Sweden’s Year of Menstruation – Is it the Menstrual Decade? Maybe the Menstrual Millennium?

Activism, Language, Media, Menstruation

Guest Post by Josefin Persdotter, Gothenburg University

As I write this, it is only hours until the acclaimed Swedish television program Kobra airs an episode about menstruation in art, and as a growing social movement in Sweden. They’ve interviewed none other than menstrual art and activism pioneer Judy Chicago. In the trailer she jokingly exclaims: “Oh, so Scandinavia’s discovered that women menstruate!” And it seems we have. Or at least Swedes seem to have. Sweden’s currently enjoying a kind of menstrual boom. Maybe one could even call it a menstrual revolution. From my (albeit very menstrually focused) horizon I see menstruation everywhere. During the last year it’s gone from (almost) total menstrual silence to it being in national newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and naturally, all over social media.

I guess one could say it began last summer.  Feminist cartoonist and writer Liv Strömquist (bravely!) did a two-hour radio show about menstruation, depicting menstrual taboos in history, arguing that it ought to be a much larger part of culture. The show aired on prime-time when “everyone” was listening. Being a menstrual activist for many years, I listened with a pounding heart wondering how Sweden would react. Though I’m sure she got some internet hate and many negative comments, the reception from those who liked it seems to have been quite overwhelming for Strömquist, and quite palpable to everyone else.

Instantly, something changed. Just as I had experienced when I met people through my own activism, but this time on a national scale. People began to open up; they shared their own menstrual stories openly on various social media platforms. And they haven’t stopped.

To only name a few of the many amazing things that have happened since then: several menstrual art projects have enjoyed unprecedented attention in the media, menstruation-related diseases make the headlines in the tabloids, several other radio-shows have had menstrually-themed episodes, a menstrual documentary has been made and another one is in post-production, new books about menstruation have been launched and sold out in weeks (!), and on top of that two national organizations for menstruation and PMS respectively have been founded. Menstruation’s become something that’s publicly handled as a truly relevant and important issue.

I may exaggerate a little, but I don’t want to downplay it either,  as I really do think that something rather spectacular has happened. First I called it a menstrual spring, then it became a menstrual year, and now it’s going on year two. Could one dare to hope for a menstrual paradigm shift? Or might the public lose interest? I see no signs of menstrual fatigue, but quite the opposite. More and more people and institutions engage in menstrual issues publicly. The need to talk periods seem to be stronger than ever.

Sweden’s got a small population of about 9 million, speaking an equally small language. This has been a pain in the neck in my menstrual activism, until it wasn’t. I was quite jealous of menstrual activists friends who got to do their work in English or Spanish, having so many millions more that could like, comment, and retweet on social media. But now I’ve begun to think the small size might be a huge advantage. I think we have the size to thank for some of what’s happened. It might be easier to reach everyone, to become in some way part of the media mainstream and have a national impact in a small country like this. Sweden has only a couple of national newspapers, fewer television news shows, etc., compared to larger nations.

I post this to the international menstrual community wondering if I am witnessing something unique, or something universal? Are there currently similar menstrual surges elsewhere as well? And naturally: what’s it been like historically? What can we learn from eachother? What should we think about to make these changes last and become real shifts in the menstruculture?

Respecting the Maori Menstrual Taboo

Communication, Objects, Religion/Spirituality

Female visitors to Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand) are faced with a difficult moral dilemma regarding the taonga Maori collection included in an upcoming tour.

An invitation for regional museum staff to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of some of Te Papa’s collections included the condition that “wahine who are either hapu [pregnant] or mate wahine [menstruating]” were unable to attend.

Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was in place because of Maori beliefs surrounding the taonga Maori collection included in the tour.

“There are items within that collection that have been used in sacred rituals. That rule is in place with consideration for both the safety of the taonga and the women,” Keig said.

She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.

“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

The policy does not apply to the entire exhibit, but to a “behind-the-scenes” tour offered November 5. Visitors’ reproductive status will not be verified in any way, but women are expected to be honest about it and obey the request.

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)