The SMCR joins thousands of other groups and individuals around the world in celebrating Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. Her contribution to the full array of feminist causes is immeasurable, not the least of which is her insightful essay on the social construction of the menstrual cycle, “If Men Could Menstruate.” We were honored to present her with the first Making Menstruation Matter Award in June 2013 and recall her presentation fondly. Her opening statement to the auditorium full of menstrual activists and scholars was, “I can’t tell you how happy I am that you exist.” Well, there is no doubt that the feeling is mutual!
It’s been more than 20 years since Susan Faludi first published Backlash (with the provocative subtitle, The Undeclared War Against American Women), her thorough documentation of the ways women and feminism were under attack in the U.S. The War Against Women has been now been openly declared in American politics, and there is a backlash among women in online feminism.
I’m referring to discussions of hormonal birth control; specifically, how and with whom we can criticize the birth control pill. Before she joined the re:Cycling team, Holly Grigg-Spall wrote a guest post for us titled, Why Can’t We Criticize the Pill? At the time, the title may have seemed a little overwrought, but now that her book criticizing the pill has reached the market and been reviewed in several online publications (including by some reviewers who refused to even read it), the question is more than apt. Lindsay Beyerstein’s review for Slate prompted some readers to start a petition asking the publisher to cease publication. Amanda Marcotte has written two posts on her blog slamming the book without reading it, and refused offers of a free copy so that she could respond accurately. Dr. Jen Gunter is also uninterested in reading it, labeling the book “that atrocious pill book” on Twitter and suspecting “a pro-life agenda”.
The criticisms of the book are many and inconsistent: (1) an assertion that Grigg-Spall claims the pill is bad because it is not ‘natural’, (2) since the pill was bad for Grgg-Spall, no one should take it; (3) the pill is sexist and therefore dangerous; (4) the pill is anti-feminist; and furthermore, (5) Holly advances all of these claims in service of a anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-choice, pro-life, Christian right-wing agenda. That last one is particularly galling, as every time she speaks or writes about these issues, Holly prefaces her talk or mentions in her writing that she is atheist, feminist, and pro-choice. (She often also mentions that she’s British, and was raised with a very different health care system than those of us in the U.S., and thus held different assumptions about access.)
All of these criticisms are either factually incorrect, or exaggerated or deliberate misinterpretations of Holly’s actual arguments. For instance, while she does question what ‘natural’ cycles would be like if women didn’t take the pill, she does not assert that pill = unnatural = bad. Nor does she advocate banning or restricting the pill. She does locate the pill in a complex matrix of capitalist and patriarchal social structures that do not benefit women, which is not exactly the same as saying “the pill is sexist”.
As a feminist, a scholar, and as a reader of books, I’m both fascinated and frustrated by the criticism Sweetening the Pill has received. I’m appalled that reviewers would write and publish reviews completely panning a book they haven’t read, and then refuse to read it. As a feminist, I’m frustrated by apparent efforts to shut down dissent. The pill has never been more politicized in American life, and as I’ve asserted elsewhere, we cannot be so focused on preserving access that we’re willing to ignore questions of safety. Furthermore, it is not anti-feminist to disagree with one another. Feminism has a long history of proliferating and becoming more powerful by listening to dissent from within. Anyone remember the “Lavender Menace“? The emergence of intersectionality? As a commenter on one of the hack pieces eloquently put it,
The feminist critique of reproductive technology (including the pill’s discontents) are well established going back before the existence of the pill itself as debates with Sanger and colleagues. I’m sure this is widely taught in the Women’s Studies programmes you mention, it was to us even in A-level sociology.
I just don’t understand why you are pretending this is a new thing or that anyone taking these positions is a non-feminist. Are genuinely unaware of the history of your own movement or is this a crude rhetorical move against people you don’t agree with? Feminists (Seaman and Wolfson) provided critical testimony in the 1970 Senate Hearings, this is not some sort of obscure or secret fact, Wolfson’s outburst as to the constitution of the hearings and why drug companies were better represented than women is surely famous?
It seems to be the case you want to retro-actively kick Barbara Seaman out of feminism. You know, the woman that Gloria Steinem said was the prophet of the women’s health movement… with respect I don’t think you have the power and you don’t have an argument.
Feminism has always supported counter-intuitive critiques given that problems are multi-valenced. While Sanger held that reproductive control was an essential pre-condition of liberation, “who controls the control”, why and how are far more provocative questions.
Agree or disagree with Sweetening the Pill, or any other book, but read it for yourself, and form an opinion based on what the book actually says — not what a reviewer says or a 140-character criticism on Twitter suspects it might say. And think very carefully, and perhaps read it again, before you decide that it’s not feminism just because it doesn’t match exactly your feminism.
Just eight weeks after having been honored with the first Making Menstruation Matter Award by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at its conference in New York City, the White House announced on Thursday, August 8, that President Obama will bestow the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on Gloria Steinem at this year’s ceremony at the Kennedy Center. She will be joined by former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and 13 others who have made outstanding contributions to American life.
There are few others who have done as much as Ms. Steinem to advance the cause of women’s rights including reproductive health care, education, employment, political involvement, and, of course, reducing the stigmas that surround the menstrual cycle.
In announcing the names of this year’s honorees, President Obama’s statement read in part, “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world.” Everyone who attended the SMCR gathering at Marymount Manhattan College in June and heard Ms. Steinem’s address in accepting the Society’s honor would surely say “Amen!” to that description. To get the full sense of the depth of her insights and the passion that has motivated her achievements, the full text of her remarks is available here.
The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research is pleased to add our collective voice in tribute to Gloria Steinem on the announcement of this well-deserved recognition.
In keeping with the theme of Chris’ Monday post about antidotes to feminist fatigue, I offer vlogger (that’s short for video blogger to those of you who live most of your lives off-line) Laci Green’s newest video, which is about being Period Positive.
Ms. Green also recently posted a take-down of so-called “empowering” femcare ads at her Tumblr site, noting that “when you take a closer look, these images hold the same negative attitudes about menstruation that we see throughout history. These ads subtly, but effectively, communicate that menstruation is embarrassing, gross, and needs to be made “invisible”, that it is a defect you need to “smack down” or defeat, that periods are inconvenient and uncomfortable for men” [emphasis in original].
So take heart, weary feminists, especially re:Cycling readers and other period-positive ladies! You’re not a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.
Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne
Exploring missing menstruation on screen
Less surprising however, was that most presentations depict menstruation as the messy, embarrassing, sex-interrupting, mood-swing-inducing week-long hell ride that women have grown to expect from Hollywood.
While 200 scenes were many more than I expected, given that nearly all women will menstruate monthly for some thirty-odd years, 200 scenes actually isn’t all that many.
While most of Periods in Pop Culture focuses on what those scenes themselves reveal about society’s fraught relationship with periods, one chapter in fact explores the why so few portrayals. Given how very common and normal it is, why is the topic so frequently eschewed?
I proposed a handful of reasons including Hollywood’s aversion to telling female stories, narrative distraction, and the show don’t tell nature of the screen. In this post I offer two other explanations: menstruation as a non-event and political correctness.
As one of the millions of girls who got an (albeit long outdated) menstrual education from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, I learnt that some girls apparently eagerly await their first period kinda like Christmas. I wasn’t like Margaret. I didn’t pine for it, and when I got it I didn’t look down at my underpants and throw my head back in delight like Debbie (Nell Schofield) in the Australian film Puberty Blues (1981): for me it was a non-event.
The non-event nature of menstruation appears a central explanation for its absence.
In an episode of sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), Sophia (Estelle Getty) reflected on her periods: “I got it, no one told me. I didn’t get it, no one told me. I figured, this is life, and went back to my meatballs.” In this scene, Sophia reflects that many women don’t see any overwhelmingly need to talk about menstruation or complain about it or even to honor it, but that it is simply something that needs to be gotten on with.
Aside from those times when pregnancy is feared or desired, there are few occasions when menstruation is experienced as particularly memorable or gets bestowed with any great significance. I think this fact significantly underpins its absence on screen.
Thinking of menstruation as somehow naturally insignificant or uninteresting however, would be premature. In the film To Sir With Love (1967), there is a scene where teacher Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) reprimanded girls who he believed burnt a menstrual product in his classroom: “A decent woman keeps things private. Only a filthy slut would have done this!” Here, Thackeray refers to the most important rule of menstruation: concealment. On screen, if audiences see menstruation or if a character identifies as bleeding, she has neglected her most important gender burden. By infrequently portraying menstruation, the secrecy imperative is upheld. When women downplay the significant of their periods, when they believe their periods are uninteresting, internalized sexism is highlighted.
Another explanation for missing menstruation is so-called political correctness; that avoiding it reflects the contemporary dictums of liberal feminism: shunning topics which play up differences between men and women.
Given that menstruation is so common and that so many taboos exist surround it, it might be assumed that including it in narratives would be a feminist act. The flipside of this however, is that doing so might do gender equality a disservice; that presenting it reminds audiences of biological inequalities between men and women.
In a scene from the series Californication (2007-), Hank (David Duchovny) is about to have sex with his daughter’s teacher Mrs. Patterson (Justine Bateman). As they undress, Mrs. Patterson says, “Just so you know, I’m on my period.” Mrs. Patterson didn’t – and likely in our culture couldn’t – automatically assume that Hank would be fine and thus gave him an exit strategy. By mentioning menstruation in a sex scene, it existed as a glaring biological power imbalance; that an opportunity was offered for Hank to reject her on the basis of her biology.
By excluding menstruation, a female character can be interpreted as having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with her male counterpart; that she can be as sexually aggressive as she likes and not have to query whether her partner is bothered by her period. In turn, she doesn’t get limited by her biology.
Predictably, there are some serious limitations to this argument. On screen and off, women’s biology is ever present. Eliminating reference to menstruation certainly doesn’t make female characters any less female; in fact, disproportionate inclusion of, and focus on women who are stereotypically feminine demonstrates that biological differences between men are women continue to be crucially important on screen.
Over 200 scenes of menstruation did indeed surprise me, although admittedly it’s quite a bit sad that it did. Given how common menstruation is, given that the good majority of women cope each month without drama, fanfare or hijinks, one might expect that more presentations – notably more normal presentations – would redden our screens.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a political scientist based at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of four books; her newest, Periods in Pop Culture: Menstruation in Film and Television, will soon be published by Lexington Books.
I’ve spent so many years as a professor of Women’s Studies telling students that feminism is about equality, and that being pro-woman doesn’t mean being anti-men. I thought perhaps we’d moved past that 1990s meme of seeing everything that is for women as male-bashing, but here we go again.
The latest marketing strategy of Essure, a permanent birth control method for women that destroys the Fallopian tubes, is to appeal to men’s fear of vasectomy: “because you can only wait so long for him to man up”.
Only a latter-day Rip Van Winkle could avoid knowing that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the FDA’s approval of Enovid, the world’s first birth control pill. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles have marked this anniversary.
Many incorrectly credit the pill with giving birth to feminism. As Elaine Tyler May notes in the current issue of Ms., the pill didn’t start the feminist movement but was in the right place at the right time:
The timing could not have been better. The feminist movement gained momentum just as the Pill became available. With the ability to control their fertility, women could take full advantage of new opportunities for education, careers and participation in public life.
But in the midst of all this celebrating, we’ve neglected another anniversary: 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson’s congressional hearings about the pill’s safety profile, which arguably did launch the women’s health movement.
That launch received a giant shove from Barbara Seaman, a magazine writer who published a book called The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill in 1969, and Alice Wolfson, a then-student and feminist activist. Seaman’s book documented medical risks of the pill–such as blood clots, decreased sex drive, mood disorders and certain cancers, and she alleged that the pharmaceutical industry had suppressed such information. Sen. Nelson was investigating other allegations against the pharmaceutical industry and read Seaman’s book, which motivated him to take on the pill as well.
At the time of the hearings, Wolfson was part of an activist collective known as D.C. Women’s Liberation. In discussing whether or not to attend the hearings, Wolfson and several other members discovered they all had experienced negative side effects of the pill, which their physicians had not warned them about. That revelation led to something bigger. As Wolfson later wrote in her memoir, “We went to the Hill to get information. We left having started a social movement.”
At the Nelson pill hearings, as they soon became known, medical experts delivered testimony about the known risks of synthetic estrogen, one of the main ingredients in birth control pills. No pill users were on the agenda. The only woman who testified was Dr. Elizabeth Connell, who expressed the fear that if dangers of the pill were publicized, women would give up birth control entirely. Connell said she worried that would lead to an explosion of unwanted pregnancies, or “Nelson babies.”
Alice Wolfson says she doesn’t remember the exact tipping point in the hearings that prompted her to speak up, but I like to think it was the moment when a medical researcher testified, “Estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat.” Wolfson and other women raised their hands politely to comment, but when Sen. Gaylord refused to recognize them, they began shouting their questions.
Why weren’t we told about side effects?
Why aren’t any women testifying?
What happened to the women in the Puerto Rico study?
Why are you using women as guinea pigs?
Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and convenience?
The feminists immediately had the attention of reporters, and a movement was born. Seaman and Wolfson met during one of the breaks in testimony, and eventually worked together to create the National Women’s Health Network – still a vibrant and vital advocacy organization for women’s health.
The Nelson pill hearings eventually led to lower doses of estrogen in the pill (today’s oral contraceptives are about 1/10th the strength of Enovid) and perhaps more importantly, the introduction of patient package inserts, PPIs. The new FDA requirements resulted in the inclusion of printed information about risks, ingredients and side effects in pill packets, and eventually in all pharmaceuticals.
Women’s health activists went on to work for tampon safety regulations in the 1980s, resulting in an FDA mandate for consistency of absorbency ratings and warnings regarding tampon-associated Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS); withdrawal of fen-Phen diet pills in the 1990s; ongoing revisions of the ACOG guidelines for VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) and so many other issues in support of women’s health, safety and well-being.
Today’s the day, ironically enough on Mother’s day, that marks half a century since the FDA approved the pill for contraceptive use in the USA. And, for better or for worse, it’s become part of the fabric of our culture, and allowed women to have both family and a career by providing reliable family planning. Although, as many have commented, the pill may get more credit than it deserves, it serves as a powerful symbol of women’s liberation and sexual freedom.
Recently, in the Vancouver Art Gallery, I learned that, around this time, feminist painters were bringing the body back into art, challenging the largely male trends of abstractionism. Ironically, at the same time, feminist psychologists were working to remove the body from the psychology of women, challenging the prevailing wisdom that the narrative of woman is the narrative of her womb, and that when it ceases to be productive, so does she. How does the pill, with its chemical silencing of women’s reproductive endocrinology, fit with this interplay between owning and disowning our female bodies? And how can we own our bodies without allowing them to be our only defining features?
Guest Post by Nicole Luna, Marymount Manhattan College
Elizabeth Kissling’s March 16 post on the launch of the U by Kotex campaign and the comments that followed touched on the implications of the “new” Kotex products and their accompanying empowerment crusade. Comments ranged from how the new tampon applicators resemble glow sticks to how, with the new “menstruation optional” pills and implants, tampon and pad manufacturers are grasping any marketing ploy to keep girls menstruating and buying their products. Indeed, “empowering” women about their menstrual cycle and encouraging women to “celebrate their bodies” is a smart marketing move by Kotex in the face of the menstrual suppression option. The following comment from Giovanna Chesler’s on Kissling’s March 16 post sums up my own opinion about the “radical new product”.:
“Might I add that when I heard that Kotex was bringing a new, radical product to market, I assumed it would be a menstrual cup. What’s new about painting a tampon applicator? Still plastic. Still disposable. Shows how naive I am. Kotex selling menstrual cups… that would be the day!”
Let us not forget, these products still have the same pesticide-infused cotton and the same one-time-use, land fill-bound plastic applicators and wrappers.
At first, Kotex had successfully baited me with their empowerment rhetoric (although I do not buy their products), because YES I want the shame and embarrassment that surrounds the menstrual cycle to be banished, and YES I want “vagina” to be taken off of the list of “dirty words”, and YES I think tampon and pad commercials are ridiculous. Thus, the Kotex marketing campaign is remarkably cleaver, since it speaks, at least on some level, to those of us who want what is on the “U by Kotex Declaration of real Talk” pledge, which is as follows:
- Celebrate my body and my period as natural, normal, and important
- Respect my vagina, and know that ‘vagina’ is not a dirty word
- Challenge society to think differently about what it means to be a woman
- Talk openly and without embarrassment about periods and vaginal care with my friends and family
- Take good care of myself and encourage my girlfriends to do the same
If you think this is a progressive step in the direction of menstrual activism, visit the U by Kotex website, where you will find a woman to show you, with the aid of a vulva pillow, how to insert a tampon. She mercifully doesn’t make any reference to freshness or boys; instead, she just gives you straight-forward tampon instructions using candid language and anatomy books (although the images she uses are depictions and not actual human genitalia). Also, the U by Kotex site makes the connection that women who are not ashamed about their periods are more likely to have a positive self-image. My own research has shown me that the more educated a woman is about the logistics of her menstrual cycle, the more likely she is to be assertive about safe sex practices and actually enjoy sex more. She is also less likely to fall for age-old myths like “you can’t get pregnant on your period”.
So, while there are some definite upsides to the Kotex campaign, (as Kissling put it, “it’s way better than ‘have a happy period”), there are some shortcomings that were not addressed in the earlier blog posts and subsequent comments. While Kotex may be taking several steps in the right direction, it does not take long to figure out who Kotex is marketing to once you visit their U by Kotex website. There, you can read answers to frequently-asked menstrual questions from more than 14 women who are part of Kotex’s “Real Answers Team”. You can interact with other girls by commenting on the posts by these women who fill the role of the “mom”, the “health expert”, the “peer”. The U by Kotex website also has an “Advocacy Panel” of three women who are dedicated to women’s issues and women’s rights. However, of the women from both the Advocacy Panel and The Real Answers Team (18 women total), NOT A SINGLE WOMAN IS A WOMAN OF COLOR, save for Mai Nguyen, the last woman featured in the “peer” column of the Real Answers Team (interestingly, she is also the only woman who appears embarrassed, with her modest, downward gaze). What sort of message is this sending to women of color who wish to be “empowered”?
We’ve had a couple of productive discussions recently here at re:Cycling about men and menstrual humor, so it seems a good time to introduce Vinnie D’Angelo, creator of Vinnie’s Tampon Case. Therese Shecter has graciously shared this clip from her thought-provoking film, I Was A Teenage Feminist.
I’ve written about Vinnie and the role of men in menstrual activism before, in the “Menstrual Counterculture” chapter of my book, Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation. Here is a brief excerpt from that chapter:
According to interviews, D’Angelo’s motivation in developing his tampon cases was to help out his female friends. He would see them fishing in purses or backpacks for a tampon and retrieve “a mangled applicator and a lump of cotton with old gum stuck to the string” (quoted in Raappana). He also liked the idea of changing attitudes toward menstruation. . . . Interviews with D’Angelo reveal a feminist sensibility that extends beyond providing menstrual support.
[ . . . .]
I confess to some ambivalence here: I am uncertain what men’s role should be in celebrating menstruation. I appreciate [Harry] Finley’s genuine curiosity, and I admire D’Angelo’s feminist approach and his lack of squeamishness. I’m glad to see men talking about menstruation and not insisting that it remain hidden. I like D’Angelo’s playful, accepting attitude toward menstruation, but at the same time I find the fact that he has built a cottage industry of it vaguely exploitive. No one is harmed by his products, of course, but it is more than a little ironic that someone who doesn’t menstruate launched this successful line of whimsical, self-conscious menstrual products. On the other hand, perhaps D’Angelo’s masculinity adds a social legitimacy (as well as a humorous novelty element, as he has noted in interviews) that a woman’s name would not carry in the current cultural climate. And he’s great with the clever slogans: He owns the domain name knowyourflow.com, and recent ads for his tampon case say, “Don’t let your period cramp your style.”
What do you think, re:Cycling readers? How do you feel about the fact that two of the most visible examples of menstrual activism in the U.S., Vinnie’s Tampon Case and Harry Finley’s Museum of Menstruation, are created and promoted by nonmenstruators? Does it matter if these ventures are commercially successful? (Just for the record, Finley has received no financial benefit – only internet notoriety – from the Museum of Menstruation. Since introducing his eponymous tampon case in the late 1990s, D’Angelo has also developed Vinnie’s Giant Roller Coaster Period Chart and Sticker Book, and Vinnie’s Cramp Relieving Bubble Bath, which is also available packaged with Vinnie’s Soothing Bubble Beats CD of “music to menstruate by”. I do not know how profitable these products are for him.)
I was quite excited to see our own Chris Bobel and Giovanna Chesler quoted in this piece from The Guardian about menstrual activism, and then to discover that the Guardian published a second piece the same day about menstruation: Rowena Davis explains What My Period Means to Me. Kira Cochrane’s article about menstrual activism provides a broad, useful definition of the term, and several examples, ranging from avant-garde artworks to Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s collection of menarche stories to Chris’ forthcoming book about third-wave feminist activism and menstruation.
It seems that menstrual activism (otherwise known as radical menstruation, menstrual anarchy, or menarchy) is having a moment. The term is used to describe a whole range of actions, not all considered political by the person involved: simple efforts to speak openly about periods, radical affronts to negative attitudes and campaigns for more environmentally friendly sanitary products.
Davis’ essay is a personal one, describing the transformation of her negative attitude toward her own period to one of not only acceptance but appreciation of menstruation for the opportunity it provides to reflect:
[T]hese days I can’t wait for the next one – really! Like the women in The Red Tent, I use it as a time to slow down, rest and check in with myself. ‘What’s happened in this last chapter of my life?’ I ask myself. ‘What is my body telling me?’ If I’ve had a bad month where I’ve been suppressing tension or working too hard, my period is much heavier and more painful. It’s a sign that I haven’t been listening to my needs.
My enjoyment of these articles was marred, however, by reading the comments from Guardian readers. The vitriol is staggering. There are offensive remarks equating menstruation with elimination and menstrual blood with feces, admonishments to women to keep silent about their periods, criticism of the Guardian for publishing such “twaddle”, and rebukes to feminists for concerning themselves with something as trivial as women’s bodies. I think it’s that last one that disturbs me the most; modern feminism owes a great deal to the second-wave concept that the personal is political. As we have documented elsewhere in re: Cycling and the work of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, it is not menstruation that oppresses women. But attitudes toward women and menstruation and the communication and silences regarding menstruation can be oppressive. To draw upon one of my favorite theorists, Simone de Beauvoir, menstruation does not make women the Other; it is because she is Other that menstruation is a curse.
Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it is the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolizes manhood, the other femininity; and it is because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame. (The Second Sex, p. 354)
Menstrual activist Chella Quint told Cochrane says that she plans to continue writing “Adventures in Menstruating” until it is time for Adventures in Menopausing instead, “but, of course, it would be great if I didn’t have to, if there was no shame whatsoever”.
Likewise, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research will continue our work until it’s no longer necessary.