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.
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)