The modern period: why the history of menstruation is about so much more than blood and Kotex

Guest post by Lara Freidenfelds

Ask someone to talk about her experiences with menstruation for a couple of hours, and she will usually laugh: “What on earth would I have to say for that long, on that subject?” And then, as it turns out, she will tell story after story. In researching The Modern Period, I interviewed 75 diverse American women and men, old and young, about the role this relatively mundane bodily event had played in their lives. Their stories were funny, and moving, and generously intimate. It was a pleasure to spend years collecting, sifting, interpreting, and weaving together these narratives, because they are revealing in two registers simultaneously: the deeply personal, and the seismically social. A story can be simultaneously about a first, awkward attempt to use a tampon and about how Americans became “modern.” Taken together, the stories I collected show how Americans created their modern identity in the very details of how they cared for and thought about their bodies on a daily basis.

When it came to menstruation, what it meant to be “modern” was to have it all under control. Menstruation was not supposed to impinge on one’s physical or psychological comfort, or get in the way of normal activities. As white New Englander Mary Hanson,* who got her first period before Kotex came out in 1921, described, “We had diapers . . . they weren’t very comfortable . . . you’d have to shape it, fold it over, just as you put on a baby.” When I asked Ida Smithson, the daughter of African-American sharecroppers in the rural south, whether she carried an extra cloth pad with her to school, she joked, “The only way you could carry one was to carry it in your lunch bag! [Hearty laughter.] And I don’t think you want to be carrying something like that in your lunch bag!... Unless you carried it in your bosom, now. You know, we could always find somewhere! [Hearty laughter.] Well if you had large bosoms, you could hide it up there!” Mary and Ida, like many of the women I interviewed, bought disposable pads the moment they had a little bit of spending money of their own. Kotex was far more comfortable, effective, and easier to use than cloth diapers.

Kotex was only the beginning. By the 1990s, Chinese-American Jennifer Kwan, born 80 years after Mary Hanson, used the birth control pill strategically. “You can actually control your period, because you can take continuous packs. So that you can even skip it. That was like, amazing! Because I felt like earlier I was at the mercy of my period. It would just show up, whenever! And then it would interrupt my plans, or just ruin my clothes. And so now, being able to control it, and being able to control your body, is amazing.” By Jennifer’s generation, women truly had “modern periods.” They learned about menstruation in school well before menarche, instead of being shocked and scared when they saw blood the first time. They knew it was safe to play sports during their periods, and if they wanted to swim, they just used tampons. They had stick-on pads, tampons, and even menstrual cups to keep the flow from showing, staining or smelling. If they wanted, they could even get rid of menstruation altogether, as Jennifer sometimes did.

In some sense, this narrative is not surprising. After all, as I found in extensive archival research, advertisers sold (and still sell) menstrual products in these terms most of the time, and very few people question the obvious benefit of educating girls about menstruation before their first periods.

One thing that did surprise me, though, was what was implied in being “modern.” For the women and men I interviewed, becoming modern meant becoming middle class. Having a certain bodily self-presentation communicated class standing. Middle class people did not smell or have stained clothing, and they were supposed to be able to be available and efficient, no matter the “time of the month.” Women, who often boosted their families’ class standing with pink-collar office and service jobs, were particularly likely to find themselves scrutinized. Modern menstrual products and practices were an affordable way for Americans to cultivate a middle-class bodily self-presentation, and strive for upward mobility. My research showed me a solution to a mystery I did not initially realize I would be addressing: Why do the large majority of Americans think of themselves as middle class, even though we are in fact economically quite diverse? A key part of the answer lies in the modern identities we create in our most intimate, everyday moments.

*All interviewee names are pseudonyms.

Lara Freidenfelds is the author of The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She blogs with the historian’s perspective on sex, reproduction, and women’s health in America at and The publisher is selling the hardcover edition of The Modern Period at half price.  The electronic version is available for $19.95 with promotional code HTMP through December 30.   In this Distillations podcast, historian Deanna Day and Lara Freidenfelds talk about egg freezing, contraceptive history, the fragility of embryos, and the inevitability of being "a little bit pregnant."

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