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It’s only lately that there has been any choice about menstruation: if you were a woman before the wide availability of the contraceptive pill you bled once a month from the age of 12 until you were around 50, except during pregnancy and lactation (which might mean, of course, that you actually bled rather rarely). For her book The Modern Period: Menstruation in 20th-Century America (Johns Hopkins, £31), Lara Freidenfelds interviewed 75 American women – the oldest born ‘before 1910’, the youngest ‘after 1970’ – from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds on the subject of their menstrual life. Until recently, menstruation was taken for granted, but also spoken about only in whispers. Fifty per cent of the population bled while the other 50 per cent were supposed to know nothing of it. Casualness about menstruation, like the development of mass email, was unimaginable even 20 years ago. Even so, although tampons are no longer slipped into brown paper bags when you buy them, and there are now advertisements on television with pictures of sanitary pads and tampons for all to see, any child watching the ads would be forgiven for concluding that they are used for ink spills, and left to ponder the reason knickers should need such special protection. The red stuff is still off limits. It’s OK to talk about the products that clean the mess up, but not so much to confront the mess itself.

Thanks to a reference in Freidenfelds’s book, I found the answer to a mystery that I’ve wondered about for over 50 years. When I was ten or 11 my mother explained to me that soon enough I would become a ‘woman’, and I’d know this because I would find blood ‘down there’ one day when I went to the loo. I didn’t get much more in the way of biological explanation, but she reminded me from time to time that it would happen, and when it did, she said, she would have to slap my face. Why, I asked. It’s what you have to do, my mother said. I supposed (or I suppose I supposed) that she needed to slap my face because I’d be in a state of shock, though I was now more worried about getting slapped than finding blood in my knickers. In fact, when it finally happened, I told my mother and braced myself, but she stood quite frozen in front of me. Not only did the slap never come, but I wondered for a moment if I should slap her out of her apparently petrifying shock.

On the Museum of Menstrual Health website – started and still run by a man, whatever that means – I discovered an article called ‘The Tradition of Slapping Our Daughters’, by Caren Appel-Slingbaum, and the mystery was solved.* It’s called minhag in Hebrew. Appel-Slingbaum’s mother knew no more of its purpose than my mother did, though at least she knew enough to make clear that it was a Jewish tradition.

Perhaps its original purpose was to ‘slap sense’ into a newly fertile girl, warning her not to disgrace the family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Possibly it was to ‘awaken’ her out of her childhood slumber and into her role as Jewish woman. I asked my mother for the folkloric reasoning behind such a custom, but was only given a blank expression and shrugged shoulders for a response.

In Orthodox Judaism, women are still required to go to the mikvah after menstruating and have a ritual bath before they are clean enough to be touched by men. Shame, however, even without misogynistic religious implications, was a common experience for all the older women in Freidenfelds’s survey. The main thing was to go to great lengths to keep it from the men. There’s no discussion in the book about the secrecy being deliberately retained by women as women’s-world business, for their own sense of power and differentiation. It is much more that men should not have to think about the nastiness of it all. But perhaps the questions were framed to elicit that. Certainly all the women expressed relief at whatever degree of openness and improvement modern attitudes offered. Overall, menstrual modernity in the form of a more efficient throwaway technology was seized on and celebrated, as was the opportunity to send your man off to the shop to get it if you came on suddenly.

The heroes of openness opposing the tradition of silence were, of course, the manufacturers of sanitary towels. Before Kotex came along to sanitise menstruation, the phrase ‘on the rag’ (which was in use when I was young) was literal. Old bedlinen or shirts were recycled, shaped and sewn into protection against blood overflow. They were washed and kept for the next month. Learning how to shape them and attach them to bandage-like belts was part of growing up. In the 1920s Kotex designed and packaged the first disposable sanitary pad, and even women with very little money were prepared to buy them. Disposable sanitary pads promised to be invisible under clothing so no one would be able to tell you were wearing them, to keep the bleeding contained, to ensure that no smell of menstrual blood escaped into the world, and they were hugely labour saving. All in all, virtually the answer to Freud’s final question. What do women want? Kotex.

In what is almost a model of capitalist progress, the manufacturers broke through public barriers to offer biological education and advertise their products in the media (the ads and leaflets by Kotex and Modess gave quite detailed information to girls whose mothers couldn’t bring themselves to talk of such things), and they tempered the practical difficulties of menstruation by refining the sanitary pad, and then producing the internally worn tampon, so that eventually even the women themselves need hardly know they were bleeding.

But still, when I was young, even when men weren’t present, there was a special language for menstruation. It was described by my mother as being ‘unwell’. Ill was ill, but unwell (spoken in a significant undertone that took me a while to attach a significance to) meant someone was menstruating. I remember visiting a woman in our block of flats and seeing her teenage daughter lying full length on the sofa with a blanket and a hot-water bottle. She was unwell, my mother told me, and it was clear that whatever she had was to be distinguished from the flu. It wasn’t unexpected, by my mother or the older American women questioned in The Modern Period, to spend several days a month lying down, not ill, but unwell. And here again, it wasn’t a push for women’s freedom, but the needs of commerce (or, during the war, the state) that were responsible for a changing attitude to those ‘days of the month’. No need to stay off work if you can be sure you won’t leak and if the advertisements were assuring you, even back in the 1920s, that the ‘modern’ woman worked and played hard all month long. ‘Never mind, Mother – you’ll learn,’ said the advertisement for Modess in the Ladies’ Home Journal for June 1929, picturing a worried older woman about to hit a golf ball, egged on by her laughing daughter. ‘Middle age is too often resigned to things as they were; youth is resigned to nothing but the best.’

Tampons certainly worried my mother. They were only for ‘married women’, I was told. The whisper among us girls was that they broke your hymen and you wouldn’t be a virgin when you got married. The question was whether to wear a nappy held up with an elastic belt and safety pins and keep your hymen intact for your husband, or whether to risk your virginity with a tampon. Bearing in mind that by the late 1950s we were planning to have sex during the expected magical four minutes we were promised before we and our hymens were blown to the winds by an A bomb, the answer was perfectly straightforward, whatever our outdated mothers thought.

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