Happy Women’s History Month! These next few weeks are dedicated to celebrating all the incredible women in our lives and their contributions to society. While there is much to celebrate, we must also use this time to reflect on women’s equality and how much work is yet to be done. We have come a long way over the past century, but women still face challenges because of their gender to this day, the gender pay gap being one of them. On average, women earn 82% of what men make. Furthermore, Black women and women of color face discrimination in the workplace not just for their gender, but for their race as well: in 2019, the U.S. census determined that Black women made 63% of what white men made.
Beyond wage discrimination, women are held to ridiculous and stereotypical standards of what it means to be a socially acceptable woman. Women are supposed to be poised and presentable and are expected to keep private matters to themselves. This includes sexuality, body image and even menstruation. While great strides still need to be made to secure female equality in society, let’s use this Women’s History Month to make a small, yet monumental impact. Let’s normalize menstruation.
Before we normalize menstruation, we first have to look at the root of the problem: what makes women’s periods so controversial? Collegiate Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Suchitra Samanta described the controversy surrounding menstruation throughout history.
“Historically, between the 18th and 19th centuries, when political, social and economic models changed in the west with the Industrial Revolution, the perception of a specifically female bodily function changed along with those social, economic and political changes,” said Samanta.
Some of the negative associations our society has with menstruation today can be traced back to the first U.S. Industrial Revolution. Women were regarded as less productive than their male coworkers because they had to balance caring for their children with work, while men did not. If a woman decided to join the workforce, it meant they were either abandoning motherhood altogether (which was highly frowned upon) or it meant that they would be unproductive workers because they would have to leave work to care for their children and home. Therefore, it was more efficient to hire men for the workforce and for women to stay home and care for their children. In this way, menstruation helped set the precedent for gender-based discrimination over the following centuries.
“Our bodies are not blank slates of our societies,” Samanta said. “They write meanings on our bodies. ‘This is beauty, this is not beauty. This is too big, this is too small. Hair is all wrong.’ Menstruation is one of those central processes that carry so much meaning.”
Now, in the 21st century, negative attitudes toward menstruation still exist. This can have a major impact on the confidence of young girls as they begin puberty. I conducted a survey in Samanta’s class to better understand how menstruation affects the self-confidence of young girls. Out of the students surveyed, 75% of students surveyed felt some level of embarrassment as they began to menstruate and 87% have been in a situation where they felt uncomfortable seeking help when menstruating. They used words such as “horrifying,” “stressful” and “annoying” to describe their experiences menstruating as a teen.
In middle and high school, my experience was not that different from those words described above. I was so embarrassed to have a period, let alone discuss it with my friends. I was told by society that it was shameful, gross and taboo. I would walk around the hallway anxious that I had bled through my pants and that I would have to ask someone for a sanitary product. Instead of worrying about menstruation, young girls should have the freedom to focus on school, spend time with friends and enjoy adolescence. Menstruation should not be hidden because of societal pressures.
In some countries, menstruation prevents young girls from attending school. Sanitary supplies can be either inaccessible or too expensive in some rural areas, so young girls, instead of enduring hours of discomfort and embarrassment at school, decide to stay home.
“This has been a huge issue in the developing and poorer parts of the world,” Samanta said. This has been a reason why girls don’t go to or drop out of school. This is because they have no access to sanitary supplies. So it’s very much a gender equity issue as far as girls and education goes.”
No child should be robbed of their education because of a natural bodily function. Fortunately, this is not a pervasive problem in the U.S. Poverty is, however, which is why the pink tax is so problematic. Not only do women spend thousands of dollars on sanitary products throughout their lifetimes, in more than half of U.S. states, these products are subject to sales tax. This is a huge financial burden for many women and families. In order for menstruation to be normalized, all women must have access to feminine and hygiene products. In the U.S., this includes addressing the pink tax and the way it disproportionately harms lower-income families.
“Normalizing menstruation is a step towards female equality,” Samanta said. “In perception, absolutely, but also in terms of access to affordable supplies. Whether it’s in the poorer parts of the world or whether it’s here without that tax rate.”
In addition to abolishing the sales tax on feminine hygiene products in every state, society must also place a greater emphasis on reproductive education and having difficult conversations if menstruation is to become normalized.
“I would start with the family, and not just Mom, but Dad and siblings of all sexes should be open to conversation,” Samanta said. “Kids ought to be informed. So there really needs to be adequate education at all levels — openness and transparency.”
Samanta acknowledges that equality is a multi-layered issue. The controversy surrounding menstruation is rooted in centuries worth of prejudice toward women. To address this prejudice, it is important that we consider all of the intersecting identities of women that contribute to their marginalization in society, such as race, class and sexuality. To progress toward the ultimate goal of achieving gender equality, we have to consider the ways in which Black women face gender discrimination differently from white women, for example. We also have to consider how lower-income families might be affected more by the stigma surrounding menstruation because of the financial burden it can present.
Girls should not have to hide their periods simply because it makes others uncomfortable.
To hide menstruation would be to conceal the biology and science that created the body we live in and breathe out of today. How will we achieve full equality for women if we can’t have open and honest conversations about our biology — the basic foundation of all human beings? This Women’s History Month, biology must be normalized. Menstruation must be normalized.