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A BRIEF HISTORY OF MENSTRUATION- Part 1

How the bloody history of the period affects gender & workplace relations.

 

Ah, the period. A cursed yet relatable and common experience.


Reproductive health is often seen as a taboo, something that shouldn’t be mentioned anywhere near anyone who cannot directly relate to the various problems, hormone imbalances, and sometimes debilitating health conditions that having a monthly cycle may cause.


Periods, menstrual cycles, and the field of gynaecology on a whole suffers from a long history of men in power projecting feelings of disgust and shame on gender minorities, or using the lack of knowledge about reproductive health to gain wealth and power without much thought to truly understanding or treating health concerns. Not much is known about how periods were handled way back in the ancient times, and people were likely left to simply bleed on their clothes, or stay home if their families could afford it. In fact, periods existed before humans were even fully evolved as species, but the menstrual cycle that early humans experienced would have been much lighter and much less debilitating than what we know today. (Don’t feel too happy for them though, this was mostly due to malnourishment and very early menopause.)


The history of the menstrual cycle has also been fraught with strange superstitions. Any reproductive complaints, like very heavy flow or painful cramps were written off as symptoms of hysteria, or blamed on a diet that was filled with ‘too much exciting foods.’ In tribal societies, menstruation was heavily tied to culture and what was written in the stars. In Ancient Greece, the use of menstrual rags was implemented, where women would place a soft piece of cloth between their legs to absorb the blood, washing and drying it regularly for reuse - hence the expression “on the rag.”


According to Rita E. Montgomery in A Cross-Cultural Study of Menstruation, Menstrual Taboos, and Related Social Variables, a specific source of origin for these taboos is hard to pinpoint. Montgomery builds on the work of Bruno Bettelheim (an Australian psychologist), who suggests the concept of ‘vagina envy.’ This is the thought that men, upon realising the connection between menstruation and childbirth, begin to feel excluded from the process and therefore hold some sort of resentment towards it. The study goes on to outline different beliefs of what menstruating women should and shouldn’t be allowed to do, as dictated by different cultures. For the women of France, this included no wine-making, no mushroom picking, no sugar-refining and no silk-work tending for the menstruating women of France. In Britain, women were not even allowed to cure ham while menstruating for fear of spoiling it, and they also ought not be operated on. In this, and among many other popular beliefs in varying tribes/cultures that Montgomery outlines, there seems to be one common, prevailing belief that links these superstitions together.


Menstrual blood is seen as having either a ‘polluting’ or a ‘non-polluting’ effect (Alma Gottleib 1984.) That is, either the person menstruating is seen as tainted, or not. This dictates their inclusion in certain activities, and most times, is meant to protect men from what is believed to be ‘damaging fluids, touches, or gazes.’


Understandably, beliefs surrounding menstruation varied greatly depending on culture. Either the menstrual cycle was a gift from the Gods above, considered the highest blessing, or it was a punishment for sinful acts, meant to condemn.


But how did it all begin - the practice of reproductive health as we know it today? The earliest forays into the study of gynaecology are so tainted by the male perspective, so steeped in racism, so influenced by what men have demanded is truth and fact. Take, for example, the case of James Marion Sims in the 1800s - a man who, along with most of the population, used the racist notion that black people don’t feel pain as an excuse to perform painful experiments on enslaved black women, sometimes even without consent in some cases. He conducted these experiments for four years, only risking these procedures on white women until he had ‘perfected’ the technique and anaesthesia became widely accepted in medical circles.


Absorb that information. And now remember that this is the same man that established the first women’s hospital in the States.


This history, of course, is disturbing. You might think that this doesn’t apply to us on our little island. But slavery, racism and classism is just as much a part of our history as it is for any other country in the western world. Think of the many girls & women here suffering from period poverty. Think of the stigma that we have grown up with since birth.


It has taken decades to undo these myths of the menstrual cycle - and it’d take a whole separate article to delve into the damage that’s been done to the practice of female reproductive health, the repercussions of which echo into today’s society. But the fact still remains. Men - or rather, men of the mostly white and cisgender variety - have been the ones dictating our beliefs on this mystical, magical thing that billions of people experience called the Menstrual Cycle.


Truly, it isn’t surprising that this discrimination, this paranoia, this obsession with categorising the period as a naughty, forbidden thing, follows a mentality that can (pardon the pun) bleed into the modern day workplace. As much as there has been improvement in destigmatizing menstruation in some places, there is still much work to be done to break down those barriers and remove some of the lasting discomfort around the topic.



In part 2, Shannon takes a deeper dive into this important discussion. Hear first hand from local women in the music industry about their experiences with menstruation in a male dominated industry.


 

SOURCES:


Alma Gottlieb. “Sex, Fertility and Menstruation among the Beng of the Ivory Coast: A Symbolic Analysis.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 52, no. 4, [Cambridge University Press, International African Institute], 1982, pp. 34–66, https://doi.org/10.2307/1160093


Bell, Jen. “What Was It like to Get Your Period in Ancient Greece?” Periods throughout History, Clue, 14 Apr. 2021, https://helloclue.com/articles/culture/what-was-it-like-to-get-your-period-in-ancient-greece.


“Bruno Bettelheim.” Obo, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780190221911/obo-9780190221911-0072.xml.


Doughty, Melissa, et al. “Period Poverty.” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, 6 Aug. 2019, https://newsday.co.tt/2019/08/06/period-poverty/


“The History of Periods: Menstruation through the Ages.” KT By Knix, https://www.knixteen.com/blogs/the-rag/the-history-of-periods.


Holland, Brynn. “The 'Father of Modern Gynecology' Performed Shocking Experiments on Enslaved Women.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Aug. 2017, https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves.


Holland, Brynn. “The 'Father of Modern Gynecology' Performed Shocking Experiments on Enslaved Women.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Aug. 2017, https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves.


“Protecting Our Girls from Period Poverty.” Trinidad Guardian, 2 Apr. 2019, https://www.guardian.co.tt/article/protecting-our-girls-from-period-poverty-6.2.815692.14548b78d7


“Review: Menstruation and the Female Body.” Early Modern Medicine, 26 Feb. 2014, http://earlymodernmedicine.com/review-menstruation-and-the-female-body/.


The Secret History of Menstruation - JSTOR DAILY. https://daily.jstor.org/the-secret-history-of-menstruation/.


“When Your Period Means You Have to Live in a Shed.” WaterAid, https://www.wateraid.org/stories/when-your-period-means-you-have-to-live-in-a-shed


Montgomery, Rita E. “A Cross-Cultural Study of Menstruation, Menstrual Taboos, and Related Social Variables.” Ethos, vol. 2, no. 2, [American Anthropological Association, Wiley], 1974, pp. 137–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/639905.





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