Critical Menstruation Studies, Week 5: Stand Up, Fight Back

This is the fifth in a five-week series of posts recapping a micro-seminar I'm taking on Critical Menstruation Studies through the Boston-area Graduate Consortium in Women's Studies.

Mark Dixon, CC BY 2.0,

Mark Dixon, CC BY 2.0,

Last week we had the final meeting of our micro-seminar. The theme for the week was "Resistance to the Menstrual Status Quo" and it seemed designed to give a hopeful, progressive view for future work and activism (and simultaneously to trouble that, naturally). Of course, it also ended up being a general wrap-up of the course. Most everyone agreed that we wished we had more time to tackle all the complex issues that we were just starting to get a handle on, but that's something I've felt at the end of most classes I've taken, not just those that only lasted a total of 10 hours. In any case, here's what we read for the last day:

  • "Comfortably, Safely, and Without Shame: Defining Menstrual Hygiene Management as a Public Health Issue" by Marni Sommer, Jennifer Hirsch, Constance Nathanson, and Richard G. Parker in the American Journal of Public Health (2015);
  • A paper from the journal Waterlines, which is specifically focused on water supply, hygiene, sanitation, and waste management (there's a journal for everything), entitled "Menstrual Hygiene Management: Education and Empowerment for Girls?" (kind of an ominous question mark, right?) (2015);
  • And a long piece from Inga T. Winkler and Virginia Roaf, "Taking the Bloody Linen Out of the Closet: Menstrual Hygiene as a Priority for Achieving Gender Equality" from Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender (2014).

As in previous weeks, one of the most interesting aspects of these readings was the different fields and disciplinary perspectives they were coming from. Critical Menstruation Studies, as conceptualized by Professor Chris Bobel, the instructor for the micro-seminar, is a fairly intensely multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary field, and the readings reflected that. We read pieces by anthropologists, sociologists, medical and public health scholars, media theorists, religious scholars, queer theorists, feminist theorists, legal scholars, and more. I've studied my share of queer and feminist theory, but of course my home discipline is literature, and I'd like to write a post in the near future with some thoughts on how that field might fit into a syllabus on menstruation studies. But there are some problems that came up with all of these different fields tackling related subjects.

To me, the biggest issue was that it felt like each discipline had to reinvent the wheel when they tackled menstruation as a subject. I noticed this particularly in the Winkler and Roaf piece from this week's reading, which comes from the perspective of human rights law. They feel the need to do a whirlwind tour of the existing literature—in almost all of the fields I mentioned above—in order to position themselves and frame things for their readers, who can be assumed to have fairly little familiarity with these topics. But despite this contextualization, there's also a certain feeling like these scholars have just invented the idea of thinking critically about menstruation. Coming from a human-rights framework but without a clear grounding in the feminist issues behind the problems they're tackling makes some of their suggestions seem out-of-touch and others potentially quite hazardous. They are making concrete policy suggestions that seem uninterrogated in terms of issues most feminist theorist would see as quite basic. One interesting example in this light is their VERY brief discussion of "Involving Men and Boys," which made the point that "it is essential to involve men, to raise their awareness, and to change their attitudes in order to accord greater priority to menstrual hygiene and its requirements, in particular as long as the majority of headmasters, decision-makers, and WASH professionals are men," which, DUH. But then in an off-hand sentence that ends this (two-paragraph) section, the authors say, "It might however still be preferable to teach and discuss with boys and girls separately in order to allow for open discussions," a casual assertion which, to me, completely undermines the stated need for changing cultural norms, and actually reinscribes them!

Obviously, work is being done on a wide variety of fronts to change global attitudes towards menstruation, and the practical issues addressed in human rights law, global health, and sanitation are incredibly important. And there are different issues at stake in developing countries than in my immediate surroundings, for sure. On the one hand, it's hard to argue with making sanitary products more available to girls in the global south, if that intervention makes it easier for them to attend school and feel less shame about menstruation. On the other hand, there are obvious problems with "fixing" these problems by applying a western, consumer-based solution that has its own issues in terms of how menstrual hygiene products frame the idea of menstruation and a menstruator's role in hiding that bodily process. Of course, it's a luxury to be able to conscientiously object to menstrual capitalism. We didn't have any readings in the course that really dealt with some of the recent forms menstrual activism has taken, unfortunately. I am vaguely aware of menstrual performance art as a developing project, and of course movements toward alternative menstrual management projects such as the Diva Cup, Thinx period panties, Luna Pads, and even free-bleeding. In a longer, more flexible version of a Critical Menstruation Studies course, I would love to see those topics included in order to give a fuller sense of where period culture is right now in the U.S.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the micro-seminar and the introduction to this whole emerging field of inquiry. Every class you take changes your view on the world a little bit, and this one has definitely given me new menstruation-colored glasses with which to see the world; I've been seeing periods everywhere since starting to think about these topics more critically. And I don't think that's just because of my new awareness; I also think it really is a lynchpin for a variety of hot-button cultural issues right now. So I'm going to try to keep the conversation going in the coming months by sharing some of the links I find and continuing to talk to people about the class, the nascent field of critical menstruation studies, and the giant, tangled idea of menstruation in general; class may be finite but menstruation is cyclical, so it's always a going concern. Let's keep the conversation flowing.