Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Traces of Feminist Rage

April 18th, 2014 by Breanne Fahs

In the past few weeks, I’ve been reflecting quite a lot about feminist rage, in part because I recently participated in a panel at New York University about feminist rage with philosopher Avital Ronell, American Studies scholar Lisa Duggan, and performance artist Karen Finley. In celebration of my new book, the first-ever biography of Valerie Solanas entitled Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) (Feminist Press, 2014), we came together to think deeply about feminist rage and how anger has a place within feminist thought, pedagogy, and practice. Avital Ronell lit up the room with an analysis of devastation versus destruction, drawing on Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida, while Karen Finley performed feminist rage by imagining the interplay between a homeless woman on the subway and a punk hipster girl. The evening was topped off by an appearance by Valerie’s friend, Ben Morea, who slammed the university for its elitism and said that Valerie hated universities and wanted nothing to do with them—a rage-filled riotous evening indeed!

Valerie Solanas wrote a manifesto that has continued to perplex, inspire, and enrage its readers. She blatantly expressed rage toward both men and “Daddy’s girls” (and some argue that her rage was more directed toward the latter than the former); Valerie wrote in her 1967 SCUM Manifesto, “The conflict, therefore, is not between females and males, but between SCUM—dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females, who consider themselves fit to rule the universe, who have freewheeled to the limits of this ‘society,’ and are ready to wheel on to something far behind what it has to offer—and nice, passive, accepting, ‘cultivated,’ polite, dignified, subdued, dependent, scared, mindless, insecure, approval-seeking Daddy’s Girls, who can’t cope with the unknown; who want to continue to wallow in the sewer that is at least familiar, who want to hang back with the apes; who feel secure only with Big Daddy standing by, with a big strong man to lean on and with a fat-hairy face in the White House” (63-64). Not insignificantly, while simultaneously declaring SCUM a “state of mind” and the manifesto a “literary device”—raising questions about whether Valerie understood this work as absurd satire or whether she believed it completely—she strode into Andy Warhol’s Factory and shot Andy Warhol and two of his associates on June 3, 1968 largely because she felt assaulted as an artist and a writer. In a little known fact, she also left a paper bag on Andy Warhol’s desk before she fled the scene that contained another gun, an ice pick, her address book, and a Kotex pad.

That Valerie left a menstrual pad on Andy Warhol’s desk has stuck with me as a curious point for several years while working on this book. Did Valerie merely forget the paper bag accidentally (implying that she may have been currently menstruating and needed the pad in a practical sense)? Or, did this twinning of the gun and menstrual pad signify something larger about her particular brand of rage? Both objects connect deeply to the spilling/shedding of blood; maybe Valerie used the menstrual pad as a conscious imposition of, or symbol around, her feminist rage. Perhaps Valerie meant to remind her victims that women and guns remained bound together, that SCUM would corrode the world with their own menstrual blood.

In any case, the whole incident (and subsequent reactions people have had to the shooting and to Valerie’s anger) made me again reflect on how much distance women often try to put between themselves and their rage. Women generally shy away from their own anger, both as individuals and as a collective force, and this has serious consequences for the advancement of feminist politics. We live in a culture adept at blocking, disallowing, suppressing, and discouraging women’s anger and rage; women know this deeply and often only feel entitled to express rage during their menstrual cycles (a “socially-acceptable” alternative). Women’s respectability and “proper” femininity often hinges, in fact, on denying anger altogether. Perhaps our reactions to Valerie (both our celebratory impulses and our tendencies to reject and discard her) occur because Valerie represents the rage and anger women themselves sense but cannot express or accept within themselves. Ultimately, there must be a place for rage in the contemporary landscape of gender politics and feminism; whether our menstrual cycles serve as a “cover” for it, or whether we just let it rip (in the words of Ti-Grace Atkinson), rage serves a necessary role in challenging oppression and fighting back against the prevailing powers that be.

An Uncharted Territory: Marriage Manual and Menstrual Sex

March 26th, 2014 by David Linton

A previous post, The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism, examined the confluence of eugenic notions that conflated the effects of environmental factors like clothing, alcohol, and masturbation with heredity and health as expressed in a 1913 sexual health manual sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, What Every Young Woman Ought to Know. It is important to note that not every book about sexuality that emerged early in the century was as misguided and misinformed as that one.

Just 13 years later, in 1926, another guide to sex and marriage was published, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Th. H. Van de Velde, M.D., that went on to its 44th printing at Random House by 1963. Though not much is actually known about its reception or the uses its readers put it to, its longevity suggests both popularity and impact. And in tone and content it is remarkably different from the previously discussed volume from 1913. It suggests that the sexual/menstrual ecology was in flux (perhaps it always is) but also that the earlier work did not fully reflect the spirit of its times.

In those sections of the book dealing with anatomy and physiology the information is mostly sound and presented in a straightforward manner. However, Ideal Marriage also contains an ample amount of less than thorough information about lots of topics, not the least of which is just what constitutes an “ideal marriage!” Of special interest to readers of re:Cycling are the portions that set out to explain and describe the workings of the menstrual cycle.

Though there are a few caveats or cautionary asides such as, “I am fully aware that we are here in an uncharted territory, full of traps and pitfalls. . .”(106) and that it is “. . . peculiarly difficult to sift the possible kernel of fact from the fantastic sheaf of tradition and superstition. . . ,” (107) none-the-less the author proceeds to paint a picture of the effects of menstruation as worthy of a Hitchcock thriller. Just before and during menstrual bleeding women have, “a lesser degree of bodily endurance, activity and dexterity; a tendency to exhaustion and malaise,” (100); “Temper, hypersensitiviteness, caprice, resentment, rapid changes of mood, liability to take offense unnecessarily appear, in women who are otherwise very free from these manifestations.” (100) And, women must take special care about “resolutely mastering their tongues and tempers. . .” (100) Naturally, these unfortunate flare ups create a special challenge for men: “For the husband, there are two occasions . . . in which tact, sympathy and self-control are urgently needed if he is to be an expert in love and life. Namely, in the first days of married life, and in the first days of the monthly vital ebb. The second is much the harder test—because it perpetually recurs!—but surely not any less important than the first.” (101)

In addition to these disturbances of mood, there are other physical defects that appear: “nausea and inclination to vomit, bad breath, increase of intestinal gas. . . a tendency to varicose veins, cold feet . . the vocal apparatus is impaired . . . the voice becomes easily tired and changes its quality. . .an appreciable narrowing of the field of vision, and less acute differentiation of colors. . . facial pallor, a tendency to blush easily, and blue rings under the eyes. . .[in effect] she is partly an invalid.” (104-105) Whew! Yet there is a saving moment. After a lengthy catalog of miseries and flaws we learn that, “Fortunately no one woman has to endure all the sufferings and disabilities described above. . . .And, I repeat, that fortunately, there are quite a number of women who do not suffer any of these things.” (105)

Despite the bleak depictions of what many menstruating women are believed to experience and what their husbands must endure, the author then goes on to confront and mostly refute the most deeply rooted sexual taboo of all. A full chapter is devoted to a discussion of sexual intercourse during menstruation and pregnancy. Beginning with acknowledging and identifying the wide range of historical religious and cultural prohibitions and traditions, the chapter then proceeds to describe how some women and men are not only indifferent to the prohibitions but, in fact, find menstrual sex more exciting:

The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism

March 20th, 2014 by David Linton

Title page of What a Young Woman Ought to Know

Sometimes, when it seems that progress toward the elimination of harmful menstrual stereotypes, myths, and misinformation is slow or even stalled, it is bracing to take a look back at the kinds of educational materials, marriage manuals, and sources of advice that women were offered in the past in order to be reminded that progress does actually exist. Consider, for instance, an effort to enlighten women about sex, marriage, and the menstrual cycle from the early 20th Century.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, a book appeared in the “Self and Sex Series” titled, What a Young Woman Ought to Know by an author identified as Mrs. Mary Wood-Allen, MD. Her credentials, displayed on the title page, include the following: “National Superintendent of the Purity Department Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,” and she is credited with having written six other books, including Almost a Man and Almost a Woman.

To get a hint of the direction the book takes in its effort to instruct young women in what they ought to know a glance at some of the chapter titles may suffice:

Ch. V – “Breathing”
Ch. VI – “Hindrances to Breathing”
Ch. VII – “Added Injuries from Tight Clothing”
Ch. XVI – “Some Causes of Painful Menstruation”
Ch. XVII – “Care During Menstruation”
Ch. XIX – “Solitary Vice”
Ch. XXVII – “”The Law of Heredity”
Ch. XXXIV – “Effects of Immorality on the Race”
Ch. XXX – “The Gospel of Heredity”

As these titles suggest, the book manages to link menstrual education with some of the most virulent eugenic nonsense that had gained widespread acceptance in American science and politics of the time, the same sham-science that led to sterilization of disabled people and African-Americans in the U.S. and found a welcome home in Nazi Germany in the following decades.

Perhaps the best way to communicate the stupidity of the book’s content is to allow it to speak for itself. Consider the explanations of menstrual discomfort and the effects of bad reading habits:

“Whenever there is actual pain at any stage of the monthly period, it is because something is wrong, either in the dress, or the diet, or the personal and social habits of the individual.” (119)

“Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.” (124)

“…if girls from earliest childhood were dressed loosely, with no clothing suspended on the hips, if their muscles were well developed through judicious exercise, they would seldom find it necessary to be semi-invalids at any time.” (146)

The underlying disdain or fear of sexual pleasure is expressed in the chapter about masturbation, titled “Solitary Vice,” in which it states, “the reading of sensational love stories is most detrimental…This stimulation sometimes leads to the formation of an evil habit, known as self-abuse….The results of self-abuse are most disastrous. It destroys mental power and memory, it blotches the complexion, dulls the eye, takes away the strength, and may even cause insanity.”

As if these dire consequences were not bad enough, it turns out that once one has inflicted these conditions on one’s self, they can enter the girl’s genetic code and be passed along to future generations. Even a girl’s clothing choices can have long term, disastrous effects: “The dress of women is not merely an unimportant matter, to be made the subject of sneers or jests. Fashions often create deformities, and are therefore worthy of most philosophical consideration, especially when we know that the effects of these deformities may be transmitted.” (223)

The author minces no words as to the effects on the children of such a careless mother: “The tightly-compressed waist of the girl displaces her internal organs, weakens her digestion, and deprives her children of their rightful inheritance. They are born with lessened vitality, with diminished nerve power, and are less likely to live, or, living, are more liable not only to grow up physically weak, but also lacking in mental and moral stamina.”

Is the birth control pill a cancer vaccine?

March 11th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

I’d given up reading the comments on online articles for the good of my mental health when a small slip last week steeled my resolve. In response to an article exploring the arguments made by “birth control truthers” a concerned father decided to have his say, taking the defensive arguments put forward by those in opposition to these “truthers” to their only logical conclusion:

“Perhaps we should market contraceptive pills as hormonal supplements to reduce cancer risk instead of as “contraception”? After all, it is only in modern times that women have hundreds of menstrual cycles throughout their lives. Even up until 1800 it was common for women to be either pregnant or lactating throughout much of their short lives.

The body simply wasn’t built to handle so many menstrual cycles, which raises the risk for cancer.

Who could argue with taking supplements to prevent cancer?

This may sound strange, but I am seriously considering putting my 11 year-old daughter on the pill (with no placebo) just for the health benefits. I just have to convince my wife first who is a little shocked by the idea…”

I cannot count how many times I have heard that the birth control pill “prevents cancer” – specifically “preventing” ovarian and endometrial cancer.  In the last few months I have seen references to this benefit explained less and less so as a “lowered risk” and more and more so as a “preventative” action.  I think this is significant as the word “prevent” suggests that the pill guarantees you will not get these forms of cancer. And yet, to remark that the pill is counted as a carcinogenic substance by WHO – due on the increased the risk of breast and cervical cancers – will get you tagged as a “truther.”

What is interesting, of course, is that despite the “cancer protecting” benefits of pregnancy, and early pregnancy at that, we do not see women encouraged to get pregnant in order to lower their risk of ovarian cancer.  Criticism of child-free women does not generally include comments about their lax attitude towards their own health. The risk goes down further with every pregnancy and further still with breast feeding, especially breast feeding for a long period of time after birth. Women who have children young, and multiple children, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who have no children or children after 30. Yet we see more talk of women having “too many” children at an age that is “too young” – in fact I was contacted via Twitter by someone who read this piece and who saw, in the comments, that one woman who uses natural family planning admitted to both liking the method and having 14 children. This admission disgusted the person who contacted me, even when I pointed out that it seemed the woman had very much chosen to have those 14 children.

It seems the people who are advocating prescription of the pill for cancer prevention purposes are not advocating women have children earlier, more children, or consider breast feeding for the good of their own health – in fact two of the loudest critics of my “birth control truther” book are vehemently against pregnancy and breast feeding being part of women’s lives (Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein). The risks of the pill are frequently compared to the health risks associated with pregnancy and child birth,  but we don’t often hear women say they are choosing to not have children to avoid putting their health at risk for nine or so months.

Which leads me to this article in the LA Times that suggested nuns should also be on the birth control pill for its cancer-protecting abilities:

“And are the pills really unnatural? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had their babies four or five years apart, because of long intervals of breastfeeding. As a result of that and their shorter life spans, they had as few as 40 menstrual cycles in a lifetime, while a modern woman can have 400. Though we can’t claim that today’s pills are perfect, their use is certainly less unnatural than enduring the hormone turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles.

The Big, Fat, Menstrual Untruth in Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book

February 5th, 2014 by Laura Wershler

I was curious. If Cameron Diaz’s purpose in writing  The Body Book: The Law of Hunger, the Science of Strength, and Other Ways to Love Your Amazing Body was empowerment, helping women to understand how their bodies work, would she include information about the menstrual cycle?

There was no way of knowing from her Jan. 22, 2014 radio interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q. I listened to Diaz explain that conversations she’d had and overheard in the last few years made it clear to her that women are completely confused about their bodies. She said this had her thinking, “Wow, that’s such a crazy thing that after so many years of living in your body that you actually don’t have an understanding of it.”

Then she revealed her intention in writing the book – to empower women to make “informed decisions about their nutrition and their physical activity.” Judging from this comment, the book’s subtitle, and the fact she did not mention menstruation during the interview, I wondered if the menstrual cycle would even be mentioned.

I sought out The Body Book at my local bookstore and quickly scanned the table of contents and index. I found myself smiling, thinking about Betty Dodson, author of Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving, and how she revealed in Chapter 1 that whenever she gets a new sex book she “immediately” looks up “‘masturbation’ to see where the author really stands on sex.” Whenever I see a new book about women’s health I look up “menstruation” to see what the author really knows about the menstrual cycle. Turns out Diaz, and/or her co-author Sandra Bark, know both a lot and not so much.

In Chapter 21, Your Lady Body (the book’s introduction starts with the salutation Hello, Lady!), she presents a fairly accurate endocrinological description of the three phases of the menstrual cycle: follicular, ovulatory, luteal. So far so good. But then, in the last paragraph of the luteal phase section, comes the big, fat menstrual untruth, the implication that whether you use hormonal birth control or not, this is how your menstrual cycle unfolds. It’s an absolute falsehood, and one that many women in this age of burgeoning body literacy are sure to see through.

Photo Illustration by Laura Wershler
Note: This is the only reference to contraception in The Body Book

The last paragraph of this luteal phase description (page 182) is ridiculously misleading. If a woman’s birth control method is the pill, patch, ring, implant or (Depo-) Provera shot, the synthetic hormones each contains will shut down her normal menstrual cycle function. She most definitely will not experience a cycle with follicular, ovulatory and luteal phases. Hormonal contraception does not “protect” her eggs. She will not ovulate, therefore the egg will not die. She may have a “withdrawal bleed” but it is not a true period. This is the truth.

I can understand, possibly, why Diaz made this egregious implication. What were her choices? Open a can of worms? State categorically, as every description of menstrual cycle function should, that you don’t ovulate or experience a normal menstrural cycle while taking hormonal contraception? 
Maybe something like this?

Hey Lady! If you use hormonal birth control none of this fascinating menstrual information applies to you. Wish I could tell you what this means for your health and fitness but, sorry, that’s beyond my area of expertise.

If Diaz’s intention for this book is to empower women to better understand their bodies, then she failed when it comes to the menstrual cycle. I hope she’ll correct this big mistake in any future editions.

The Devil Made Her Menstruate

January 15th, 2014 by David Linton

In 1967, the same year as the previously discussed Diary of a Mad Housewife, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was published and eventually climbed to Number Seven on the Best Seller list for that year. It then went on to become a successful feature film in 1968 directed by Roman Polanski and featuring John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow, and Ruth Gordon who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Reading the book today through the lens of an SMCR perspective it is surprising to note how references to the menstrual cycle play an important role, and not simply because it is about getting pregnant and suspending ovulation for a while.

As in Diary of a Mad Housewife, the use of the negative menstrual euphemism, “the curse,” dominates the narrative. But in this case it takes on extra layers of meaning. In fact, it harkens back to the origins of the term with its association to the notion that menstrual and childbirth discomforts are God’s punishment for Eve’s bad behavior in Eden. The fact that the story is about Rosemary becoming Satan’s clueless handmaiden destined to conceive and bear his son, is a parody of the Christian story, including having the birth of the son of Satan take place on June 25, the opposite time of Christ’s birth.

The first indication, though it does not become clear until later, of a connection between menstruation and Satanic presence is embedded in a scene concerning the suicide of Theresa, the young homeless woman who the Devil’s disciples, Roman and Minnie Castevet, had taken in with the intention of making her the Devil’s breeder. She had jumped from a high floor to her death and by way of speculating as to the reason, Roman Castevet tells the police, “I knew this would happen . . . She got deeply depressed every three weeks or so.” It later becomes clear that she killed herself to escape the fate they had planned for her.

As the story proceeds, Rosemary’s monitoring of her cycle becomes an ongoing plot element. She deeply wants to become pregnant and dislikes contraceptives, in part a result of her Catholic upbringing, but also because “the pills gave her headaches” and “rubber gadgets were repulsive.” As a result Guy, her husband, “studied the calendar and avoided the ‘dangerous days.’” However, she sometimes manages to have sex with him, contrary to his wishes, on days of likely ovulation and is “disappointed and forlorn” when her period arrives.

Eventually, when the time is right, the members of the next door coven, which has by now recruited Guy into their cell by the evil manipulation of his acting career into successful roles (another actor who got a part Guy was up for is struck blind), arrange to drug her and perform a ritual in which she is impregnated by the Devil. Shortly, Guy, who witnessed the coupling and claims to be responsible for the scratches and pain she incurred from the Devil’s claws, notes that her period is late, a result of the carefully planned Satanic rape.

From then on the story concentrates on Rosemary’s painful pregnancy, the birth, her discovery of the nature of her child – his yellow eyes and sharp claws – and acceptance of her role as mother of a demon baby as maternal instincts kick in and replace her original repulsion.

The final effect is a nuanced recapitulation of an ancient set of fears and deep seated misogyny, that women are the agents of the Devil, that they are the source of evil in the world, and that menstrual pain is inextricably linked to their complicity with Satan’s wishes.

More striking though is the remarkable parallel between the two husbands in these novels which were published the same year and which both went to become Hollywood hits soon after. Possessed by narcissism and ambition, both men treat their wives as means of advancing their careers while the menstrual cycle becomes a trope to represent weakness and vulnerability.

Diary of a Mad Menstrual Metaphor

January 8th, 2014 by David Linton

In 1967 a new novel, Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman, struck a chord with Boomer Generation women, the post-war era’s cohort who were already the subject of Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique and who are characterized today in TV’s Mad Men. The novel became a best seller and shortly received a successful film treatment in 1970 with a script by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry. Carrie Snodgress was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the title role, and Richard Benjamin, as her obnoxious husband, also received rave reviews. The novel is still in print having been reissued in 2005 with an introduction by Maggie Estep who was only four years old when the novel was first published.

There is a time travel quality to reading the novel today, or perhaps it’s like visiting some remote, foreign culture. So much of it is dated to the point of obscurity: pop culture references are lost; jargon and slang are quaint; fashions are out; brand names no longer exist. Most striking of all are the iron-clad gender rules the characters live by. The Husband, Jonathan, is a condescending, arrogant, inconsiderate bore. The Wife, Teena, is a shrinking, obedient, victimized mouse who timidly scurries about until a hot sexual affair with another self-centered cad and the collapse of her husband’s job and ambitions finally suggest, at the novel’s end, that maybe there’s hope to be found in the ruins of their miserable lives. Today’s readers are unlikely to feel much sympathy for her passive acceptance of her plight.

In the midst of this otherwise overwrought and curious artifact from a pre-Second Wave, pre-consciousness, pre-Steinem, pre-SMCR age, there can be found several glimpses into the menstrual values of the times. Through the lens of literary products such as this we can sometimes gain perspectives on both past and present. In this way Diary of a Mad Housewife enters the literary menstrual canon.

Considering the way any mention of menstruation was assiduously avoided at the time, the period references are surprisingly frank. And of more significance, the story avoids any cheap, clichéd attempts to connect Tina’s “madness” with any sort of hormonal fluctuation.

Within the first ten pages, having identified the fact that she’s feeling unhinged, paranoid, and depressed, Teena speculates that perhaps she’s suffering from “a Pre-Menopausal Agitation,” brought on by having recently turned thirty-six, the same age as Marilyn Monroe when she presumably committed suicide – “Thirty-sixitis.”  Her husband is urging her to pay a visit to her old psychiatrist, the peculiarly named “Dr. Popkin.”

The rest of the narrative, in the form of a secret diary that she is keeping, details Teena’s trials and tribulations with her children, party caterers, friends, house keepers, lover, husband, and assorted others, including a social acquaintance who ducks a dinner engagement with a crafty menstrual evasion (“I seem to have these perfectly beastly curse cramps.”) that turns out to have been a lie.

Teena’s menstrual values are also detailed in a description of difficulties scheduling trysts with her obnoxious lover, George. At one point, juggling party chores, parenting, domestic duties, hairdresser and dental appointments, she tells him, “I can see you early in the week. It has to be early because I’m due to get the curse about the middle of the week.”  George responds, “I don’t mind that,” and Teena answers, “I do.”

The “no menstrual sex” rule reflects the menstrual ethos of the times as well as serving as a means of illustrating the limits of the character’s freedom from sexual inhibitions despite the lustiness of her sexual performances with George – and they are “performances,” for her acts of defiance and at least a momentary flaunting of convention.

Eventually, the story moves toward climax with an ancient, reliable plot device: a late period. Once again relying on the derogatory slang expression, Teena writes in her diary, “the curse is now five days overdue.”

Global Menstrual Progress

December 31st, 2013 by David Linton

Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky

Nicholas D. Kristof has for some years been a regular contributor to the op-ed page of The New York Times where he frequently writes about sex trafficking, child abuse, and the lives of women around the world.

In 2009 Kristof and his wife and writing partner, Sheryl WuDunn, published a volume that examined a wide variety of the ways women are oppressed around the world titled, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book moves from Congo to China to South Africa to Cameroon to Afghanistan and many places in between. And though their focus is on the more dramatic and life threatening problems such as maternal mortality, prostitution, rape, AIDS, and economic discrimination, to their credit they also include the role that attitudes and practices surrounding the menstrual cycle play in determining the fate of women. In effect, they have added their own voices to the ongoing project of the SMCR: MAKING MENSTRUATION MATTER.

Half the Sky (the title is an allusion to the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.”) is not reluctant to address ancient, deep-seated cultural traditions, including the vicious practice in Deuteronomy calling for stoning to death of girls suspected of having had premarital sex, and in a chapter titled “Is Islam Misogynistic?” they confront some of the darker portions of that faith’s history. For instance, they cite the writings of a “ninth-century scholar, Al-Timmidhi,” who “recounted that houri [the heavenly virgins who await martyrs] are gorgeous young women with white skin, who never menstruate, urinate, or defecate.”  The chapter goes on to explain how statements such as this are not consistent with other Islamic tenets nor with the beliefs of many Muslims, but the notion that menstruation is equivalent to processes of bodily waste elimination is a deep-seated conception that permeates many other belief systems as well.

Another chapter, “Investing in Education,” addresses the challenges involved in providing adequate schooling for girls and the need for sanitary facilities and products so that girls can manage their periods discretely and hygienically. Mention is made of a Proctor & Gamble project to distribute free pads in Africa, however, surprisingly, insufficient attention is given to home-grown efforts, such as SMCR member Megan White Mukuria’s ZanaAfrica, to provide both products and empowering education to girls in Kenya. One program called Camfed, for Campaign for Female Education, that operates in several African countries is justifiably credited for its thoroughness in addressing girls’ education, including the practice of supplying girls with pads and underwear so they can continue to go to classes during their periods.

Obviously, an entire book could be written about the links between women’s liberation and the menstrual cycle. Half the Sky is not that book, but it does make a contribution that is worthy of applause.

Give the Gift of Body Literacy

December 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

Photo by Laura Wershler

This holiday season consider giving the women in your life the gift of body literacy. The books, resources and services compiled below support understanding and appreciation of our bodies.

Gifts for teenagers:

* To hold a Wondrous Vulva Puppet is to experience a loving representation of the female body. Dorrie Lane’s vulva puppets are used around the world to spark conversations about our bodies and our sexuality. To quote a testimonial on the website: “The sensual curves, velvety feel and beauty of these puppets seems to disarm people in a way that opens the door to real discussion about women’s sexuality.”

* Toni Weschler, widely known for her best-selling book on fertility awareness Taking Charge of Your Fertility, has also written a book for teenagers. Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body makes the perfect gift for your daughter or younger sister, neice or cousin. This book can transform a young teenager’s experience and understanding of her body as it teaches her the practical benefits of charting her menstrual cycles. Available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Gifts for those who want to learn fertility awareness:



* Justisse Method: Fertility Awareness and Body Literacy A User’s Guide by Justisse founder Geraldine Matus is a helpful gift for anyone wanting to learn about fertility awareness based methods (FABM) of birth control. It is “a primer for body literacy, and a guide for instructing women how to observe, chart and interpret their menstrual cycle events.”

For someone who wants to learn fertility awareness to prevent or achieve pregnancy, or to fix menstrual problems, finding a certified practitioner is getting easier. Technology can connect women with skilled instructors who may live thousands of miles away. Check out the practitioners below online and on Facebook.

*   *    *   *   *   *

* Flowers Fertility (Colleen Flowers, Colorado): Facebook.

* Grace of the Moon (Sarah Bly, Oregon): Facebook.

* Holistic Hormonal Health (Hannah Ransom, California): Facebook.

* Justisse Healthworks for Women provides a directory of Justisse-trained Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioners (Worldwide): Facebook.

* Red Coral Fertility (Justina Thompson): Facebook

* Red Tent Sisters (Amy Sedgwick, Ontario, Canada): Facebook

I invite other certified instructors who work locally to leave their contact information in comments.

Gifts for women in midlife

* For women who are in the perimenopausal transition – which can last from six to 10 years for most women, ending one year after the final menstrual period – give the gift of information. Connect friends and family with the website of the Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research where they’ll find many free resources that offer explanations and treatment suggestions for the symptoms they may experience throughout this transition including night sweats, hot flushes, heavy and/or longer flow, migraines, and sore, swollen breasts.

* To those who love fiction, consider giving Estrogen’s Storm Season, a fictionalized account of eight women’s journey through perimenopause written by CeMCOR’s Scientific Director, endocrinologist Dr. Jerilynn Prior:

They are as different as women can be—yet they share the mysterious experiences of perimenopause, night sweats, flooding periods or mood swings. We follow these women as they consult Dr. Madrona, learn the surprising hormonal changes explaining their symptoms, get better or worse, and try or refuse therapies. As each woman lives through her particular challenge, we begin to see how we, too, can survive perimenopause!

Proceeds from book sales support ongoing research.

From menarche to menopause, it is never too early or too late to acquire body literacy. I invite readers to share other gift ideas that promote menstrual cycle comfort and support body literacy.

In Honor of (a Sampling of) our Brave Menstrual Champions!

November 26th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *

Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent.  And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.

In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.

I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).

Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of  the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.

Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.

Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.

And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!

Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed. 

Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.

Used with Permission

Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view. 

Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.

Etiquette for menstruation

November 19th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

Photo courtesy of sweeteningthepill.com

Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to lend an excerpt of my recently released book to the UK Sunday Times Style magazine. The mostly fashion-centric Style magazine is not really known for its edginess or risk-taking (except perhaps in the realm of shoe and make-up choices) and so I was happily surprised when the editor told me that the subject matter discussed in my book that she happened to find most interesting was, in fact, menstruation. I had expected her to want to focus on condoms perhaps, or just my personal story, but no, she was keenly interested in what I wrote about periods.

The argument I make in my book is that how we feel about hormonal birth control is inextricably linked to how we feel about menstruation. In a sense, many of the newer methods of hormonal birth control, as well as the newer uses (running packets of pills together, prescriptions for cramps or heavy bleeding) show an effort to get rid of the period completely, rather than just hide it away. I also discuss in the book, briefly, menstruation activism. However, I do defer to the far better work done by the likes of SMCR’s own Chris Bobel who writes on this topic with far more knowledge (not to mention wit).

You can read the feature in full here at my website (it’s otherwise behind an online pay wall and frankly I’m pleased to rob Rupert Murdoch of a few pounds by making it freely available).

In the end, the feature was not exactly an excerpt from my book – more so it was quotes from the book mixed with quotes from a long interview with the editor. Therefore I didn’t quite know what would be published in the magazine. The finished piece covered a range of controversial topics seen here at re:Cycling regularly – menstrual outing, reusable femcare products, the potential health benefits of ovulation…

If the high point of my career was getting the word “patriarchy” into the notoriously right-wing British tabloid The Daily Mail, I think I had another peak seeing this sentence in the Style (notorious for its high priced designer fashion spreads) – “This movement believes the act of stopping and hiding our periods with hormonal contraceptives and sanitary products is a mark of corporate ownership of our bodies.” I take great pride in also getting a discussion of menstrual extraction on to Style’s pages, and therefore onto the breakfast table of approximately one million British people – “an entire period’s worth of menstrual blood could be removed in a few hours instead of being experienced over days.” Well, if we can have Page 3, why not menstrual extraction?

The editor who did such a great job on this piece was Fleur Britten and in a funny twist of fate I realized, during our conversations, that in my first full time working position after college, at the publishing company Debrett’s in London, I worked as a production assistant on one of her books – Etiquette for Girls. At that time controversy surrounded Fleur’s section on the proper etiquette for one-night stands (I think it was something about getting out quickly, quietly, but leaving a nice handwritten note). So, it made me smile to see her skewer the etiquette of menstruation in the opening paragraph of this piece: “Many women are bored with having to take a whole handbag into the ladies rather than carry a tampon in their hand. Men say “I’m going to take a dump,” but we don’t say, “I’m just going to change my tampon.””

When I was carrying the proofs of Fleur’s book to the printers back some seven years ago, little did I know we would be conspiring to get the British public to say “I am menstruating” today over tea and toast.

“Prescribing the pill has become ‘standard-of-care’ for being a girl”

October 16th, 2013 by Laura Wershler

I had the privilege of writing the foreword for Holly Grigg-Spall’s recently published book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. It’s astounding to me that more than 30 years ago, before Holly was born, I was asking some of the same questions she explores in her book. I thought we’d have more answers by now, but one thing is certain: Holly’s book has prompted long-overdue discussion and debate about issues related to hormonal birth control. Below is my foreword to Sweetening the Pill.

………………..

In a letter dated March 22, 1980, I proposed to the editor of an American woman’s magazine that they consider my enclosed article: The Contraceptive Dilemma – A Subjective Appraisal of the Status of Birth Control.

I wrote:

“Recent articles (about birth control) deal almost exclusively with the basic pros, cons, and how-tos of the various contraceptives available – matter-of-fact discussions that reduce birth control to a mere pragmatic decision. If only that were the case. 

Contraception, like the sexual interaction that necessitates it, involves our emotions as much as it does the facts. Yet the subjective, personal aspect of contraception is so often ignored. In this age of scientific research we are expected to (subjugate) our emotional reactions to significant probabilities, our anger to logic. Very real fears and earnest questions are dismissed as irrelevant….”

Although today I wouldn’t use the phrase “emotional reactions,” it’s hard to believe that three decades later, the status of birth control and women’s relationship to it has not much changed. Websites, not magazines, now host information about the basic pros, cons and how-tos of available birth control methods. And it is writers like Holly, half my age, who honour women’s real fears and ask earnest questions that are still being dismissed as mostly irrelevant.

Just as my personal story with the pill – including over a year of distressing post-pill amenorrhea – set me on a course of research and advocacy, so too has Holly’s personal experience. Sweetening the Pill explores and challenges the ways in which the pill and other drug-based contraceptives damage women’s health, threaten our autonomy and thwart body literacy. What we don’t know about our bodies helps pharmaceutical companies “sell” their contraceptive drugs, and keeps us “addicted” to them.

At some point between my first attempt at non-hormonal contraceptive advocacy and Holly’s exploration of how we’ve become hooked on hormonal birth control, something disturbing transpired. Prescribing the pill, or other forms of hormonal contraception, has become, in the minds of most health-care providers, the “standard of care” for being a girl. It is all too common to subjugate a girl’s menstrual cycle to synthetic hormones that superficially “regulate,” but actually suspend the maturation of her reproductive system. And for many girls, the use of hormonal contraception continues well into their 20s, without awareness of what might be or has been sacrificed.

There are many women like Holly who are fed up with hormonal birth control. I’ve met scores of them during my 30 years involvement within the mainstream pro-choice sexual and reproductive health community, the one that prides itself on inclusion and diversity. Yet I’ve been unsuccessful in my constant advocacy for this community to accommodate a more inclusive, diverse approach to contraception, to provide acknowledgement, support and services to women who cannot or do not want to use drug- or devised-based methods. We pay lip service to the idea, but the message we convey is: “You’re on your own.”

I’ve found enthusiasm in other realms for my menstrual cycle advocacy and my belief that many women want to, and can, learn to use non-hormonal methods effectively and confidently. I’ve found scientific evidence of the value of ovulation to women’s health and well-being.

I’ve read, met or worked with several of the sources included in this book. Many have devoted their careers to understanding women’s bodies and our relationships with our bodies in ways the medical mainstream typically ignores and barely comprehends. They have made contributions that help us imagine a different way of thinking about fertility, contraception and our menstrual cycles in relation to our sexual, reproductive and overall health.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.