Why we love it:
Periods have been around for a long time. In fact, they have been around for forever! We have always wondered about what menstruating has been like for women across the ages. What challenges did they face? What products did they use? Did they even talk about periods? In this episode of The Flow Down, Jess & Stephanie talk with Lara Freidenfelds, author of The Modern Period, about all things to do with the history of periods. If you're a history buff then you will love this episode!
We're sure you'll love this episode just as much as we do so make sure to give it a lesson below and subscribe to The Flow Down on your favourite podcast app.
Listen & Learn:
(Music) this is episode five of The Flow Down Podcast. I'm Jess a journalist.
I'm Steph, a woman's health coach, and we're two good friends who are here to talk all about periods. We have an amazing interview to share today. Jess, you got to spend time talking to Lara Freidenfelds. Lara holds a doctorate in history of science from Harvard University and she's the author of the book, The Modern Period, which really introduces this concept of menstrual management, how we deal with our flow to keep clean and go about our daily lives.
Right. So the book takes us back to the 19th century in the United States when getting a period, in most cases basically meant just pinning whatever rag you could find into your pants. There really wasn't much information or preparation available. And then it documents changes over about 100 years when not only more information began to emerge for menstruators, but also products and supplies.
Yeah, so this is a time when pads and tampons began to be used when girls started getting pamphlets in school, talking about menstruation, when sex ed began, and these tools helped women be able to enter into the workforce. If they wanted to go to work, then they had to take care of their periods, essentially cover up the bleeding so that having a period wouldn't get in the way of them working. And Jess, this type of management, which Lara explained, I mean, it's pretty much still used today.
I have to admit, I had never really considered that before. I never thought about myself as somebody who manages my period, but when I started to reflect on my conversation with Lara, I realised that actually so much of my period is managed. Really all of it is managed.
Yeah, I sort of sat back and made a list in my head of all the "management tools" that I use. So beginning with the app I have on my cell phone where I kind of track my cycle and where I am in my cycle. Then the products themselves. I have my menstrual cup. I have cloth pads and also disposable pads when cloth pads aren't feasible. And then I have the clean water that I use to clean my products. I have soap. I use a specific type of soap to clean my diva cup.
I have a little baggy, like a little silk baggy that holds my menstrual cups. So other people like my husband don't have to see it. I have the underwear to be able to use these products. I have Advil or ibuprofen because I tend to get a headache during my cycle. All of these things that have just become sort of this really normal, natural part of my life are actually new and modern concepts and innovations. And this conversation had me reflect on that and reflect also on how fortunate I am to be able to even have access to these things and these options that allow me to have my period every month in a way that feels manageable. Like I can more or less go on with my life.
I mean I colour code my calendar and plan things around whether I'm on my period or ovulating and how I think I'm going to feel.
Wow! So you kind of pick and choose activities based on whether you're going to have your period? That's amazing stuff.
Yeah. I'm really mindful, at least I try to be really mindful of how much extra stuff I put on my calendar during my period. I mean I still have to show up. I'm working, I'm taking care of a four year old. Please, last month we launched The Flow Down while I was on my period, but I really try to allow some flexibility and also to make time, even if it's just a little time to do things like take a bath or make good food or sit down with my journal and really not a period goes by that I don't feel grateful that I not only have a period again, but that I also get to take care of myself in this way and have these pretty cloth pads.
And even the fact that we're using these reusable products is a new concept as, well here in the interview. A lot more people are opting for reusable to avoid all of the waste that's generated by period products.
Yeah, and I'm so glad that they are. I'm also really glad to see this becoming more and more mainstream. Even Tampax who is a giant in the menstrual product space has just released a menstrual cup.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So I think Lara really helped us see that we've come such a long way, but at the same time I think we're still grappling with this idea of how to manage our periods so that we can be comfortable and productive while we're bleeding, but not necessarily manage our periods to hide them away because it's shameful or gross.
Right. I mean we talk about wanting to be proud of our periods, to embrace them and yet we do live in this modern world with modern expectations. So I think it's really hard to find that line between pride and management. I think that's something that we grapple with and that we will continue to grapple with. And this interview really paints a picture of how we got here and the types of questions that we can continue to ask going forward.
So let's go ahead and play it. Shall we?
Yes, let's do it. Welcome Lara Freidenfelds to The Flow Down Podcast.
Thanks for having me Jessica.
So happy that you are here. Once again, Lara is the author of The Modern Period, Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. If you can start by telling us, Lara, how did you become interested in the topic of menstruation as a historian and why did you decide to focus an entire book around the topic?
So I became interested as a medical historian and someone who's always been interested in how women think about their bodies, how all of us think about our bodies, how we experience them and what they mean in our lives. And I came to the topic of menstruation actually because I was looking for something that mattered to women, but was not quite as public and obviously part of our personal narrative as things like pregnancy and childbirth. So what I was interested in was, here's this phenomenon that we all experience regularly for several decades that most of us keep quite private and we don't actually spend much time talking about it in public.
So if that's the case, I wondered, are there ways, individual ways, perhaps regional ways of thinking about menstruation and talking about it. Is it part of an oral culture that would be different from the shared public culture that we have things like Kotex pamphlets or the school education programmes we had. I wanted to know if there was some way that our experience was really very much more personal when it came to menstruation.
So the book focuses on the modern period, which you explained really begins in the early to mid 20th century in the US, but I guess I want to start by asking you to take us back even further in history, sort of back before the modern period. So you write that up to the 20th century, there were patterns related to menstruation that were in place for generations, some of which can be documented even as far back as the middle ages in Western culture. How did you find that women and girls generally lived out their periods before the modern period?
So as you said, I found patterns that my oldest interviewees talked about in their own lives as old-fashioned. Many women when they got their first periods were shocked, believed that there was something really wrong with them and some went to their mothers for help and others didn't. Others went to some other trusted female figure, usually like a friend or a sister and learned that basically that they should pin a cloth in their pants. And that was how it was. So as much as there are some romanticised feminist narratives about a past in which girls and women talked with each other over the wash tubs as they watched their menstrual rags, I don't see evidence for that.
Okay. So this all changes then in the 20th century, which you've dedicated a lot of this book to describing. For those of us who need sort of a brush up on history, can you briefly explain what was happening in the country in the 20th century as some of these changes around menstruation started to occur?
Sure. So I described changes that began in the late very end of the 19th century and really ramp up in the first few decades of the 20th century. And this is a time in the country that industrialisation has really gotten underway, that more people are moving to cities and there's a boom of immigration and many people are beginning to leave the rural life and come into the city to work. So many more people are starting to enter white and pink collar workplaces. So doing work that we think of as like working at a counter or in an office as opposed to working on a farm or a factory. It's also in the first couple decades of the century where a time of great reform, it was a progressive era. So it was a time when many reformers, including many women, came together to try to improve the country and turn cities into healthy places. And they took these reforms and applied it to how people thought about their bodies and how they handled them.
So you mentioned things like hygiene and manners and-
Yes, that's right. So part of the progressive reform effort happens in the cities and was part of trying to bring immigrants and also black migrants who are coming to the cities for work into a broad American middle-class. The Progressive's were very idealistic about this. In the 19th century, middle-class people started taking Babs and aiming to smell good and be clean. And in the early 20th century, the progressive reformers said, "Well, this shouldn't be just for a small middle-class to show how refined they are." That actually all Americans should be able to be middle-class in how they look, in how they act and hopefully in their aspirations.
So one of the most interesting things I found in my research that I realised partway through interviewing women after I'd interviewed 40 or 50 women and men, was that people were using the word modern when they meant middle-class. They contrast it with the old fashioned ways that their working class parents thought about things. They contrast it with what they talked about as being traditional and from their roots and not educated.
And that what they meant by becoming modern was being able to handle their bodies in a way that allowed them to join the middle class. And they indicated middle-class by talking about improvements in their lives, by becoming educated about being able to have jobs that they wanted to have, that we can identify as middle-class jobs. And what I found was that part of what was so compelling about this idea of becoming modern and all these technologies that we use to become modern, was that it allowed a really broad swath of Americans who were middle-class already or aspiring to become middle-class, to be able to have a middle-class self-presentation that you could look clean and smell like nothing and feel comfortable and at ease and look really efficient and productive all month, which were characteristics that were required of people in middle-class settings.
And particularly for women who entered settings like working at counters in department stores and working as telephone operators, working as school teachers. They needed to be able to have that kind of self presentation. And it was actually an affordable way that women particularly could show themselves to be part of the middle-class, at least in how they thought of themselves, if not always in their current economic circumstances. And I actually think that what we see when we look super carefully at this detailed intimate history of how people handled their bodies is that how they handled their bodies is part of how we have the situation where Americans, despite huge differences in economic prospects and on income, mostly call themselves middle-class.
And these advances and new ways of thinking, it makes sense that they would be applied to dealing with menstruation with the mess, with the smell, with all of the things that come with this special time. Tell us how progressive values and this rising middle class related to periods?
So Kotex came on the market in 1920 and changed everything. You have to think about it this way. Kotex as a product was not actually that revolutionary. Those old Kotex, I've seen them. The National Museum Of American history actually has a Kotex from the early 1920s.
Oh my gosh.
Yeah, so I got to take a look at it and I'm sure that with time it has gotten even less appealing than it began. But it's a good inch and a half thick and it's a brick, it's gigantic. I can't imagine trying to wear it and think that it would actually be discrete. So in some ways this wasn't the product itself that was so incredibly innovative, but just the idea.
Yeah. Selling to women the idea, you could buy these disposable pads and you were allowed to keep buying them and keep throwing them away. The first major innovation of Kotex was that it gave women permission to buy a disposable product, use it to make themselves comfortable and efficient and productive, and then throw it away when they were done.
The second major innovation of Kotex was that they began producing these pamphlets and the pamphlets... Part of their purpose was definitely to sell Kotex, but also they sold an idea. These pamphlets communicated an idea that it was fine to handle your period in a way that was matter of fact and rational that handled the blood that needed to be handled and didn't turn it into shame and mystery and embarrassment.
They began producing these pamphlets in the early 1920s for adults and then pretty quickly moved to producing pamphlets that were aimed at teenagers and even aimed at younger girls so that the idea would be before your daughter's 12th birthday, you would give her this pamphlet so that she would understand that this was coming and that it was okay, that it could be handled, that you knew about it and you were going to assist her and that it was part of becoming a healthy woman.
And how did your interviewees react to having this new information?
Mostly women told me how much they appreciated this, to have a pamphlet that assured them that what was happening to them was normal and natural and healthy. That gave them a way of understanding it that felt like it took it out of the realm of mystery and shame and put it into the realm of science, which felt sort of neutral and objective to them and also gave them this tool to talk about it with their daughters because just because they wished to be matter of fact about it didn't mean that they knew exactly what to do when it came time.
So having this pamphlet as a tool actually for a generation who had been shocked when they got their periods and afraid to speak with their mothers, to have something that they could give their daughters to say, "Here, this is going to happen to you."
And for some of them that was it. For others, that was the beginning of a conversation with their daughters. It at least opened a door and gave them a way to reassure their daughters that they had not had from their own mothers. Later, some women who are younger than that did have some critiques, did say, "I gave my daughters a pamphlet, but I feel guilty. I wish I had spoken to them too. Or instead." And there's some daughters who are my age and younger, born in the '70s and later who said, "I wish my mother had actually sat down with me and talked about it. It's sort of alienating to get this pamphlet." But I think that's a matter of being able to take that kind of education for granted gives us the space to ask for more.
Throughout the book you have scanned copies of some of these product advertisements in inserts, which are just incredible. And I wanted to just explain one to give listeners a sense. This one's from a 1940 Kimberly Clark educational pamphlet called As One Girl To Another and it says at the top, okay, go ahead. And then it sort of seems to be giving women permission to do things on their periods that maybe they didn't do before. So it says, for example, warm showers are relaxing and beneficial but not hot or cold or if you dance, sit down now and then you can always say your feet hurt. So I got the sense from looking at this pamphlet that it was sort of... Yeah, it was demystifying some of these experiences that used to be so such big no-nos. Is that what you think it was going for?
Yes, definitely. And it's also, that pamphlet is really fascinating. And those pictures, I wish your listeners could see them because they're quite wonderful. They're very 1940s.
We'll put a picture on the website so people can see.
... oh great. So up through the beginning of the 20th century and for that 2000 years before that the common wisdom was that you should not be exposed to water, especially cold water during your period because if it stopped your period then your menstrual flow would stagnate and that you could get sick from keeping it inside of you.
So, and the pamphlets were not quite ready to 100% dispel all of the old ideas about how to do things, but they were trying to kind of support some shift. And you see the same thing with, well, some exercise is okay. But don't jiggle too much.
And it takes a couple of decades for that to fully shift. But it does. And partly because physical educators in women's colleges push it and push it and push it. And you see, for example, that many activities get the blessing of the physical educators once Kotex is available and then there's this shift in 1936, Tampax becomes available. And in the physical educators' writings, they don't mention the Tampax, but suddenly horseback riding makes the list of acceptable activities.
Oh wow! A lot of jiggling there.
Yes. Right. So the pamphlets are always slightly on the conservative side. All of these pamphlets try to walk a middle line where they will make women who grew up doing this differently and know something, an older way of thinking about things themselves, comfortable enough to actually sort of believe the pamphlets go along with them, want to share them with their daughters, but nudge them toward the more modern way of thinking about it.
Kotex and Tampax, these products really helped advertisers be able to present a vision of the modern body. That was really well managed. And you also point out that this is a body that doesn't leak. It doesn't smell, it doesn't cause self-consciousness. So I mean these products were a major game changers.
Yes. And, again, to point out tampons, we're not some giant technological innovation in 1936. Tampons were before that a medical device that you would use if you needed to put medication in someone's vagina. And that was a common procedure if someone had an infection or something that was understood to need medication directly on it.
So the idea of tampon sold this Tampax over the counter for menstruation was the innovation was the idea of doing it, not the product itself. I mean, Tampax was a little bit dubious when it was first advertised and they needed their audience to decide that in fact, they were okay with something that was at the time seen as taboo, a little sexual, a little may be risky to do with your health, but worth it so that you could be a modern woman.
Were these shifts happening across class and race lines in the US?
So all of this becoming modern was definitely easier for an established middle-class to embrace, but was also sold to an aspiring middle-class. And in these decades, most of America was an aspiring middle-class. And these products were part of how women and the families that they represented when they went to work as a telephone operator or as a clerk at Macy's, these products allowed them to appear middle-class and actually helped them into a more middle-class status by being a way that they could contribute to their family's income.
You could always go and you didn't have to miss work and you always smelled the same and looked the same. You were allowed by the rules of the modern period to take a warm shower at least every day or some sort of warm bath, sponge bath so you never were marked as someone who is having her period. And that was part of being able to identify as a successful person who could do middle class jobs. So the products were... The advertisements always show middle-class activities and ways of acting, but they were definitely not aimed only at the middle-class though for sure when you look at something like tampons because it was a little bit riskier, a little more pushing the boundaries of what it would be to be modern, it was for sure adopted by the established middle class first.
Okay. So from Kotex to Tampax, I mean you describe how quickly this shift happens. I mean, you'll have to remind me, but I believe that you said Tampax was in a short matter number of years, one of the top 100 advertisers. I mean this was a major product push.
So what's interesting is that it wasn't a major product even though it was a top advertiser at the beginning.
So the point when I'm speaking about how Tampax was a matter of selling an idea, not selling in technological innovation, all of the advertising it did was in order to change minds.
Oh wow! Right.
To make women feel like they could understand what this product was because the advertisements are a little careful and coy. None of them say vagina. Right. So they would say things like the modern inside way.
Right. So then you had to understand what that meant. Kotex had glorious full page colour ads in places like the ladies home journal and was definitely going for the fancy, full colour glossy look. Tampax was a much smaller product so it had many, many ads, but they were that small column ads usually close to the back of the magazine. A little more like how you saw other products that were like [inaudible 00:27:13] and deodorants were back there too.
You've got Kotex and Tampax and pads and tampons and then by the '50s women are using the birth control pill, which has the side effect of managing menstrual cramps. And to me it's like this ultimate and management tool and that it can even suppress your period or if not radically diminish symptoms. And we know that today it's super widely used. Four out of five sexual experience women use the pill. Did you find that women consider the pill like the ultimate in period management?
Yeah. So many of the youngest women I interviewed had at least tried at some point to use the pill to manipulate their periods and were quite pleased that they had that ability. So women talked about using it to be able to go on a camping trip or for an important work event or for their wedding. One of them talked about, "Now I conquered my period, now I have control." And she was so pleased to be able to make decisions about other aspects of her life without necessarily having to take... To consider what would happen if she had her period at that time.
So that was really interesting. There were women as well who were a little concerned. Was this really okay, was this actually healthy? It was it okay to be manipulating your period this way? So when women manipulated their cycles, they were very pleased to be able to do so but still not 100% on board with the promise of the modern period that you can have it totally under control with no consequences.
And there's still shame and embarrassment as these sort of modern technologies are advancing. It's still not really okay to discuss menstruation in public. So do you see this as a contradiction that there's increased management and tools and access to information and yet shame does not decrease and people continue to be so embarrassed when it comes to periods and talking about periods?
Yeah, I think it would be a mistake to see the greater openness that comes with the modern period as the same thing as what many feminists have hoped for as greater openness in general and greater acceptance of the phenomenon of menstruation. I think that has come somewhat from the modern period. I think it's, that situation has improved quite a bit, but when women aspire to have a modern period, they were not aspiring to have menstruation be completely public per se.
The point was to be able to manage it in ways that had an impinge on your life less. People appreciated all of the technology, all of the knowledge, all of the ability to talk about it in terms of being able to purchase your products and know about it before menarche as part of having it under control, not necessarily as part of it having it be a phenomenon that we just talk about easily in daily life. Though I did find that the youngest women I interviewed were starting to push that and I think we're continuing to see the results of them beginning to push that saying, "I'm willing to use all these products to have it under control, but my husband's going to go do the shopping for me and I'm going to put Tampax on the list and he can pick that up at the grocery store. That's fine."
Or being able to say even to a coworker, "I have cramps today. I'm not feeling great. I don't want to work on that project." That women had to be careful still about how they brought menstruation say into the workplace. But that saying, "I'm cranky because I have cramps." Became much less taboo than it had been before. So I think within the modern period we've been pushing what is acceptable to bring into our public lives when the management of menstruation becomes burdensome or it doesn't work as well as it's supposed to. It's more permissible now than it had been say in the '50s when the pamphlets said, "Now don't be a sour puss if you're not feeling up to snuff when you have your period." There are a lot of women pushing back on that and they have been for a couple of decades now. But it's definitely not about... The free bleeding idea is very exciting, but definitely not part of this view of menstruation as the modern period.
Yeah. We interviewed someone who experimented with free bleeding and I mean her story went viral because it was seen as so out there.
Yeah, it is radical, I would say.
Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I guess I might be biased, but I would say I do sense that there is a movement not just about openness but kind of in line with free bleeding about pride. Would you say that that's something you you're witnessing as well?
I think I'm witnessing that at the very margins.
So the free bleeding is something that then those discussions and pride and that menstruation should be specifically part of women's lives and embraced as that this is not a new idea. There was as part of the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s a piece of the feminist movement that was often called cultural feminism. That was about embracing women's bodies in the ways that they are different from men's. So there were celebrations of moon cycles and ideas about maybe we should sit at home and free bleed and get in touch with our femininity. That were again embraced by a small group of fairly radical feminists with a specific idea about empowering women with regard to their bodies. And that happened in the '70s and has been revisited at various times since. And I think is having a moment of revisiting again now.
I'm looking forward to seeing what people do and I think that especially the continuing to push back on, no, I should be able to be matter of fact about this. We don't have to pretend it doesn't happen. There's a difference between keeping clean and not getting your clothes stained and feeling comfortable and having to pretend it doesn't exist.
I think that's... Right. It's really important. It's... And if you think about it in different things with women's bodies, like you might shave, but there's a different standard between, I like to be clean shaven and I don't want anyone to know that my body ever grows hair there. So I think with menstruation there's that same thing. And we've been nudging at the boundaries of can we really make it to that matter of fact place that the innovators in the early 20th century were going for. And it's still not quite there. But on the other hand, given that we've only had 100 years to change 2000 years or more worth of history, I'm optimistic.
Well then that's a great note to end on. So, Lara, thank you so much. This is all so, so fascinating. And before we go, I just wanted to mention that you have another book coming out called Perfect Pregnancies And Mourned Miscarriages, a history of modern childbearing. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and when it will be out?
Sure. So the book should be out in the spring. I'm very excited about it. So this is a very broad look at American history all the way from colonial America to the present and look at specific ways that our culture has reshaped what we understand early pregnancy to mean. In the colonial period, an early miscarriage, even if it were understood to be the loss of a pregnancy where, which it wasn't always because it was ambiguous in the early months of pregnancy, if you had a miscarriage, was it a miscarriage or was it a late menstrual period? And those were not always distinct. Even if a woman believed that she had lost her pregnancy, she did not generally think of it as a lost child and it did not typically have great emotional import. And that's something that has shifted dramatically in the two and a half centuries since.
And the book is about how did we get to a point now where for many Americans losing a pregnancy, even very early is something that we mourn and something that we experience as much more like losing a child. And it's such a difficult thing for so many women because about 20% of confirmed pregnancies miscarry and they're mostly these early miscarriages and sometimes they can be really devastating to the point of women saying, I don't know if I can do this again. And I'm very concerned about seeing women feel that they can't have the children they want because having miscarriages is too devastating of an experience.
When we've gotten to that point, I think we need to stop and ask ourselves, how did we get here and do we mean to be here or is there a way that we can give ourselves to think about early pregnancy and what it means to be pregnant? That would give us a little more reassurance and hope and perspective in some sense introducing a little more fatalism into some areas of life that we may be overly optimistic how much we can control.
Yeah, so that we can experience it in a way that allows us to have our families that we want and sets us up also I think for parenting, which has many things that we can't control nearly as much as we'd like and I'd hate to have having miscarriages start us off in our parenting, feeling out of control and anxious and not knowing how to handle things that don't unfold as we had hoped and expected.
That sounds so, so interesting, Lara.
Well, thank you Lara Freidenfelds so much. This has been fascinating. Thanks for speaking to The Flow Down and for all your contributions to the way that we talk about and understand menstruation in our modern world.
It's been a great pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jessica.
We hope you liked our show today. If you did, please subscribe, rate and leave us a review on iTunes.
If you would like to help provide critical management tools to menstruators who don't have access to products, there's some really awesome organisations to check out like period.org and HappyPeriod. We will link to those and other organisations on our website flowdownpod.com.
Coming up on our next episode, Jess and I get cosy and talk about the ways we care for ourselves.
Our theme song is Crimson Wave performed by Tacocat, courtesy of Hardly Art Records.
And happy Thanksgiving to those of you in the US and to everyone.
We are so grateful for you.
See you next time. Bye. (music).
Just 100 years ago, getting a period often meant shock, bewilderment and an old rag in your panties. From pads to tampons to the pill, we’ve come a long way. Historian Lara Freidenfelds joins us to discuss her book exploring the history of “modern” menstrual management. We talk about how industrialisation changed periods, spurring the advent of menstrual pads and tampons and a new realm of menstrual education. And we explore a growing movement to embrace periods in a whole new way.
Resources + Links
More about Lara Freidenfelds
Lara’s author page at Nursing Clio
The Surprising Origins of Kotex Pads - Smithsonian
Organisations providing menstrual products to menstruators in-need: