The Modern Period (2/10)

Source: Freidenfelds, Lara. The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Although there is still a great lack of communication in society regarding menstruation, there’s more discussion today than there was a hundred years ago. As one woman born in the 1930s mentioned in an interview discussed in the paper by Marilyn Porter, “Ah my. So different now. You can advertise it on TV and everything now.” In her book “The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America,” Lara Freidenfelds discusses how these changes came about. As a historian of women’s health, sex, and reproduction in America with a doctorate in history of science from Harvard University, Freidenfelds is an excellent resource to turn to in learning more about the history of menstruation, especially as some of her research draws from interviews of various populations across the United States. These interviews, conducted mainly among African Americans from the rural South, white New Englanders, and Chinese Americans in urban California, give deeper understanding in the changes that menstrual management has undergone in the last few decades.

Freidenfelds largely attributes changes in menstrual management during the twentieth century to the Progressive era, describing it as an “era of profound faith in the uplifting possibilities of scientific rationality, popular education, technological progress, and control of natural and social processes through scientific study and bureaucratic management.” These values, along with those of efficiency, education, and good management, were quickly applied by women in the way they managed their periods. This “modern” period was different in many ways. Knowledge and technology were suddenly widely available through sex education programs, menstrual product advertisements and promotion in drug stores, and free, readily available menstrual education pamphlets. Conversation became more and more open as the century progressed; however, there was some controversy. As can be seen in the articles by Porter and Brumberg, mothers were still not talking to their daughters about menstruation. The advertising and educational materials produced by menstrual product manufacturers promoted the idea of menarche as a “hygienic crisis,” taking away from the education a mother could give of menarche being a time of “socially and personally meaningful coming-of-age.” This is a conversation that ought to be had between mother and daughter – something that can be very positive and uplifting and bonding; however, due to the influence of outside sources, it’s easier for a mother to allow the world to teach her daughter. With large amounts of false and unsatisfactory information out there, it’s important that the first discussions about menstruation happen between mother and child so that correct information is taught. This also opens the door to future communication that can help a child be more willing to discuss menstruation with their mother.

The Progressive era had a huge impact on menstrual management. For example, before the twentieth century, most technologies that women now use were available. Women could have disposed of rags after use, and there were “blocks” used to stop non-menstrual fluid from running out of the body. It took the large social changes of the Progressive movement to make these innovations both appealing and accessible on a mass scale. An interesting phenomenon could be observed that likely contributed to the growing middle class mid-century. As more women entered the workforce, they were often seen in pink- and white-collared jobs. This can be seen in two ways. First, as women became more “modern” in their work, they needed new “modern” ways to deal with their menstruation. Second, as new “modern” ways to manage menstruation were introduced, women began to work more to contribute to the income that went to purchase these products. Either way, this situation is associated with the growing middle-class of the twentieth century, along with the concept of becoming “modern.” The interviews that contributed to “The Modern Period” indicate that many women that their experiences of the new, modern modes of menstrual management were integral to their transition into middle-class status. These women saw themselves as different from their parents, with new attitudes, knowledge, and bodily self-presentation. This set them apart and helped create a stronger link to their ideals of being middle-class. These attitudes were not necessarily shared by all, though. Freidenfelds makes it a point to remind that the Progressive ideals (of which modern menstrual management were rooted in) were developed by the “white, urban, well-educated middle class.” This concept is linked to some of the controversies that surround management techniques such as tampons, with different attitudes being present among various groups throughout the twentieth century.

Today in 2016, we can see that there is more openness in society today in our discussion about menstruation than there was back in 1916. In the mid-1900s, this “openness” was extremely specific – it was about managing menstruation. There were only certain places and with certain people that one could talk about menstruation. The changes were more about how women could now have more options for menstrual management that could be purchased at the grocery store. This didn’t mean there was more open conversation about the bodily function, though. In the late 1980s-1990s, this began to change again. Young people were born into a “modern” world, and quickly sought to make change. They demanded more discussion, in particular about the efforts they made to manage menstruation, as well as the annoyance that it caused. They wanted recognition and support. This post-“modern” movement carries into today, where menstrual management is brought up in such terms as the tampon tax and methods of birth control that halt menstruation. The conversation continues to open up to more and more people – women and men – in order to make menstruation a natural part of life, even if it should already be considered as such.

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One thought on “The Modern Period (2/10)

  1. It’s interesting to see that even as general trends may change, individual experiences can still differ. I remember a couple years ago I was complaining about an uncomfortable flight home from BYU because I was experiencing severe menstrual cramps. Later, my mom told me not to talk about that in front of my dad. Even in a private setting, it was not seen as normal to talk about menstruation with men present.

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