Ask any young woman whether she feels embarrassed by her periods and she’ll likely deny it. Her grandmother might have hidden all evidence of “the curse” but not today’s liberated women. Right?
Sex education classes explain the biology of menstruation in interminable detail. Pad and tampon ads screen on prime-time television. And no girl in modern Australia suffers the terror of discovering blood between her legs before she’s had “the talk” with her parents.
But delve a little deeper and you’ll find that we are not as frank about menstruation as we like to think. How many girls proudly announce that they’ve reached menarche (first menstruation)? How many women openly carry a tampon to the toilet?
Why do we use quaint euphemisms such as “sanitary products” and “feminine hygiene products” in supermarket aisles? We are still profoundly uncomfortable about the fact that females bleed once a month for half of their lives. It’s messy, it’s unsettling and no one wants to talk about it.
This ancient taboo has stubbornly persisted across cultures and time periods. The idea that menstruating women are contaminated has inspired countless bizarre myths: that their touch can turn wine into vinegar, make flowers wilt, and even drive dogs mad.
Clearly, menstruation has tremendous cultural power. Why, then, has so little been written on the history of menstruation in Australia? Perhaps it’s because Australians have spent most of our past trying very hard not to mention it.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, menstruation was seen as similar to a monthly disability. The Ladies Handbook of Home Treatment (1905) listed activities that should be avoided at “that time of the month”, including running, dancing, bicycle riding, sewing and novel-reading.
As the Kotex booklet Preparing for Womanhood (1920s) announced:
there is less muscular strength, less steadiness – and even less mental efficiency. So you must not try to be as active, or do as much work during these few days as you can perform during the rest of the month.
Women and girls wore cumbersome pads at this time, contributing to the view that physical activities were ill-advised. Although commercially-produced menstrual products became available in the western world from the mid to late 19th century, most women still used rags which were washed after use. Some women wore a kind of fabric nappy, others constructed pads which were pinned to clothes or belts.
By the late 1920s several disposable pads had entered the Australian market, but only wealthier women could afford them. The advent of the second world war changed the way that many Australian women menstruated, with some introduced to disposable pads through their army or Red Cross service.
Other women on the home front were unable to buy pads due to war-time shortages. But overall, the role of Australian women in the war effort demonstrated their capacity to participate in public life. The female paid workforce continued to rise in the 1950s and 1960s, fuelling demand for the convenience of disposable menstrual products.
Sex education booklets of the 1940s and 50s such as Life and Growth: Hygiene for Girls (1941) argued that “menstruation is […] not in any sense an illness”.
Nevertheless, they emphasised that menstruation should be carefully disguised. In As One Girl to Another, Kotex explained that their pads would:
never make tell-tale outlines […] [and] never give your secret away.
The middle of the 20th century was a turning point in the methods used to manage menstruation. In one 1948 New Zealand survey, less than a quarter of high school girls purchased disposable pads while nearly three-quarters used home-made pads (7% used both).
Australian oral history interviews reveal that the use of reusable pads dwindled over the 1950s, with most girls using disposable pads by the 1960s.
By the 1960s, booklets such as The Guide to Womanhood (1961) were completely dismissive of any “disagreeable features” of menstruation, proclaiming that:
a girl who finds herself getting downhearted, moody or cross during her menstrual periods should take careful stock of herself, so that she does not get into a regular habit of having menstrual disturbances and getting out-of-sorts.
In Growing Up (circa 1960), Johnson & Johnson assured girls that prudent choice of menstrual products was crucial because:
physical comfort and peace of mind […] can make the difference between the girl who is awkward and self-conscious, and the girl who goes right ahead and has a swell time.
Australian attitudes towards menstruation and the practical ways women manage bleeding have changed immensely over the past century. Whereas once menstruation was described as an illness, today we insist that girls and women behave the same every day of the month.
While, previously, Australian females used rags to staunch their menstrual flow, we now choose from an assortment of slickly-marketed products.
But what have these changes meant?
Some historians argue that girls and women have been liberated by more effective menstrual products and the belief that menstruation doesn’t impair female capacity. This is certainly true on some levels. Yet in other ways changes in attitudes and behaviours have also entrenched the menstrual taboo.
Rather than embracing menstruation and talking openly about it, girls and women use modern products to hide their bleeding more effectively than ever.