Marking/Erasing the Period: A Cultural History

July 18, 2007

Suppressing periods isn’t new news — it’s just new marketing.

For years, women have known that taking the birth control pill continuously will prevent monthly periods. A good fact sheet about this is available from the National Women’s Health Network.

But the FDA’s approval this spring of Lybrel — the first contraceptive specifically designed to eliminate periods for as long as it’s used — brought the issue out of the gynecologists’ office and into the public eye.

To be honest, I haven’t been that worked up over it. I hardly think a woman’s identity is defined by having (or choosing not to have) a period (biology is not destiny and all that.).

And I don’t necessarily accept that with Lybrel’s roll-out this month, “war has been declared on menstruation” — as Karen Houppert argues in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s New York Times: “Final Period.”

But I have to say I did find Houppert’s piece quite interesting. Not only does she reveal the tactics pharmaceutical companies are using to sell women on the idea of menstrual suppression, but she offers a fascinating historical perspective:

It seems every time women start demanding access to this or that, there is a rash of studies “proving” that menstrual cycles render them unsuitable. In the 1870s and 1880s, when Americans were debating the value of higher education for women, a flurry of research asserted that women’s cycling constitutions made them unfit for sustained mental and physical labor. Henry Maudsley, a British doctor, reflected popular opinion — dressed up as “scientific truth” — when he observed that menstruation doomed girls to failure in college.

Comparing boys and girls, Maudsley insisted in an article, was “not a question of two bodies and minds that are in equal physical condition, but of one body and mind capable of sustained and regular hard labor, and of another body and mind which one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for hard work.” Maudsley’s definition of “hard work” was unclear: no one worried that the fragile cook, servant girl or farmer’s wife was being overtaxed during any time of the month.

After women pressed ahead, attended college and excelled in the halls of learning, the debate about menstrual cycles shifted from their suitability for higher education to their suitability for public life in general. When the suffragists asked to participate in the political process, experts retaliated with more research proving that women belonged in the domestic sphere; menstruation figured prominently among the reasons.

Once women won the right to vote in 1920, the menstruation-equals-inadequacy debate ebbed for a while. In fact, two decades later, new proof arrived that women were perfectly fit and capable — even when bleeding — and therefore should step right up and join the war effort. When Rosie the Riveter was needed in American factories and recruits in the Women’s Army Corps, the War Department produced films telling women of the abundance of scientific evidence proving periods are no big deal.

A 1942 American propaganda film, “Strictly Personal,” for example, coached novice Wacs on nutrition, rest and exercise. In one scene, a soldier lies listlessly on her cot — “I can’t drill today, I feel unwell,” she whines — but a fellow Wac tells her to buck up. And a voiceover “doctor” explains: “That’s Victorian stuff. And so is that trash about nerves and sensibility during this period.” Menstruation, he says, “is no excuse for absenteeism and self-coddling.”

But then the war ended, and Rosie and the Wacs were retired — and shown a fresh batch of studies proving that children need their moms at home, that the workplace is potentially hazardous to women’s unborn children and that women’s cycles make them less efficient workers than men. By 1953, the affliction premenstrual syndrome turned up in the medical literature.

Someone cynical might suggest that research highlighting menstruation’s distressing consequences bubbles to the surface every time the public feels anxious over women’s expanding roles. (Say, the possibility that there might be a menopausal woman in the White House — and yes, you can’t win for losing here, given that our periods allegedly drive us to distraction and their cessation does the same.) So take today’s hoopla over menstrual suppression with a grain of ibuprofen.

Though I’m usually fairly cynical, I think it’s great that women have access to a full range of birth control options that allow us more control over our periods. But I can also see how the line between our own choices and cultural pressure can easily be blurred.

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