Humans have long attempted to protect society from menstruating women—at the expense of women’s rights.
By Kate Wheeling
(Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images)
There’s a theory about early human societies that I’m particularly fond of, proposed by the feminist author Elizabeth Gould Davis: Some of the earliest human societies were matriarchies, with lady leaders who created the menstrual blood taboo as a means of commanding fear and respect from their male counterparts. It is a taboo that still exists to this day.
But if only our foremothers had known what such fears would lead to with regard to modern patriarchies — for example, a ban on menstruating women from swimming in pools out of concerns over contamination.
Yesterday, the Independent reported that a fitness center in the country of Georgia is taking heat for a sign posted in the women’s locker room that reads: “Dear ladies! Do not go into the pool during periods.” The fitness center claims the new policy is meant to protect members, according to the Independent. (You know what usually protects swimmers against pathogens in pools? Chlorine. The real problem, according to research: Many illness outbreaks—as many as a quarter of gasteroenteris outbreaks in particular—related to pools are likely due to lapses in proper water treatment.)
There are countless theories about the exact origin of this notion around the toxicity of menstrual blood. What is, however, clear is that menstrual taboos are near universal and are very, very old. (The word taboo itself comes from the Polynesian word tapua which means “menstruation.”) Historically, women have often been barred from participating in certain activities during menstruation, if not totally isolated from the rest of society.
Some ancient scholars seemed to think that women essentially emitted liquid dark magic for a few days every month. Pliny the Elder, an authority on the natural world in ancient Rome, wrote in his early encyclopediaof menstrual blood:
Contact with it turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees falls off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.
Farmers and hunters alike feared menstruating women, accordingto The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Psychology. “Eskimo men were not permitted to have contact with a menstruating woman prior to hunting,” the SAGE authors wrote, “because it was believed that an invisible vapor would attach itself to the man, making him visible to game, and Bukka women were forbidden from going into the sea for fear that menstrual blood would spoil the fish.”
Shrouding menstruation in mystery doesn’t protect society, but it does put women’s health and education at risk.
But it’s not just the risk to plants and small animals that has long driven many cultures to control or isolate menstruating women. New Guinea’s Mae Enga tribe believed that contact with menstrual blood could lead to a slow and painful death for men, while the Yukon’s Tinne Indians believed that contact with menstrual blood, which they thought to be imbued with the essence of femininity, could rob a man of his virility.
In the 20th century, the scientific community tried hard to pinpoint the noxious element emitted by menstruating women. In the 1920s, Dr. Bela Schick carried out experiments that found flowers handled by a menstruating nurse before being placed in water wilted faster than flowers that he gently placed in water himself. He concluded that menstruating women must be sweating out plant-killing chemicals, which he dubbed menotoxins. In years following, that field of research suffered from a reproducibility crisis, but still the study of potential menotoxins persisted for decades. As Kate Clancy wrote for Scientific American:
I wish I could say that the menotoxin was dead. But several contemporary hypotheses about the evolution of menstruation still in some way reflect the thinking that menstruation, if not women, is dirty and serves the purpose of expelling toxicity. Clarke (1994) proposed menstruation as a mechanism to expel unwanted embryos. Margie Profet (1993) argued that menstruation helped to expel sperm-borne pathogens, which made men the dirty party.
The thousands of euphemisms that we use to talk about menstruation today only fuel the idea that this natural process shouldn’t be publicly discussed — that the topic of menstruation (and menstruating women) should be hidden away to protect society — and allow menstrual myths, taboos, and misconceptions to thrive. “I interviewed young girls who were convinced they were dying of cancer when they started bleeding,” Rose George wrote last year in the Guardian, reflecting on a visit to India.
Adolescent girls in developing countries across the globe miss school every month thanks to a lack of access to materials like pads and tampons. Shrouding menstruation in mystery doesn’t protect society, but it does put women’s health and education at risk.