Seeing Red, Part 1 & 2 (Listen)

They are misfits. Witches. Children. Just a few of the labels used to portray menstruating women over time. The Bible has described the bleeding woman as undergoing "customary impurity". In the Middle Ages, it was thought that women menstruated to release "sexual overflow". Their counterparts in the Victorian era were told that a period would deplete their body's precious resources. Twentieth century feminists worked hard to reclaim menstruation as a vital and positive part of womanhood. IDEAS producer Mary O'Conell explores menstruation from a cultural and historical perspective.

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Women have always had their own secret words for the most secret of female activities - menstruation. However viewed through culture and history, menstruation has been accorded different meanings and powers.

According to the New Testament, it was considered a definite sign of filth and impurity. Aristotle believed it to be a clear indication of the female's natural inferiority. Pliny the Elder wrote that menstruation "turns dogs mad, sours wine and rots meat." By contrast, the Navajo Indian saw the menstruating woman as a blessing at harvest time.

Through culture and always begins with the blood. The French speak of periods as "cardinals" or "tomatoes". Or, "la femme fraise des bois" - literally the strawberry woman. More commonly, menstruation was called "mes regles" or "my rules". In 1940's street slang, menstruating women in America might be referred to as "the chick is Communist, "dirty red" or "her cherry is in the sherry". More commonly we've heard the word, "period", and of course, "the curse'. The Chinese wince at this. They call menstruation "heavenly waters" - believing it to be a powerful sign of the "female body in harmony". Much maligned and misunderstood, often hated by the powers-that-be and sometimes by women themselves, menstruation remains the most dramatic biological marker of woman-hood. An initiation of sorts. In her diary, Anne Frank described it as a "sweet secret".

This poignant excerpt from the Diary of Anne Frank was originally banned. It was considered offensive. The first censor was Anne Frank's father who kept mention of the menses out of the first publication. But the menstrual taboo doesn't begin and end with Otto Frank. Through culture, time and religion, the menstrual taboo became almost universal in nature. The church barred menstruating women from coming to the altar to receive communion in the Middle Ages. Some scholars believe that this Christian edict fueled the prohibition of women as priests in the Catholic Church. Hindu women in south India were told to sleep outside the home for three nights during that "time of the month". From the beginning of time, menstruation has provoked powerful practices and beliefs - often laced with hatred, disgust, magic and mystery.



seeing-red-flow.jpgThe Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, by Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, Emily Toth, University of Illinois Press, 1978, reprinted and updated 1988.

Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, St. Martin's Griffin Press, 2009.

The Wise Wound, by Penelope Shuttle & Peter Redgrove, Consortium, 1978.

Capitalizing on the Curse. The Business of Menstruation, by Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2006.

The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction, Emily Martin, Beacon Press, 2001.

Is Menstruation Obsolete?, by Elsimar M. Coutinho with Sheldon J. Segal, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, by Thomas C. T. Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, University of California Press, 1988.


Don't cramp my style, stories about that time of the month, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, Simon & Schuster books for young readers, 2004.

Girls in power, gender, body and menstruation in adolescence, by Laura Fingerson, SUNY Press, 2004.

Diary of Anne Frank

Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret, by Judy Blume, 1970, Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.

Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation, by Kathleen O'Grady and Paula Wansbrough, Sumach Press, 1997.

The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation, by Karen Houppert, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.

Related Websites

Museum of Menstruation

Menstrual Art

Fertility Awareness/Body Literacy

Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Is Menstruation Obsolete?

Menstruation and Religion

Birth control affects menstruation and sexual desire

Safety of Menstrual Suppression

Canadian Womens Health Network and Menstrual Suppression

Menarche - Celebrating a girl's first period

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