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Menstruation Through the Ages

Anna Bradbury, Anne Michelson, Emma Ruby-Sachs, Shoshanah Waxman




The Ancient World (Anne Michelson)

The Move from Egalitarian Attitude to Patriarchal Society (Anna Bradbury)

Menstruation and the Bible (Anne Michelson)

The Victorian Era (Anna Bradbury)

Menstruation in the 1920s (Shoshanah Waxman)

The 1970s - Freedom? (Emma Ruby-Sachs)

Attitudes We Hold Today (Shoshanah Waxman)

Products We Use Today (Emma Ruby-Sachs)





As female mammals, we menstruate. We have menstruated for thousands of years. But the attitudes and treatment we met over these millennia were very different. And all of these views affect how we think about menstruation today. How do you think about menstruation today?


The Ancient World:

The Ancient World gives us many clues as to the origins of thoughts on menstruation. For example, upon noticing that women had a bleeding cycle approximately one month long, the Romans called the cycle mens, for moon.

Most of our information concerning Greek and Roman attitudes towards menstruation comes from out knowledge of their mythology. In the Greek mythological world, names mean much. The goddess of childbirth is Eileithyia, whose name means "fluid of generation," or menses. Zeus has a wife, Hera. "Hera" literally means "womb". She is often pictured with a red, ripe pomegranate, which is the famed symbol of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld who was abducted and raped by Hades.

Aristotle, among others, refers to katamenia, or the monthly descent.

Marriage rituals of Ancient Greece provide an interesting revelation. This is that a woman had to be a virgin to be married. This meant that she did not necessarily have to be without sexual experience, but she had to have completed her most recent menstrual cycle without sexual activity and not be pregnant. Just as this meaning has changed, so has the meaning of the word spinster. This is not a word meaning one who weaves to pass the unmarried time, but one whose moon cycles spin by. In Homer's Odyssey, Penelope, while waiting for Odysseus, spins like the Moon.

However, despite this evidence, it is likely that the Greeks did not directly connect menstruation with child-bearing. Rather, they thought that breast-feeding would prevent pregnancy. Because menstruation does not normally occur during breast-feeding, the connection was then made between fertility and menstruation (although we now know that a woman can get pregnant while breast-feeding).

The Ancient Egyptians also filled their mythology with menstrual imagery. The Goddess of Life, Sekhet is said to have, in one myth, drunk red beer mixed with pomegranate juice. Other myths concern Isis: many images show her straddling a pig.

The female genitals in Greek and Latin are called ëpigí. Most Goddess names, as is natural, derive from words or images for "vulva" or "womb." The cowrie shell was pig, and explicitly represents the vulva. The pig itself is a highly fertile animal...To say that Isis rides the sow is sacred or visionary language for saying that she rides her fertile instincts....In secular form, we have the contemporary image of riding the rag, which means menstruation. (pages 236, 237 of The Wise Wound. See References.)

These examples are only small samples from a wide variety of literature from the Ancient Worlds of Rome, Greece and Egypt. This we do know: the ancients were aware of and celebrated the menstrual cycle through their religion and literature.


The Move from Egalitarian Attitude to Patriarchal Society:

The move from more egalitarian societies to the hierarchical patriarchy also meant a change in attitude towards women and menstruation. Within ìtribalî or clan societies, women were put through menarche (commencement of menstruation) rituals. These rituals most often included periods of isolation, taboos, and prohibition.

Catal Huyuk in Turkey provides some of the most extensive archeological information about our social origins. Catal Huyuk existed around 5000BC. The evidence found in this Neolithic village points towards an egalitarian society. Women held more positions of power than men but there was no large difference in status. The society was both matrilineal and matrilocal. During this time there was no division between secular and sacred. The central figure of worship was a woman giving birth. Women were seen as sacred. Due to the reverence of birth, menstruation was most probably viewed as sacred. Unlike the later patriarchal societies, there was no evidence that women were isolated during menstruation. However, with the solidification of patriarchy women became second class, even viewed by some as evil. Womenís rituals were turned into taboos. The more war-like and authoritarian the society, the stronger the menstrual taboos.

Peruvian Iquitos removed the clitoris and labia of girls just before menstruation, around nine or ten years old. This process was performed in the presence of men in full war regalia: feathers paint and spears. This type of "operation" was and still is performed by groups all over the world, but especially in Africa. The process was said to allow the dangerous sexual spirit to drip out with the blood lost by the operation. This kind of ritual is indicative of a strong fear of women and of the power their menstrual cycle might hold. It is a common human trait to fear what we donít understand. These men did not understand or experience menstruation and therefore feared it. A man was said to lose all of his masculine powers if he came in contact with a menstruating woman. Early patriarchy gave men the power to exercise control over what they could not understand: menstruation.


Menstruation and the Bible:

The attitudes expressed in the Bible concerning menstruation are varying. The Old Testament gives a negative message while Jesus himself does not seem to have any qualms about menstruation. However, as history has certainly shown, it is not only the Bible itself which leads the people, but also the priests.

When Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, God tells Eve that he will multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. (Genesis 3:16) Much later in this book, we read a list of rules which people must follow, concerning menstruation:

And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.

And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: everything also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean.

And whosoever toucheth her shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.

And if it be on her bed, or on any thing whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even.

And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean.

And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness hall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean.

Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation.

And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bather himself in water, and be unclean until the even.

But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean.

And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.

And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness.

Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is among them.

This is the law of him that hath an issue, and of him whose seed goeth from him, and is defiles therewith;

And of her that is sick of her flowers, and of him that hath and issue, of the man, and of the woman, and of him that lieth with her that is unclean. (Leviticus 15:19-33)

This is as it reads in the Old Testament. The Orthodox Jewish woman still follows these laws, refraining from sexual intercourse until seven days after her period has stopped. Then she must immerse herself in the mikveh (ritual bath). Some argue that this is repression of women but one woman, Bracha Sacks, wrote in Ms. magazine, "We do this because God commanded it. One thing is certain though: We are NOT unclean....The woman is not kept out of the synagogue, nor is forbidden to carry out most of her activities. Only the sexual relationship is forbidden. ...The purpose of the [bathing] ritual is completely hasn't anything to do with physical cleanliness." This was published in July of 1974.

Judaism consists of learning from the Old Testament. The New Testament is read by Christians and tells the stories of the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus encounters at least two women "afflicted" with menstruation and he treats each of these women with respect and dignity. One woman, a Samaritan, he asks to share a drink of water with him. By not following the teachings of Leviticus (see above), all Samaritan women were believed to be as unclean as menstruating women, whether they were menstruating or not. When Jesus shared this drink of water with a Samaritan, he renounced the laws of his country. He became unclean. But he was also the Messiah and could be nothing but right. One writer of the time wrote, "[Jesus] repudiates centuries of thought and legislation which would define woman in her specific mature womanliness as unclean and unfit for direct association." His other famous encounter with a menstruating woman is chronicled in the books of Matthew (9:20-22), Mark (5:25-34), and Luke (8:43-48). A woman had been menstruating constantly for twelve year and was therefore "unclean." She did not want to make Jesus unclean, so she came behind him and touched his robe. She was instantly cured. Jesus was not afraid of this menstruating woman and instead of running away, he "helped" her.

However, as Christianity became more and more patriarchal, more men chose to enforce taboos on women again, ignoring Jesus's conduct and focusing on Leviticus. Even as late as 1970, the American Roman Catholic Church quoted Leviticus while justifying a new prohibition against women serving in the sanctuary as lectors and commentators during Mass. Women were not to be depended upon, as they could begin menstruating at any time.

Judaism and Christianity are the two most powerful religions in our Western World. They both teach from the Bible, a powerful book that gives lessons on the treatment of women. The message both religions give? Women are to be avoided during their menstrual period. How this attitude may be turned towards the more realistic and the more considerate, is the cause of much discussion, but where does the problem lie - in the Bible, or in those who teach from it?


The Victorian Era:

During the Victorian era, a woman's place was at home with the children, bound physically by her corset. Science was revered and doctors almost gods. However, physicians had very little knowledge of womenís health problems. The most common problem for a woman in Victorian times was thought to be due to her womb. This highly hierarchical society based on gender, class and ethnicity viewed women as weak, frail, and prone to hysteria.

Doctor and author of the time, Stanley Hall said that "Every trouble in a woman demands special attention to her pelvis." This attitude was shared by most of the medical profession. Women were viewed as frail, inferior beings. They were told that they were specially vulnerable during menstruation. Doctors warned them against physical activity, cold drinks and strenuous thinking. If a woman did not look after her menstruation, she ran the risk of illness but even more important she ran the risk of not conceiving.

A girl's menstruation was said to be the beginning of her life, meaning she could now be a mother, the supposed goal of all Victorian women. A girl's first menstruation was the topic of much writing. There were different theories as to whether it was her class, ethnicity, or her hair colour that determined when she would get her first menstruation. A working woman was said to get her period earlier because of immoral behavior. An early period was something to be ashamed of. This could be linked with earlier views that a girl's menarche occurred at the same time as the loss of virginity. Hymenal blood was confused with menstruation. Victorian prudery left women ashamed of their bodies.

A large percent of women diagnosed with hysteria were cured through the removal of their wombs, a hysterectomy. The womb and its functions were thought to be the cause of a womanís weakness.

In Victorian times, menstruation was viewed as a disease to be examined, cured, and hidden..



Menstruation in the 1920s:

The Twenties was the women's era. Women got the vote, were declared persons, shortened their skirts and hair, and began working outside of the home. As women's horizons expanded, so did the medical knowledge of how exactly their bodies work. Much research about the mysterious cycle of the female was done and the relationship of the changes in the endometrium and the changes in the ovary had been largely worked out. Research was also being done on the effect of menstrual blood on the growth of plants but the results were inconclusive. While many aspects of the menstrual cycle were being discovered there were still some doubts surrounding the time of ovulation, either day seven or seventeen, and it was uncertain as to whether tissue was lost from the uterus - a question which was resolved for the most part by the nineteen-thirties.

Though medical knowledge was rapidly expanding, many traditional bans were still placed upon menstruating women. For example, menstruating women were denied communion in the Greek church.

Menstruation was termed "the sign and guardian of women's health" and the period was still regarded with awe - being the sign of fertility - focused on the fact that women could perform the sacred duty of child-bearing.

Entering into a whole new century, woman's role was beginning to expand. With that came more understanding but not necessarily more acceptance.


The 1970s - Freedom?

By the 1970s, tampons were becoming as common as pads and pantiliners. Johnson & Johnson paved the way in 1970 with a beltless pad with an adhesive strip down the middle so as to stay in place throughout the day. This alternative was much more comfortable and convenient and it soon became the norm. Another sanitary revolution was achieved by Playtex which was the first company to market deodorant tampons in 1971. These tampons now pose a great health risk to the present day population.

The views on menstruation also took a change in this time. Vaginal odor became a large issue. A marketing scheme called douching became popular and women began to wash their genitals as often as their hands.

A new medical hypothesis was also presented during this time. Doctors began to support the theory that most pain experienced during menstruation was psychological. This had a demeaning effect on women and enforced the popular idea of menstruation as a curse.

Though there were many product changes in this time, the views were constant with that of the 1950s and 1960s.


Attitudes We Hold Today:

These days women are pushing for greater recognition of their place in society. They associate equality with efficiency and menstruation is anything but efficient. It is viewed as a great nuisance, coming when it is least needed or anticipated. It is messy, increases the laundry load, causes pain, mood swings, and exhaustion. And it costs money in ruined clothes, pads and tampons. The images of menstruation given through ads is extremely confusing showing girls in white jeans jumping on horses with a tampons in to take care of the icky mess.

In these days, when the glass ceiling is beginning to crack, women are changing themselves to fit in with the new world they are entering. As Lara Owen puts it, "Women seeking power in a male world have tended to do so by becoming pseudo-men." They spray themselves with vaginal deodorants, suppress their feelings with tranquilizers, numb their pain with painkillers, and absorb their blood with tampons so they never have to look at it. These women try to fit in better with the social view that it is easier to be a woman in a man's world if they hardly acknowledge menstruation.

The technology of suppression: tampons, deodorants, sophisticated painkilling and mood-altering drugs act with the cultural myth of women as super-woman to create a cultural attitude that a bleeding woman is no different from one who is not.

We try to sanitize and order modern life to the point where there is a danger of destroying it altogether. We have to learn that the value we place on ourselves, accepting all about us including blood, is directly linked to the value placed on women as a whole.


Products We Use Today:

I Pads and Pantiliners

You, the woman sitting next to you, everyone uses pads or pantiliners. Women all over Canada and the USA buy billions of pads and pantiliners a year.

From what we can discern, from the backward answers given by the sanitary napkin companies, the pad has a simple make-up. It starts with an absorbent cotton core, usually made with wood pulp. Then it is covered by a softer covering of rayon or cotton. A wet resistant agent is added and the whole thing is held together by glue. Lastly, there is a moisture resistant layer on the bottom so as to prevent leaking. Thin pads have one extra agent in them. They contain synthetic gelling crystals that can hold many times their weight in liquids. The safety of these crystals is questioned. However, the companies have no obligation to list their ingredients or to answer to safety concerns. Women today are inclined to use change pads three to four times a day.

It doesn't stop with our period, either. The sanitary product companies have managed to convince women that we need more protection than we already have. The number of menstruating women increases by about 1% per year. However, the demand for products has been increasing by almost 5% per year. Pantiliners alone account for one third of all sales of sanitary products. Women have come to believe that one needs to wear a pantiliner every day - not just directly before and after your period. The idea that a woman must be protected at all times conveys the idea that there is something dirty about a woman's body, especially her genitals.

II Tampons

Tampons are mainly made of resin-bound rayon as well as other materials. These materials may include magnesium, boron, aluminum, and titanium. However, like pads and pantiliners, the companies do not release the list of ingredients for tampons.

Tampons have a very high risk factor. There are many diseases and infections connected with tampons. This is a long list, but some examples are:

- Foreign matter found in tampons injures the inside of the vagina.

- The loss of the string makes removal difficult.

- Abdominal cramping

- Urinary tract infections

- Tampon breakage and shredding in the vagina

- Toxic Shock Syndrome

- Chronic vaginitis

- Micro ulcers

- Fragrant laced tampons may cause allergic reactions.

- An increased chance of yeast infections

If, even with these risks, one insists on using tampons, then a company called Tembrand creates the best option for a disposable tampon. This tampon is 100% cotton and only comes unscented, thus reducing bacteria formation and allergic reactions. If left with a choice, though, medical specialists advise against any use of tampons.

Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is probably the greatest threat connected with tampon use. It is a disease that progresses rapidly and with no distinct early warnings. The first signs are a high fever and stomach pains then over-night the patient experiences severe bloating. This disease is a particular threat because it attacks young teens and has a high fatality rate. In 1981, there were 1003 cases of TSS. With the increase in absorbing synthetic fibers in tampons in that time period came the increase in TSS. This is because these fibers make prime growing grounds for harmful bacteria. 

III Environmental Implications

Besides health risks, environmental implications are the largest drawbacks to sanitary products.

The products we purchase are white because they are bleached with chlorine. Society associates white with cleanliness and it is chlorine that produces this colour. But what we use to clean our water and bleach our paper was also used in World War I by the Germans to kill thousands of Allied soldiers. This deadly chemical can be found in our sanitary products.

One woman throws away an average of 10,000 pads or tampons in her lifetime. Once deposited, this chlorine seeps into the ground and eventually can affect the health of the residents around the dumping area. If this many pads are disposed by one woman, how will we manage to deal with all of the waste created by used sanitary products?

There is also the problem of disposable tampons. They are, in effect, killing our environment. An example of this is a tiny island three hundred kilometers off of the shore of Nova Scotia called Sable Island. This island is home to various seals, sea birds, and 250 wild horses, among other wildlife. This uninhabited (by humans) island has now been plagued by what is known as the "pink torpedo." Tampon applicators are being found in large numbers floating in the water and deposited on the beach. Seals, birds and horses choke on these applicators and risk death as well as the threat posed by whatever chemicals the applicators may harbor inside. These applicators are most likely floating over from a dump in Halifax.

If this is just one example of the harm that human sanitary products can cause, think what other implications it has on humanity and the animals that surround us.



The views on menstruation are directly related to how women are perceived during that time or in that culture. When different cultures meet and change, they affect each other. Today, we exhibit views based on religion, literature, and urban myth. Where do all of these views come from? How can we dispel menstruation myths? How can we learn where to make the best choices concerning our own health? The answer, if anywhere, is in our books and in our minds.



Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott (1992). Whitewash. HarperCollins Publishers; Toronto, Canada.

Corish, J.L. (1921). Health Knowledge. Domestic Health Society, Inc; New York, NY.

Delany, Janis, Mary Jane Lupton and Emily Toth (1976). The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. E.P. Dutton and Company, Inc; New York, NY.

Eisler, Riane (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. Harper-Collins Publishers; San Francisco, CA.

Grahn, Judy (1993). Blood, Red and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Beacon Press Books; Boston, MA.

Greer, Germaine (1986). The Mad Woman's Underclothes. Pan Books Ltd; London, England.

Jefferies, B.J. and J.L. Nichols (1987). Light on Dark Corners: A Complete Sexual Science. J.L. Nichols and Company; Toronto, Canada.

Lauersen M.D., Niels and Steven Whitney (1993). It's Your Body: A Woman's Guide to Gynecology. Putnam Publishing Group; New York, NY.

Millet, Kate (1970). Sexual Politics. Avon Publishers; New York, NY.

Mitchinson, Wendy (1991). The Nature of their Bodies. University of Toronto Press; Toronto, Canada.

Shuttle, Penelope and Peter Redgrove (1986). The Wise Wound. HarperCollins Publishers; London, England.

Sjˆˆ, Monica and Barbara More (1987). The Great Cosmic Mother. Harper and Row Publishing; San Francisco, CA.

Wilson, E.W. (1976). The Menstrual Cycle. Lloyd-Duke Ltd; London, England.