The Shame of Menstruation

The media was horrified when Christina Aguilera appeared on stage in 2012, with what appeared to be menstrual blood running down her leg during a performance at Etta James’ memorial service. The barrage of tweets that followed described the incident as gross, embarrassing or speculated that it was really fake tan. But whether the comments were negative or supportive, the uniform assumption was that any woman would be embarrassed to have menstrual blood running down her leg in public. And yet, this would not always have been the public view.

Most of us have heard about a variety of materials being used in the past to create home-made sanitary towels or tampons, ranging from rags to sheepskin and moss. And some of us have heard about customs where menstruating women would stay in a hut set aside for this purpose and bleed directly onto the floor or straw. What is less well known is that from the 18th to the early 20th century, in parts of Europe and America, many lower class women did not use any sanitary protection at all. Instead they bled directly into their clothes or let their menstrual blood run down their legs.
For example, in 1899 a German woman physician wrote the following advice in a book Health in the House aimed at the German middle-class women.

“It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections”

This certainly implies that women were indeed bleeding directly onto their clothes. The Museum of Menstruation (MUM) in Washington DC confirms this.
“This was the age-old custom for rural women and women from the lower classes. Virtually only women in the theater professions wore close-fitting pads….or sponges and few women wore underpants or even used pads, which they made from cloth. Washing and changing underclothing was regarded as unhealthy, because women feared it would block the bleeding or cause more intense bleeding.”
And some women simply let the blood run down their legs onto the floor. Again from MUM:
“..her mother (was) one of the only women in the village (in Mexico) to sew underwear for herself and her children,  and said that she assumes that her neighbors and friends just menstruated  directly onto the floor. As a matter of fact, she vividly recalls (as a very young child) watching a neighbor hurriedly wiping a small puddle of blood off  the floor..”
While in Britain:
“In 1900 Britain, Suffragist Selina Cooper was horrified to discover that some lower class women still did not use any menstrual devices. She discovered that women working in a mill did not use sanitary napkins, they just bled straight onto the floor (which was covered in straw to absorb the blood). The mill women believed that the smell and flow attracted potential husbands because they were signs of fertility.”
It is clear there was a strong class divide with this practice. For example, when Suffragettes were first imprisoned, they found that no provision was made for sanitary protection, as it was assumed that the class of women who were prisoners, would not need any such facilities. This implies that women prisoners simply bled onto the floor of their cells.
When I first read about women bleeding directly onto floors, I had assumed this was due to poverty, particularly as all the descriptions of women doing this, are of lower class women. After all, even with rags, women still need access to facilities to wash them and some means, such as underwear, to keep them in place. But as the quote about the mill women begins to say, some women bled onto floors, because they believed that the smell of menstrual blood and the sight of it on their legs was a sign of fertility and made them more attractive to any future husband. If some women thought that, it is safe to assume that some men thought it made women more attractive too. And we can see from the tale below, that even when some women were offered sanitary protection, they refused to use it. In the Lancashire cotton mills in England in the 1890’s comes this tale.

women in those days didn’t wear any sanitary protection, all their petticoats would be covered in blood every month. And my mother made some towelling (pads)…for a woman she worked with….Anyhow this (girl’s) mother came back and played pop at the mill with the manager, because my mother had given this girl (some towels). She said how was her daughter ever going to get off if they didn’t know about this smell?

Like an animal! (My mother said there) used to be blood on the floor of the winding room….Of course, they wore drawers, and they were just legs up to here and all open at the – and of course it went straight down on to the floor, or on to the petticoats. It was an attraction. This woman played pop with the manager. My mother nearly got sacked for making her (daughter) some sanitary towels.”

What also stands out is that the presumably male manager accepted that the women would bleed onto the mill floor. This indicates that there was an acceptance amongst both women and men, at least in working class circles, that bleeding openly like this was normal.
Sadly these accounts leave us with many questions that I certainly am currently unable to answer. So for example, when did this attitude to menstrual bleeding change and why? Why has the fact that it was relatively recently acceptable to openly bleed amongst some women, been erased from our history and largely forgotten? And when exactly did this practice die out? Any information or memories are welcome and gratefully received.
  1. This is quite interesting, thank you. While reading, I was wondering what the evolutionary psyche nuts would do with this. And suspecting, sadly, that no wonder men thought women were animals. Though not understanding why men would classify themselves as being above animals, since presumably the lower class men ALSO liked it.

  2. This is very interesting. I learned new things! Thank you, Lesley.

  3. Reblogged this on Easilyriled's Blog and commented:
    I remember reading a long poem in a feminist magazine called Chrysalis, from 1979, about this very thing! The author wove a story about what would happen if women just bled everywhere — without shame. Menstruation is not an illness, nor a syndrome, nor a disorder — nor is being pre-menstrual. Anyway, here from The Liberation Collective:

  4. Fascinating! It makes me wonder, now, if this was part of the reason women wore skirts rather than pants…

  5. What bums me out is that it’s not enough for Christina Aguilera to be able to sing like nobody else, she still has to uphold everyone’s ideals of womanhood on top of it. Just shut up everybody and let the girl sing.

    Thanks for the history.

  6. river said:

    Well I can’t imagine this happening anywhere but warm climates. You do not want anything wet on you here because it will be cold and freezing against your skin, and you don’t want your clothes wet and freezing hard either. I think commercial pads came about because women did use pads, of mosses and maybe kapok — the fluffy stuff inside a Cattail although I have not checked history on that latter, it seems sensible. And then you got rid of it when you were done with it, and it went back to the soil. With you in it.

  7. river said:

    Lesley if you wanted to research further, Dene women in northern Canada were separated similar to Orthodox Jewish women during their menses. The Dene also starved the women when times were tough to keep food for men, so it might be interesting to find out how they viewed menstruation.

  8. zeph said:

    I have read that priestesses, in matriarchal temples would dance in public, waving rags with their menstrual blood on them; women living together in groups tend to synchronise their menstruation after a time. I think this is were the blood on the sheet, now associated under patriarchy with virginity, originated; because menstrual blood indicates that women are not pregnant and that ovulation will soon follow. I remember a man telling me that when he first saw his wife covered in menstrual blood, while she slept, he finally understood why he had always had an obsession with red petticoats, shoes, and pants. The film The Red Shoes is really about the torment a woman suffers after she menstruates, with the usual caveat that she chooses to put on the red shoes so she deserves all she gets! But there maybe an older tale beneath the surface of this story. Back to the priestesses, the Minoan civilization was matriarchal, they worshipped goddesses and a bull god called Minotaur, the Egyptians had a similar ancient ithyphallic god called Min, there were many other bull demi god and goddess worshipping religions; one still exists in China today, though the men are now trying to elevate the bull god above the goddess and call him her father! But the women are still holding out and insisting on the pre-eminence of their goddess. This dancing off the menstruating priestesses may indicate the real meaning of the saying ‘a red rag to a bull’ because real bulls, who were used as symbols of a male god, cannot see the colour red.

  9. Ess See said:

    Lesley, this is really informative and thanks so much for writing this.

    Ess See.

  10. All I know is what my grandmothers told me. One was born in 1910 on a reservation to a Chippewa mother and a white German father. This was after the menstrual hut era. She said that when she was young, girls didn’t usually start their periods until they were 17 or 18, (for her this would have been 1928 and I assume that the “late blooming” was due to a more meagre diet but perhaps also due to a more natural diet with no hormones in the meat) and that women used rags for the blood, but that they couldn’t hang the washed-out rags where men could see them (they would be disgraced) and so they washed them in secret (away from father and brother) and hung them to dry in a special rack in an area set aside in the attic.

    From a strictly practical point of view, I always assumed that this was an attic above the kitchen (near the chimney) or the rags would never dry in winter or damp weather. Many farms back then had kitchens that were partitioned or separated from the main house because of the omnipresent danger of kitchen fires.

    My other grandmother was born in 1900 and she was horrified that young girls of 12 or 13 were using tampons in the 1970’s because to her this would make them no longer virgins!

    They both used folded hand or kitchen towels during peri-menopause, as regular sanitary pads back then were not up to the task (I myself resorted to this on several occasions during peri-menopause.)

  11. Susan said:

    I can think of one thing that has changed since the age where this was apparently the norm: the way society views children in the post Industrial Age significantly changed. In our current society, there is a perception that children cost money; but before and during the industrial revolution, there was a perception that children were an asset, not a luxury. Therefore, a fertile woman capable of producing more children would have been significantly more desirable, especially among the lower class. This is less important to society today, where the average family only has 2.5 children, compared to pre industrialization, where the family size was much larger. I would be fairly surprised if the average modern man even considered the fertility of his partner when he chooses a mate.

    It may seem like I’ve gone off topic here, but as the article ends asking why our acceptance of openly menstruating among women has changed, I do think the two topics are correlated. If menstral blood on the legs was seen as attractive because it displayed a woman’s fertility, it follows that as a woman’s fertility became less of a factor in gauging attractiveness, other perceptions of the practice would become more influential. The excerpts already imply that the higher class saw openly mensturating as unappealing and dirty, so it makes sense that as the conflicting belief died out, the existing counter belief would take hold.

    Anyway, that’s my theory.

  12. Morag said:

    In Beeston Nottingham there was a war memorial which was a statue of a woman (which always had a traffic cone on it’s head) and someone spray painted, “War is menstrual envy,” on it.

  13. jdmarsh89 said:

    With our modern, sanitized, scented, scrubbed, clinical idea of how women should look and smell, we’ve definitely deviated from the idea of perceived fertility defining attractiveness. LOL

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