The Bleeding Obvious: Menstrual Ideologies and Technologies in Australia, 1940-1970

Menstruation is an impolite topic: often avoided in both everyday conversation and academic journals. This article expands the limited historiography on the subject by investigating a pivotal moment in the Australian history of menstruation:
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  1 The Bleeding Obvious: Menstrual Ideologies and Technologies in Australia, 1940-1970 Carla Pascoe 1   Menstruation is an impolite topic: often avoided in both everyday conversation and academic  journals. This article expands the limited historiography on the subject by investigating a pivotal moment in the Australian history of menstruation: 1940-1970. By exploring sex education texts and menstrual product advertisements alongside oral history accounts, the paper reveals that the middle decades of the twentieth century were a time when the ideologies and technologies of menstruation were transformed. Australian girls were encouraged to reject older messages about incapacity at ‘that time of the month’ and embrace a full range of activities  , armed with the much-lauded  protection offered by disposable, commercially-produced pads and tampons. This article engages in transnational debates about this modernisation of menstruation, asking: have Australian women and girls been liberated by these changes to participate more fully in the public sphere, or have they become enslaved to a more rigorous set of hygienic expectations? Introduction A foreign visitor to Antipodean shores might be confused to overhear the vernacular Australian expression ‘bleeding obvious’ or its close linguistic relative ‘bloody obvious’. What could these colloquial phrases possibly mean? Australians use ‘bleeding obvious’ to refer to something that is completely self-evident; so much so that it requires no explanation. Employed here to refer to the history of menstruation in Australia, the phrase takes on multiple connotations. On the one hand, it is immediately obvious that Australian women and girls menstruate; therefore there must be a story to uncover about how they have viewed and managed their menstruation in the past. Yet the history  2 of ‘bleeding’ in Australia is suspiciously absent from library shelves. How can we understand this resounding silence about s omething so ‘bleeding obvious’?  This article seeks to remedy this omission and simultaneously to explain it, by charting aspects of the Australian history of menstruation during the mid-twentieth century. A range of ideologies and technologies are analysed in order to consider how menstruation affected both the minds and bodies of Australian girls. Using sex education texts, menstrual product advertisements and oral histories of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, I will explore the ways in which menstruation was managed by and explained to Australian girls in this era. Explaining the Curse: the Limited Historiography of Menstruation Although a regular, insistent presence in the lives of post-menarcheal and pre-menopausal females, menstruation is a topic rarely spoken about and even more rarely studied. Despite the growth in studies o f women’s history accompanying second wave feminism in  the 1970s, proportionately few historical studies of menstruation have been written. 2  Those scholarly accounts that do exist have uncovered largely negative views of menstruation across time. Historians studying the pre-industrial western world, for example, have documented pejorative understandings across different cultures and time periods. 3  From the nineteenth century, western medical discourses constructed menstruation as pathological; akin to a cyclical illness that enfeebled the female body. 4  Whilst the menstruating woman was widely viewed as sickly and disabled in the nineteenth century, during the twentieth century an alternative discourse slowly emerged which insisted that western women should be active, hygienic and glamorous whilst menstruating. This changing view of the impact of menstruation upon women was mirrored and facilitated by changing practices for dealing with menstruation. Commercially- produced ‘sanitary products’ and ‘feminine hygiene products’ developed initially from medical strategies to deal with post-surgical bleeding. They were gradually  3 adopted across the twentieth century as they became more affordable and more socially acceptable to advertise. 5  These trends have been documented in the United States, 6  the United Kingdom, 7  Canada 8  and New Zealand. 9  Broadly similar shifts could be expected in the Australian context, but specific analysis of when  changes in technologies and ideologies occurred has not yet been conducted. The ways in which women have thought and felt about their bleeding bodies, and the techniques they have employed whilst bleeding, have undergone complicated shifts over time, requiring careful attention to tease out. Why then has this complex topic received such limited attention from historians? Some scholars argue that taboos constraining discussion of menstruation in daily conversation have likewise inhibited scholarly analysis. 10  A cultural reluctance to speak explicitly about menstruation also circumscribes the range of historical sources that are available. Menstruation has left few traces upon the past. Even the private spaces of diaries and letters rarely mention the ‘m - word’ and it is near impossible to uncover how non -literate women felt about their menstrual cycles. One approach to this dearth of written primary sources is to conduct oral history interviews in order to study menstruation within the remembered past. For example, Suellen Murray, the only other historian to examine the Australian history of menstruation, contrasted women’s oral histories with expert medical discourses. 11  Murray examined the period 1900 to 1960 and studied understandings of menstruation at menarche, during a woman’s reproductive years and at menopause. Although she makes mention of other sources, her main interest is the disparity between women’s remembered  experiences of menstruation and the medical conceptualisations of health professionals. Whilst I have discussed oral histories of menstruation more fully elsewhere, 12  the approach which I adopt here is to focus upon two strands of popular culture: sex education books read by Australian girls and the products used to manage menstruation, as reconstructed through advertisements and patents. I have chosen to focus primarily on girls, rather than across the female life cycle, as they were the intended audience of sex education books. Yet although Murray  4 and I focus upon different time periods and primary sources, we both conclude that the overarching message conveyed to Australian females was that menstruation should remain a carefully-hidden secret. From Rags to Riches: The Modernisation of Menstruation Through examination of texts and objects, I argue that the post-Second World War years marked a turning point in the way Australian girls experienced and thought about menstruation. The widespread adoption of disposable menstrual products and the rejection of views of menstrual incapacity were mutually supportive shifts in the tangible and intangible cultures of menstruation, transforming the ways in which Australian girls related to their cyclical, bleeding bodies. Broadly speaking, these changes could be read as indicative of the impact of modernity upon female bodies, as traditional menstrual practices and beliefs were overturned by new principles of rationality, hygiene and consumerism. For some historians, this ‘modernisation’ of menstruation across the western world supported feminist aims. Fred Schroeder argued in 1976 that increasingly efficacious menstrual products had underpinned rising numbers of women entering the public spheres of work and higher education. 13  More recently, Lara Freidenfelds has studied the ways in which the values of Progressivism came to s hape a ‘modern’ way of menstruating in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Ideas srcinating in the white, urban, educated middle class began to permeate the rest of society, such as a belief in efficiency, scientific rationality, technological progress and careful self-presentation/control of the body. Friedenfelds rejects the assertions of some feminist scholars that modern menstrual management has insidious aspects, insisting that the women and men she interviewed wholeheartedly supported these changes in education, health and technology and cooperated with ‘experts’ to transform the ways that the modern period was experienced. 14    5 Other historians have questioned the impact of these twentieth-century shifts around menstruation. For Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant, the price of young New Zealand women embracing a modern way to menstruate was to sever links with their mothers’ more ambivalent experiences in order to pursue the elusive, advertised ideal of an ‘active, odourless, blood - free’ female body. 15  For Julie-Marie Strange, the English movement to reject older discourses of menstrual incapacity still tied girls to traditional definitions of femininity and emphasised the need to maintain absolute discretion. 16  Joan Jacobs Brumberg noted that whilst mid-twentieth-century American teenagers may have been freed from medical messages of menstrual disability, they were now exposed to highly seductive marketing from the sanitary products industry, which promised that purchase of modern menstrual products would free girls from anxiety and limited lifestyles. 17  For some historians, increasingly efficient menstrual products have enslaved women to ever more demanding expectations of utterly covert monthly cycles. Sharra L. Vostral argues that changes in menstrual products over the twentieth century have been used as ‘technologies of passing’; enabling American women and girls to masquerade as non-menstruants and hence avoid the negative associations which still plague this uniquely female function. 18  The meaning and consequences of the modernisation of menstruation during the twentieth century are contested. Have changing ways of managing and thinking about menstruation freed women to engage more fully in the public sphere, unencumbered by their monthly flows? Or have these shifts resulted in an abnegation of menstruation, with girls alienated from the messy, inconvenient, corporeal reality of bleeding? This article will engage in these transnational historiographical debates by considering available evidence of the Australian experience. A Periodic Illness: Menstruation in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries Menstruation is a normal part of every girl’s life and development, and under no circumstances should it be regarded as a matter of shame or as a sickness. Before medical science brought to us
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