I have something to confess: I was overly ambitious in thinking I could cover the history of menstrual hygiene in just one post. I’ve had a blast doing the research on this topic and have some juicy tidbits I want to share with you (hmmm juicy tidbits just doesn’t sound quite right within the context of menstrual history, does it?).
So this will be a four-part weekly series. The first part will discuss how women from prehistory through Ancient Egypt handled menstrual hygiene. Here we go!
The vagina: portal of life, tunnel of love, channel of feminine power. The fleshy, cave-like canal from the womb has been a source of fear, awe, disgust, lust, and fascination for centuries. And for centuries, humanity has sought to tame it, to cover it, to disguise it, to clean it up, and to plug it.
If you consider the time and money invested toward menstrual hygiene, you’d think it’s one of the great problems we must confront as humanity. More man-(and woman-) hours have been devoted to inventing the perfect feminine hygiene product than to developing sustainable energy sources. More marketing dollars are invested in selling tampons (which is a $2.85 billion market) than in increasing awareness about women’s health issues.
So: just what have we come up with as a species to battle the pervasive (and staining) nature of menstrual blood and other feminine fluids? Here’s how our foremothers have handled their monthlies over the flow of time. (PS, if period puns give you the cramps, you’ll want to close this page now).
Pre-history: The Woman Cave
The human female menstrual cycle is nearly unique in the animal world. Most female mammals have a period of estrus (aka “heat” or “horniness”) shortly after ovulation which makes them sexually responsive, but the luteal phase (aka “messy, drippy time”) after estrus generally involves little to no bleeding. In fact, most mammals re-absorb their uterine lining during a process called “covert menstruation.” Among primates, humans and chimpanzees shed the most amount of endometrial tissue (aka uternine lining, aka menstrual blood) for the longest period of time.
Our primate cousins have a thick thatch of fur surrounding their lady-bits to catch menstrual blood (as do we, but our furry thatches tend to get bush-whacked according to the changing beauty standards of our societies) but it’s fairly uncommon to witness a chimp in full flow. That’s because most female apes who have reached reproductive maturity spend the majority of their adult lives either pregnant or lactating (natural menstrual suppressants), so they don’t get their periods nearly as many times as we do.
Among the Dogon people of Mali (often cited by anthropologists as one of the closest modern examples of a stone-age society), women of child-bearing age have as few as 100 periods in their lifetimes as opposed to the modern Western woman’s average 300-500 times. When she isn’t carrying a baby in her womb or a nursling on her hip, a menstruating Dogon woman can be found free-bleeding in a menstrual hut, cut off from the common areas of her village and only permitted to participate in agricultural work.
But not all prehistoric or pre-technological societies resorted to letting their women drip into the dirt. Feminist cultural theorist Judy Grahn has suggested that the first pieces of clothing invented by prehistoric peoples were menstrual belts with a soft fiber pad to capture menstrual blood. The purpose of the menstrual belts wasn’t to maintain cleanliness, but to collect the blood for use in religious rites. Gives a whole new meaning to “liquid gold,” doesn’t it?
Biblical Women and Ancient Egyptians: The Red Tent?
The ancient Hebrews wanted little to do with menstrual blood and had many Talmudic laws and cleansing rituals to rid themselves of spiritual cooties brought on by women’s menses. Despite the Anita Diamant’s portrayal of ancient Israeli menstrual rites in her wildly popular historical novel The Red Tent, there’s no historical evidence red tents (or any kind of menstrual tent, for that matter) existed during the times of the Torah. The ancient Hebrew woman instead was instructed to wear special clothes that signified her status as niddah (spiritually unclean), thus alerting those around her to avoid touching her.
Like prehistoric women, historians assume ancient Hebrew females spent the majority of their adulthoods pregnant or breastfeeding, so monthly periods were relatively rare. And because they were required to wait seven days after their periods stopped to resume sexual relations with their husbands (which typically coincides with ovulation in a 28-day menstrual cycle), Jewish women were particularly prone to getting impregnated.
When they did menstruate, however, the Talmud instructed Jewish women to bleed into rags made of unwoven cotton. To this day, if an Orthodox Jewish woman suspects she’s finished flowing, she performs a ritual in which she inserts a finger covered by a Rabbinically-approved cloth called a bedikah into her vagina to check if there’s residual discharge from her period. If it’s clean and seven days have passed since her last staining, she may take a dip in the mikveh and rejoin her husband in the marital bed.
The Ancient Egyptians had a more positive spin on menstruation partially due to their worship of Isis, goddess of fertility. Menstrual blood was seen as having a powerful cleansing effect and was sometimes used to make cosmetics and medicines for women’s health issues. Medicinal recipes instruct physicians to slather menstrual blood on the breasts and thighs of women who had sagging breasts.
As for menstrual hygiene, there have been derogatory hieroglyphic references to laundrymen cleaning the loincloths of menstruating women. Historians also suspect that the “tyet” or “Isis knot” was an ancient form of disposable tampon made of flax or softened papyrus.
This is where I’ll stop for now. Stay tuned for next week when I cover the Ancient Greeks & Romans, the indigenous peoples of Australia and the Americas, and Asian cultures.