that women today are empowered by speaking out about these issues. Yet, despite these gains, millennial and Gen Z women are just as imprisoned by sexism as earlier generations, but unlike their predecessors, they are agents in their own exploitation. Despite standing on the shoulders of women who paved the road to equality, this generation undermines feminist gains by participating in the commercialization, sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies by choice. With Kim Kardashian as one of the most influential women in the world, it is clear that the dialogue is headed in the wrong direction. If American women are the harbinger of female liberation, they must realize the global impact their choices have on women in regions that lack privilege, industry, and access to basic technologies and choose to move beyond the idea of objectification as power. The power to speak about menstruation and to access basic things like tampons and pads is absent in many cultures around the world. Western women, who have moved from the margins of power to the center, can use their rights to empower dispossessed women around the globe by seeking to provide access to feminine hygiene products, a technology that reveals the evolution of western women’s power over their bodies.

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