Feminism, Backlash, and Sweetening The Pill

Birth Control, books, Coming off the pill

It’s been more than 20 years since Susan Faludi first published Backlash (with the provocative subtitle, The Undeclared War Against American Women), her thorough documentation of the ways women and feminism were under attack in the U.S. The War Against Women has been now been openly declared in American politics, and there is a backlash among women in online feminism.

I’m referring to discussions of hormonal birth control; specifically, how and with whom we can criticize the birth control pill. Before she joined the re:Cycling team, Holly Grigg-Spall wrote a guest post for us titled, Why Can’t We Criticize the Pill?  At the time, the title may have seemed a little overwrought, but now that her book criticizing the pill has reached the market and been reviewed in several online publications (including by some reviewers who refused to even read it), the question is more than apt. Lindsay Beyerstein’s review for Slate prompted some readers to start a petition asking the publisher to cease publication. Amanda Marcotte has written two posts on her blog slamming the book without reading it, and refused offers of a free copy so that she could respond accurately. Dr. Jen Gunter is also uninterested in reading it, labeling the book “that atrocious pill book” on Twitter and suspecting “a pro-life agenda”.

The criticisms of the book are many and inconsistent: (1) an assertion that Grigg-Spall claims the pill is bad because it is not ‘natural’,  (2) since the pill was bad for Grgg-Spall, no one should take it; (3) the pill is sexist and therefore dangerous; (4) the pill is anti-feminist; and furthermore, (5) Holly advances all of these claims in service of a anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-choice, pro-life, Christian right-wing agenda. That last one is particularly galling, as every time she speaks or writes about these issues, Holly prefaces her talk or mentions in her writing that she is atheist, feminist, and pro-choice. (She often also mentions that she’s British, and was raised with a very different health care system than those of us in the U.S., and thus held different assumptions about access.)

All of these criticisms are either factually incorrect, or exaggerated or deliberate misinterpretations of Holly’s actual arguments. For instance, while she does question what ‘natural’ cycles would be like if women didn’t take the pill, she does not assert that pill = unnatural = bad. Nor does she advocate banning or restricting the pill. She does locate the pill in a complex matrix of capitalist and patriarchal social structures that do not benefit women, which is not exactly the same as saying “the pill is sexist”.

As a feminist, a scholar, and as a reader of books, I’m both fascinated and frustrated by the criticism Sweetening the Pill has received. I’m appalled that reviewers would write and publish reviews completely panning a book they haven’t read, and then refuse to read it. As a feminist, I’m frustrated by apparent efforts to shut down dissent. The pill has never been more politicized in American life, and as I’ve asserted elsewhere, we cannot be so focused on preserving access that we’re willing to ignore questions of safety. Furthermore, it is not anti-feminist to disagree with one another. Feminism has a long history of proliferating and becoming more powerful by listening to dissent from within. Anyone remember the “Lavender Menace“? The emergence of intersectionality? As a commenter on one of the hack pieces eloquently put it,

The feminist critique of reproductive technology (including the pill’s discontents) are well established going back before the existence of the pill itself as debates with Sanger and colleagues. I’m sure this is widely taught in the Women’s Studies programmes you mention, it was to us even in A-level sociology.

I just don’t understand why you are pretending this is a new thing or that anyone taking these positions is a non-feminist. Are genuinely unaware of the history of your own movement or is this a crude rhetorical move against people you don’t agree with? Feminists (Seaman and Wolfson) provided critical testimony in the 1970 Senate Hearings, this is not some sort of obscure or secret fact, Wolfson’s outburst as to the constitution of the hearings and why drug companies were better represented than women is surely famous?

It seems to be the case you want to retro-actively kick Barbara Seaman out of feminism. You know, the woman that Gloria Steinem said was the prophet of the women’s health movement… with respect I don’t think you have the power and you don’t have an argument.

Feminism has always supported counter-intuitive critiques given that problems are multi-valenced. While Sanger held that reproductive control was an essential pre-condition of liberation, “who controls the control”, why and how are far more provocative questions.

Agree or disagree with Sweetening the Pill, or any other book, but read it for yourself, and form an opinion based on what the book actually says — not what a reviewer says or a 140-character criticism on Twitter suspects it might say. And think very carefully, and perhaps read it again, before you decide that it’s not feminism just because it doesn’t match exactly your feminism.

Five Things You Should Know About the Three Vs

anatomy, books, Language

Guest post by Kati Bicknell, Kindara

Now I know in the title of this post I say “Five things you probably don’t know about your vagina,” but really it’s about more than your vagina. The V Book, by Elizabeth Gunther Stewart and Paula Spencer, is basically the owner’s manual for all people who have any of the following V’s — vagina, vulva, and vestibule. Don’t know what a vestibule is? Read on, my good friend!

I am a bonafide vagina nerd myself, and when I read this book I learned a BUNCH of things that I did not know. Here are my top five:

  1. So we all know (now) about cervical fluid, but did you know that it’s not the only substance produced by your lady bits to keep things running smoothly? Your vulva actually produces a thin waxy substance, called sebum that lubricates the folds of your labia! It’s a blend of oils, fats, waxes, and cholesterol. If it didn’t, your labia and everything else would be all friction-y and chafe when you walked, had sex, moved, did anything really. That blew my mind. Thanks, body!
  2. Have you ever wondered how the vagina is simultaneously quite small, (i.e., sometimes even putting in a tampon might be uncomfortable and “stretchy”) and also somehow stretches to accommodate a baby passing through it? I definitely have. Well, it’s all thanks to your rugae! Rugae are small pleats that allow the vagina to be both very small and compact, and then to expand to many times its original size when necessary. Rugae is kind of like ruching! You know, the process of using tons of fabric and then scrunching it so it becomes a smaller form. I’m wearing a ruched jacket at this very moment, actually. It makes you think, if you wore this dress to the prom, are you subliminally broadcasting “HEY! THIS IS WHAT THE INSIDE OF MY VAGINA LOOKS LIKE”?
  3. Vestibule! (I told you we’d get here.) Okay! So the vestibule is important enough to be included in the three V’s of the V book, and yet I was like, “where the heck is my vestibule?” Well, it’s the place in between your inner labia. Here it is on Wikipedia, with an image that is ***not safe for work,*** unless you work in the field of sexual health, in which case, click away!
  4. Labia (as in the labia majora and labia minora). This word is actually plural. If you are referring to only one lip it’s called a labium.
  5. httpv://youtu.be/9qFojO8WkpA
    Only in rare instances is a human female born with the hymen completely covering the vaginal opening. Most hymens are a little circle of very thin skin that partially covers the vaginal opening, but still leaves space for menstrual blood and cervical fluid to come out. Here is a hilarious and educational video explaining more about this. [Editor’s note: Many sex educators today call it the vaginal corona, not the hymen.]

And there is a LOT more info in that book. Tons. Go pick it up today and learn more than you ever thought possible about vaginas, vulvas, and vestibules!

Cross-posted at Kindara.com March 29, 2013.

Menstrual Moments in Modelland

books, Celebrities, Literature, Menstruation

Guest Post by Jaime Hough


Tyra Banks wrote a young adult fantsy novel. And it’s a NYT bestseller. The book, titled Modelland, is about the journey of one awkward-looking girl who is whisked away to a magical boarding school which trains girls to become supermodels with superpowers, known as Intoxibellas. It’s kind of like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter revolved around modeling and was a battle between conventional and unconventional beauty rather than good and evil.

But I’m probably making it sound bad and it’s not, really. Modelland is the story of Tookie de la Crème,1 a girl unnoticed by her classmates and mostly ignored by her family, whose life is turned upside down when she is recruited for Modelland. The reader follows Tookie to and through her first year at Modelland as she, along dozens of other girls, trains for the chance to become one of seven Intoxibellas, supermodels with superpowers, in her graduating class. At Modelland Tookie makes her first real friends while becoming embroiled in a mystery involving the school’s headmistress, known as the BellaDonna, and the world’s mysteriously missing foremost supermodel, Ci~L.2

I read Modelland because I was curious and because I have long been fascinated by the public persona of Tyra Banks. What can I say? We all have our guilty pleasures. Most of Modelland is, for the most part, what you would expect, especially if you’re familiar with Tyra’s moneymaker, America’s Next Top Model. However, I was completely surprised by the fact that Banks chose to use menstruation as a key plot device to develop Tookie’s character. Below are excerpts from the book dealing with menstruation and my brief analysis of how these menstrual moments [MMs] function in the novel and could potentially function for the intended reader.


MM1: Not Yet A Woman

Menstrual Moment One comes near the beginning of the book when Tookie has just come home from her day at school and the readers are being introduced to her dysfunctional family. In particular, we’ve just met Tookie’s younger, dumb blonde little sister, Myrracle.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Myrracle said, frustrated. “I’m on my periodical right now! It makes me forgetful!”

“It’s period, not periodical!” Tookie growled.

Myrracle smirked. “How do you know? You haven’t even gotten yours yet!”

Tookie turned away, her face flooded with heat. Myrracle never resisted the urge to reminder her that she had gotten her period already, even though she was two years younger.3


MM2: Menarche

In Menstrual Moment Two Tookie has just spent her first night at Modelland and is about to start her first day of classes. We follow her as she prepares for class.


Disoriented, Tookie stumbled into the large, sterile-looking community bathroom. As she did, a dull pain shot through her legs, hips, and stomach. She doubled over, feeling as though she was about to vomit. Perfect, she though. I’m sick on the first day of school. . .All at once , every single girl in the bathroom doubled over in pain, gripping her stomach and back just as Tookie had. . .Tookie shut her eyes, wincing again with another pain. “Piper, my back and tummy are killing me!” she whispered.

Piper shrugged. “Join the club, Tookie. Every new Bella started menstruating at the exact same time this morning.”

“Wait. What?

“You’ve never heard of menstrual synchrony, or the dormitory effect?” Piper asked. “Menstrual synchrony is a theory that suggest that the menstruation cycles of women who cohabitate-think army barracks, female penitentiaries, convents, and university dormitories—synchronize over time. It usually takes months for the alignment to occur but her at Modelland, it seems to have happened in twenty-four hours.”

“But I’ve never gotten my period before this,” Tookie whispered.

“Well, Tookie, looks like you’re a woman now,” Piper said.

Tookie was about to protest—there was no way she was any more womanly today than she had been the day before—but all of a sudden, she felt that perhaps something in her had changed. Those abdominal pains made so much sense, after all. And that certainly made them more bearable—for once, she felt normal, like everyone else.4



MM3: Menopause, Modelland Style.

Menstrual Moment Three comes shortly after MM2 when, after the first class, a statue of the school’s headmistress (who is seen in person only once a year) tells the girls that they will no longer have periods.


The BellaDonna continued. “This cycle you had this morning will be the last period you will ever have . . . for the rest of your lives!”

There was silence. Turned heads. Questioning looks.

“We want no excuses for you missing class or shoots or shows, so Modelland is ridding you of the pain and suffering of your menstrual cycles and cramps forever,” the BellaDonna masthead explained. “You will each have the ability to procreate as you reach adulthood but no more periods. Period.”

The Guru beamed at them. “Isn’t that grandissimo?”

Almost everyone cheered, although Chaste looked strangely forlorn and confused, clamping her mouth shut and biting her bottom lip nervously. And Tookie felt another kind of cramp in her stomach . . . one of loss and regret. I finally reached womanhood, she thought. I finally got something that Myrracle has teased me about so much. And now it’s gone.5



None of the ideas presented in the text about menstruation are new, but they are interesting. First and foremost, it’s interesting that Banks chose to include menstruation at all, let alone make it so integral to Tookie’s character development.  Because Tookie’s thoughts and feelings about menstruation revolve around ideas of belonging and normalcy her journey from menarche to Modelland-menopause works within the narrative as a journey from not belonging anywhere to belonging in Modelland.


In MM1 Tookie’s lack of menstruation indicates to the reader that even amongst her family Tookie is second place. All the attention goes to the younger Myrracle who has already joined the ranks of “women” through her “periodical.”


In MM2 Tookie receives her period to the Modelland’s souped-up menstrual synchrony. A run down of the basics of menstrual synchrony may seem a little odd (it practically gave me whiplash when I first read the novel) but this moment between Tookie and her friend Piper serves as Tookie’s initiation into womanhood, complete with a trite “You’re a woman now.” However, not only is this Tookie’s menarchal moment, she also learns something about socio-biological theories of menstruation. We often presume that this type of moment and type of knowledge is shared between mothers and daughters at home. However, it is clear from MM1, and other portions of the book dealing with Tookie’s family, that this type of moment is not available for her at home or at her previous school. The fact that this longed-for initiation into womanhood takes place between Tookie and Piper at Modelland subtly cues the reader that Modelland is Tookie’s new home and her friends are her new family.


This theme of community based around menstruation is carried into MM3 when the BellaDonna magically eliminates all future periods for the freshmen class. While Tookie is unsure how she feels about her new “normalcy” being taken away this moment actually establishes a different type of community between the students at Modelland. They are no longer healthy, menstruating young women. Now they are possible future models. The implications of the last two sentence are terrifying and I wonder if Banks, who advocates for being comfortable in one’s own skin throughout the rest of the novel fully realizes what she did in that passage.


For all the work menstruation does in Tookie’s character development in the early part of the novel, it certainly gets a bad rap. Menstruation is associated first with forgetfulness, then with pain akin to sickness, and finally as a bad excuse for unacceptable behavior, such as being tardy. In addition, the cheering of the young girls who have just been told they will never again have a period suggests that, for most girls, the period was an unwelcome part of their lives; at the least it was a nuisance, at the most it was a painful burden.


Of course, none of this is new or particularly original. Menstruation is often viewed as burdensome, involving pain and negative side effects such as forgetfulness or mood swings. Banks is simply recycling common menstrual tropes of U.S. popular culture. Tookie’s ambivalence about menstruation mirrors the ambivalence many women feel in relation to their periods. A girl or woman who does not menstruate is lacking, and somehow diminished. However, that which bestows womanhood, menstruation, is also that which diminishes the abilities and personhood of the woman by making her forgetful, late, or weakened by pain. This is the condition of the feminine in a patriarchy; that which makes us female defines us by diminishing us and few things are considered more feminine than menstruation.


For my part, I remain ambivalent about my relationship to Modelland, especially its menstrual moments. Part of me is simply grateful that Banks brought menstruation to the table. This is, believe it or not, a New York Times best-selling novel. Thousands of girls are reading this and I sincerely hope it is causing them to think about their own relationship to their periods and perhaps have discussions about menstruation they may not have had otherwise. However, part of me is frustrated by Banks’ clumsy handling of menstruation. One notable example is the utter lack of discussion of how the models-in-training deal with their periods. Do they use tampons? Diva cups? Pads? This error seems especially glaring in light of the fact that there is a discussion, sentences earlier, of what toiletries are magically provided for the girls all of whom have been whisked away to Modelland without time to pack. More importantly, why do the figures of authority in Modelland repudiate any use value or worth to menstruation aside from its role in the reproductive cycle?


What do you think of Banks’ incorporation of menstruation in Modelland? How does it stack up against other young adult novels that portray menarche and menstrual issues? Leave a note in the comments section!


  1. This is, honestly, the character’s given name.
  2. Also the character’s given name.
  3. Tyra Banks, Modelland (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), Kindle edition, 701.
  4. Tyra Banks, Modelland (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), Kindle edition, 2872-2881, 2901-2116.
  5. Tyra Banks, Modelland (New York: Delacorte Press, 2011), Kindle edition, 3055-3067.


Jaime Hough recently completed an MA in communication with a graduate minor in Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has been a member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research since 2009.

How the Pill Gave Birth to the Women’s Health Movement

Activism, Birth Control, books, Pharmaceutical

Only a latter-day Rip Van Winkle could avoid knowing that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of Enovid, the world’s first birth control pill. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles have marked this anniversary.

Many incorrectly credit the pill with giving birth to feminism. As Elaine Tyler May notes in the current issue of Ms., the pill didn’t start the feminist movement but was in the right place at the right time:

The timing could not have been better. The feminist movement gained momentum just as the Pill became available. With the ability to control their fertility, women could take full advantage of new opportunities for education, careers and participation in public life.

But in the midst of all this celebrating, we’ve neglected another anniversary: 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of U.S.  Senator Gaylord Nelson’s congressional hearings about the pill’s safety profile, which arguably did launch the women’s health movement.

That launch received a giant shove from Barbara Seaman, a magazine writer who published a book called The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill in 1969, and Alice Wolfson, a then-student and feminist activist. Seaman’s book documented medical risks of the pill–such as blood clots, decreased sex drive, mood disorders and certain cancers, and she alleged that the pharmaceutical industry had suppressed such information. Sen. Nelson was investigating other allegations against the pharmaceutical industry and read Seaman’s book, which motivated him to take on the pill as well.

At the time of the hearings, Wolfson was part of an activist collective known as D.C. Women’s Liberation. In discussing whether or not to attend the hearings, Wolfson and several other members discovered they all had experienced negative side effects of the pill, which their physicians had not warned them about. That revelation led to something bigger. As Wolfson later wrote in her memoir, “We went to the Hill to get information. We left having started a social movement.”

At the Nelson pill hearings, as they soon became known, medical experts delivered testimony about the known risks of synthetic estrogen, one of the main ingredients in birth control pills. No pill users were on the agenda. The only woman who testified was Dr. Elizabeth Connell, who expressed the fear that if dangers of the pill were publicized, women would give up birth control entirely. Connell said she worried that would lead to an explosion of unwanted pregnancies, or “Nelson babies.”

Alice Wolfson says she doesn’t remember the exact tipping point in the hearings that prompted her to speak up, but I like to think it was the moment when a medical researcher testified, “Estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat.” Wolfson and other women raised their hands politely to comment, but when Sen. Gaylord refused to recognize them, they began shouting their questions.

Why weren’t we told about side effects?

Why aren’t any women testifying?

What happened to the women in the Puerto Rico study?

Why are you using women as guinea pigs?

Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and convenience?

The feminists immediately had the attention of reporters, and a movement was born. Seaman and Wolfson met during one of the breaks in testimony, and eventually worked together to create the National Women’s Health Network – still a vibrant and vital advocacy organization for women’s health.

The Nelson pill hearings eventually led to lower doses of estrogen in the pill (today’s oral contraceptives are about 1/10th the strength of Enovid) and perhaps more importantly, the introduction of patient package inserts, PPIs. The new FDA requirements resulted in the inclusion of printed information about risks, ingredients and side effects in pill packets, and eventually in all pharmaceuticals.

Women’s health activists went on to work for tampon safety regulations in the 1980s, resulting in an FDA mandate for consistency of absorbency ratings and warnings regarding tampon-associated Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS); withdrawal of fen-Phen diet pills in the 1990s; ongoing revisions of the ACOG guidelines for VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) and so many other issues in support of women’s health, safety and well-being.

Cross-posted at Ms. magazine blog.

Book Review: In Our Control

Birth Control, books, Reproduction

Laura Eldridge’s new book In Our Control: The Complete Guide to Contraceptive Choices for Women (Seven Stories Press, 2010) isn’t kidding with that subtitle. The last time I remember reading so much detail about contraceptive options was poring over Our Bodies, Ourselves when I was in my 20s.

Eldridge reviews every method of birth control known to modern woman–and, importantly, some that aren’t widely known. She even briefly reviews the history of contraception in 19th and 20th centuries, reminding us that birth control is not a new invention. People, especially female-bodied people, have struggled to control their fertility from pretty much the first moment humans figured out how it worked.

In Our Control differs from Our Bodies, Ourselves in offering more than just the mechanics of both hormonal and barrier methods: Eldridge provides a history of each method and analysis of the political and cultural contexts of their use in the 21st century U.S.

For example, the chapter about the morning-after pill (also known by either the brand name Plan B or as emergency contraception, EC) discusses the political battle to achieve Federal Drug Administration approval, including Susan Wood’s resignation from the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health over what she believed to be “willful disregard of scientific evidence showing Plan B to be safe.”

Eldridge extensively addresses the relationship between birth control and menstruation, focusing one chapter specifically on the use of hormonal contraception to reduce or eliminate menstrual cycles. She draws upon a wide range of resources to illustrate the cultural attitudes and contexts of menstruation, from stories of the role of birth-control pill co-developer John Rock’s Catholicism in the three-weeks-on/one-week-off dosing of the first pill to a Saturday Night Live parody of advertising schemes for menstrual suppression drugs (with Annuale, you’ll menstruate only once a year, but hold on to your fucking hat!).

The book also covers environmental impacts of contraception, the politics of HPV vaccinations, ongoing research into a birth control pill for men and natural methods of birth control such as fertility awareness–which Eldridge carefully distinguishes from the much-maligned “rhythm method.” She notes that the method approved by the Catholic church is properly called a calendar-based method and involves estimating when ovulation occurs and avoiding sex during that time. Fertility awareness, however, involves a more complex, systematic attention to physiological markers of female fertility. It requires careful monitoring of waking temperature, vaginal sensation, position of cervix and cervical fluid, as well as dates of menstrual flow and sexual activity. Eldridge cautions that fertility awareness is too complicated to be taught in a short chapter, and that observing and charting one’s cycle must be done “for a significant amount of time before you begin to rely on it for contraception.”

Laura Eldridge learned women’s health writing at the side of the late women’s health advocate and activist Barbara Seaman, and it shows. She contextualizes her work with her own experience and preferences, but provides thorough documentation so that women can more easily make their own decisions. This is women’s health activism at its best. Feminism isn’t just about choices, but about having access to information and resources to make informed, authentic choices–and that is only possible when reliable and comprehensive information is widely available.

Cross-posted at Ms. magazine blog.

Vagina Vérité

anatomy, Art, books

Vagina Vérité logoArtist (and friend of re:Cycling) Alexandra Jacoby is working on a project for women called Vagina Vérité®. She’s making vulva portraits, proud and unabashed, straight-up documentary photographs-so that we can see ourselves for ourselves. The project began as a response to a friend who “didn’t like the way her vagina looked”. Alexandra wanted her friend to know that there was no one right way to look, and it became something of a mission for her to create a document of respect and appreciation for our vaginas, our vulvas, our bodies, ourselves… Alexandra’s been working on vagina vérité® since 2000, and is looking for our help toward completing photography. From there, she plans to publish a book of v-portraits & to exhibit widely. You can learn more about the project and how we can help here [pdf].

Blood on the Page: Book Review

books, Language, Literature, Menstruation

Book Cover: The Bleeding of America, by Dana MedoroGuest Post by David Linton, Marymount Manhattan College

Dana Medoro, The Bleeding of America: Menstruation as Symbolic Economy in Pynchon, Faulkner and Morrison, Greenwood/Praeger, 2002. Pp. 198. $98. ISBN 0313320594.

One of the ways the taboos surrounding menstruation find expression is through absence.  For instance, until recently menstrual references in American novels were rare.  Contemporary writers, particularly women novelists such as Joyce Carol Oates (The Tattooed Girl, 2003) and Erica Jong (Parachutes and Kisses, 1984) and occasional men such as  John Updike (The Widows of Eastwick, 2008)  and Philip Roth (The Dying Animal, 2001), have more frequently used period reference to advance a plot or to symbolize something or other, but historically the menstrual cycle has generally been off limits.  Similarly, literary criticism has tended to ignore or avoid an examination of the social, cultural and psychological significance of the cycle within the literary marketplace.  There is, however, in the area of scholarship one significant exception.

In 2002 Dana Medoro published a seminal study of menstrual references and symbolic allusions titled, The Bleeding of America: Menstruation as Symbolic Economy in Pynchon, Faulkner and Morrison.

Here’s the way the publisher describes the book:

Working from the premise that the Puritan construction of America as a return to Eden endures into American literature of the 20th century, Medoro focuses on the rhetoric of cyclical regeneration, blood, and damnation that accompanies this construction. She argues that a semiotics of menstruation infuses this rhetoric and informs the figuration of a feminine America in the nation’s literary tradition: America, as a New World Eden, is haunted not only by the Fall, but also by the “Curse of Eve.” The book examines how 9 novels by Pynchon, Faulkner, and Morrison link variations on the figure of the menstruating woman to the bloody history of the United States and to a vision of the nation’s redemptive promise.

Since publication of The Bleeding of America, Medoro has continued to explore the rich potential of menstrual symbolism in fiction as part of a presentation at the Modern Language Association where she deconstructed the levels of meaning in the many bleeding occurrences in Stephen King’s Carrie and later on in her reexaminations of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  Her work stands as an outstanding example of how deeply embedded are aspects of the cycle in every facet of cultural expression.

Book Review: The Modern Period

books, Communication, Girls, Menstruation, New Research

If I correctly understand the terms of SHM’s copyright agreement with Oxford University Press, I am permitted to publish this unedited version of my review as a “pre-print” article. The final version will be available only from Social History of Medicine.

Lara Freidenfelds, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth Century America, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 242. £31/$60. ISBN 978 0-8018 9245 5.

Book cover: The Modern Period by Lara Freidenfelds Lara Freidenfelds, an historian currently teaching in Women’s Studies at Wellesley College, has written a thorough and engaging history of menstruation in twentieth century USA. Her title, The Modern Period, is more than a succinct description; it cleverly references her discussion throughout of how advancing Progressive values shaped beliefs and practices surrounding menstruation. These Progressive values included faith in scientific rationality, belief in the value of education, and unqualified endorsement of technological progress. The ‘modern period’ also references the evolution of menstrual management practices into a coherent whole and the movement away from practices and beliefs considered old-fashioned, such as worries about catching a chill or the use of cloth pads. Her analysis throughout addresses the class implications of modernization; that is, the perceived need to adopt modern practices of bodily presentation and self-control for class mobility. Such modernization, asserts Friedenfelds, is a key component of Americans’ ability to see themselves as middle-class across great gaps in education and income.

Friedenfelds skillfully integrates a variety of historical sources, such as advertisements, promotional brochures, educational texts, and previous historical and sociological research on menstrual beliefs and practices with her own extended interviews with women and men of a range of ages, occupations, social standings, and ethnic backgrounds. This adroit synthesis helps Friedenfelds show how the modern period was created collectively by advertisers, health educators, manufacturers of menstrual products, and other ‘experts’, with the eager assistance of ordinary people.

The diversity of age and ethnicity among Friedenfelds’ interview participants is particularly striking and significant in a work such as this: the oldest informant was born before 1910, and the youngest after 1970. The 75 interviewees included white Americans in New England, African Americans in the rural South, Chinese Americans in California, as well as 13 people from other backgrounds. Examples from these interviews are well contextualized and grounded with historical research.

Friedenfelds’ choice to organize The Modern Period thematically rather than chronologically made the text a more appealing read as a whole while simultaneously making it possible for each chapter to stand alone. This organizational choice also makes clear how changes in the evolving modern period came about gradually and often in fragmented ways. The book is divided into five chapters, plus brief introduction and conclusion, around the themes of life before modern menstrual management, modern talk about menstruation, modern menstrual behavior, modern techniques of menstrual management, and a fifth chapter about tampons as a case study in controversy.

Some contemporary readers may find it difficult to believe that tampons were once controversial. But when they were first introduced as a commercial product in the 1930s and 1940s, both menstruators and physicians were skeptical about their safety and efficacy. There were also debates about the sexual implications of tampons, and whether it was advisable for sexually inexperienced women to use them. This chapter provides a keen example of how effectively Freidenfelds uses interview data to supplement documents-based research: Using tampons required women to cross boundaries of race, class, culture, and region, as well as learn different bodily practices required by tampon use compared to menstrual pads. Freidenfelds shows this with vivid interview narratives about women experimenting on their own to learn how to insert a tampon, modern daughters explaining to traditional, immigrant mothers that tampons were safe, and more. The frankness of these narratives is a testament to Freidenfelds’ skill as an interviewer.

Despite the apparent advances in menstrual management and communication about menstruation that Friedenfelds documents, it is important to note that discourses of menstruation remain quite constrained:

The kind of “openness” about menstruation that is part of modern menstrual management is very specific: it is openness in carefully circumscribed locations and constrained language, just what is needed to support the modern desire to make menstruation impinge as little as possible on people’s lives, and no more. (p. 11)