Learning from Memories of Menstruation

It is time for old memories to be recorded. Give me a pen and paper! Oh no, I mean please pass the iPad.

I often draw on my past, particularly when talking of feminist issues, to help keep fresh some memories of our relatively recent past. Examples I have mentioned are that we were not allowed to wear trousers, “slacks”, even to University lectures in the fifties. It was  frowned upon  to teach school in “slacks” even  in the early eighties. It is often relevant to recall the legal ages of consent and marriage have being raised twice in NSW in my lifetime. In areas of paid work I have mentioned some trail blazing activities among us femininists.

We all recognise the magnificent improvement to women’s lives with the advent, in the 60s, of reasonably reliable contraception.

But memories of early menstruation issues I seem have repressed  (perhaps in the joy of being past all that). But more worryingly, is it because this is something we have had to repress all our lives and keep silent about?

I was almost finished this blog when I stopped and took stock of the fact I had called it “Learning from Memories”.  Am I still too shamed to use the word “Menstruation” in a blog post title? Is this an example of my personal involvement in our universal need to overlook this part of human life? This I must change.

Today I have seen two very confronting articles on this topic.  One by Jane Caro in the SMH of 4th July 2017 and one by Calla Wahlquist in the Guardian on 3rd July 2017.  They each reflect, in very different contexts, on how, even in this day and age, menstruation is regarded as shameful by some.  It is difficult, even in the 21st century, to be practically, psychologically and financially  managed.  And this latter does not just apply to young, perhaps financially disadvantaged, women and girls.

The attitudes of both women and men toward in this universal, normal  fact of life need to be rethought.

We can make jokes. It was funny, just before I retired, when one of the administrative staff taped a hormonal pill for pre menstral problems to a recalcitrant computer. But in retrospect should we have laughed?

Jane Caro’s wonderful piece is very compelling. She talks of the way the “in your face” nature of menstruation as a physical reminder of our animal status has plagued the attitude towards (and perhaps some fear of) women over the ages, including from institutions such as religions. She talks of how it still can contribute to demeaning comments about women.  But Calla Wahlquist’s was even more confronting. Here in 2017 in some of the more remote areas of Australia, indigenous girls miss school when they are menstruating because of lack of resources and possibly the shame attached to the process as well.

I was very lucky to have been born into an educated middle class family and the onset of menstruation came as no surprise. I  had a mother whose University Arts degree (the only one easily approved of for women in the 1930s) included Science subjects so she was very knowledgeable about human biology and passed some of this on to her daughters.  We were not a poor family. But even so the use of “rags” was sometimes a necessity.  I still remember overhearing the odd comment that, judging from a clothes line’s content the woman of the house had to be “on the rags”. I was at University before I heard the slang name “the  curse”. My mother did not approve!

Before launching into this blog I thought I ought to confirm my memories so rang my     very dear sister in law who is almost exactly the same age as I am.  She instantly reminded me of a mutual friend, now deceased.  She had been orphaned as a child (or perhaps was illegitimate) and was brought up in Ireland in a Catholic orphanage.  She often reminisced that one of her duties in the orphanage was to wash the nuns’ menstrual rags.  We discussed her ever present distress as this woman recalled these memories.  Would there have still been this level of distress and feeling of humiliation if the cloths had been stained with blood from bleeding noses or blood from wounds? These rags had not even been soaked, my sister in law recalled, and then we reminded ourselves that, at that stage, there were not even plastic buckets or containers to use for soaking.

My sister in law said that personally she did not have any experience of “rags”, living actually right in the middle of a shopping centre, but she recalled the use of torn up old sheets when bad colds plagued the family because, of course, there were no tissues.  She also recalled her extreme embarrassment when she had to go to the local chemist and buy the “sanitary napkins” for herself and, even before that time, for her mother.

But she talked about a close friend of hers at school who had to use rags and who bemoaned the fact that her family was not financially able, or perhaps was unwilling, to provide her with the new, up to date product then available. She found that very shameful.

There is no doubt the development of sanitary pads and tampons made a great improvement in lifestyle at such times, and much more so when complex elastic belts and safety pins became outmoded.

We know we are currently waging a war regarding the fact that, extraordinarily, there is a tax on these items.  They are not regarded as a necessity!   Judging from the amount that it is said the government would lose on lifting this tax, it would appear that possibly the manufacturers, too, may also be making a considerable profit from these items.

But there is more, attitudes have got to be changed. In the fifties, when I was about 14 years old,  I went to a state wide Girl Guide Camp to commemorate the role of Lord Baden Powell. I was Patrol Leader with a tent full of younger girls I did not know.  One of the girls woke in the night, terrified to find herself bleeding.  I had to explain the process to her and access some equipment.  It is a human right for every young child of any gender to know about it as they know about developing breasts. The topic should be discussed freely in society by all. It is natural, there should be no taboos and this sort of thing I encountered at the camp should never happen. But it still does.

And meanwhile disadvantaged girls, particularly in regional areas and particularly indigenous girls, have it even worse.  They are not attending school because they do not have easy access to items they need during menstruation.

Come on people. This is not a feminist issue. This a human issue. Half of the human race will, at some time, be mensturating. It is healthy and productive if they can easily continue with normal activities.  There should be self dispensing units easily found in many public places, not limited to ladies’ toilets. (And those that used to be in toilets seem now to be few and far between.)

Surely there could be an easy and non degrading way a card or special coin could be provided to the needy who otherwise could not have access to these products.

And the reason they should not be hidden away in ladies’ toilets is that it is time for Dads and husbands to stand up. To sometimes be the ones who buy the product for daughters and wives as they might do with a toothbrush or toothpaste or toilet paper or even laxative! To talk to their daughters about menstruation. To normalise the process.

We are all part of the human race and without menstruation none of us would exist.







About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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