Marking/Erasing the Period: A Cultural History

By Christine Cupaiuolo |

Suppressing periods isn’t new news — it’s just new marketing.

For years, women have known that taking the birth control pill continuously will prevent monthly periods. A good fact sheet about this is available from the National Women’s Health Network.

But the FDA’s approval this spring of Lybrel — the first contraceptive specifically designed to eliminate periods for as long as it’s used — brought the issue out of the gynecologists’ office and into the public eye.

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To be honest, I haven’t been that worked up over it. I hardly think a woman’s identity is defined by having (or choosing not to have) a period (biology is not destiny and all that.).

And I don’t necessarily accept that with Lybrel’s roll-out this month, “war has been declared on menstruation” — as Karen Houppert argues in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s New York Times: “Final Period.”

But I have to say I did find Houppert’s piece quite interesting. Not only does she reveal the tactics pharmaceutical companies are using to sell women on the idea of menstrual suppression, but she offers a fascinating historical perspective:

It seems every time women start demanding access to this or that, there is a rash of studies “proving” that menstrual cycles render them unsuitable. In the 1870s and 1880s, when Americans were debating the value of higher education for women, a flurry of research asserted that women’s cycling constitutions made them unfit for sustained mental and physical labor. Henry Maudsley, a British doctor, reflected popular opinion — dressed up as “scientific truth” — when he observed that menstruation doomed girls to failure in college.

Comparing boys and girls, Maudsley insisted in an article, was “not a question of two bodies and minds that are in equal physical condition, but of one body and mind capable of sustained and regular hard labor, and of another body and mind which one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for hard work.” Maudsley’s definition of “hard work” was unclear: no one worried that the fragile cook, servant girl or farmer’s wife was being overtaxed during any time of the month.

After women pressed ahead, attended college and excelled in the halls of learning, the debate about menstrual cycles shifted from their suitability for higher education to their suitability for public life in general. When the suffragists asked to participate in the political process, experts retaliated with more research proving that women belonged in the domestic sphere; menstruation figured prominently among the reasons.

Once women won the right to vote in 1920, the menstruation-equals-inadequacy debate ebbed for a while. In fact, two decades later, new proof arrived that women were perfectly fit and capable — even when bleeding — and therefore should step right up and join the war effort. When Rosie the Riveter was needed in American factories and recruits in the Women’s Army Corps, the War Department produced films telling women of the abundance of scientific evidence proving periods are no big deal.

A 1942 American propaganda film, “Strictly Personal,” for example, coached novice Wacs on nutrition, rest and exercise. In one scene, a soldier lies listlessly on her cot — “I can’t drill today, I feel unwell,” she whines — but a fellow Wac tells her to buck up. And a voiceover “doctor” explains: “That’s Victorian stuff. And so is that trash about nerves and sensibility during this period.” Menstruation, he says, “is no excuse for absenteeism and self-coddling.”

But then the war ended, and Rosie and the Wacs were retired — and shown a fresh batch of studies proving that children need their moms at home, that the workplace is potentially hazardous to women’s unborn children and that women’s cycles make them less efficient workers than men. By 1953, the affliction premenstrual syndrome turned up in the medical literature.

Someone cynical might suggest that research highlighting menstruation’s distressing consequences bubbles to the surface every time the public feels anxious over women’s expanding roles. (Say, the possibility that there might be a menopausal woman in the White House — and yes, you can’t win for losing here, given that our periods allegedly drive us to distraction and their cessation does the same.) So take today’s hoopla over menstrual suppression with a grain of ibuprofen.

Though I’m usually fairly cynical, I think it’s great that women have access to a full range of birth control options that allow us more control over our periods. But I can also see how the line between our own choices and cultural pressure can easily be blurred.

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5 Comments

  1. Maggie says:

    Thank god, another feminist who’s not in hysterics over lybrel. I read Houppert’s article the other day, and I couldn’t bring myself to pay adequate attention to its good points because I was so annoyed. Sure, I disagree with Wyeth’s misleading advertising, but I object to misleading advertising of ANY pharmaceutical! Suggesting that it is wrong for women NOT to percieve menstruation as an integral aspect of their identity is silly and manipulative- it does feminism a great disservice. As long as women have the means to make informed decisions, their periods (or lack thereof) are no one’s business but their own.

  2. Margie says:

    If that type of pill would have been available for a reasonable price when I was in my twenties, I would have taken it without a doubt. The pill significantly reduced my debilitating periods. To not have to put up with any cramping or painful symptoms on a monthly basis would have been fantastic.

    I also read the NYT’s piece. I wish feminist would right about something real than a wars on menstruation. It is nearly as ridiculous as the war on drugs.

  3. Christine C. says:

    I’ve taken another pill continuously under a doctor’s supervision, which is partly why I don’t consider Lybrel to be a radical intervention.

    However, I think concern that the new pill — or at least the way it’s being marketed — is designed to make women feel shameful about their bodies and menstruation, is indeed worthy of discussion. The choice may be personal, but as Houppert points out, the discussions around it are obviously quite political and have consequences for us all.

  4. Maggie says:

    I recognize that the medicalization of any natural process IS a serious problem, but I still think it is wrong to confuse criticism of marketing techniques with criticism of the drug itself, or the women who will choose to take it.