The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Leavitt, Judith Walzer
Pub Date: 12/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Freidenfelds, Lara
Accession Number: 248907022
Full Text: The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. By Lara Freidenfelds (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 242 pp.).

In its simplest sense, this history of menstruation in the United States during the twentieth century is a story of progress and modern advancement. Over the century, women gained--through new science and technology, school-based education, and advertising--a better way to manage their menstrual cycles. Lara Freidenfelds argues that the "modern period" is an improvement on past millennia of practices, when women monthly wore uncomfortable and reusable cloth to catch the flow and girls were ill informed (if informed at all) about menarche and its management. The new menstrual practices represent a radical and relatively fast historical shift, brought about by sex educators, physical education, new technology, and increasingly efficient menstrual products. Changes in health beliefs and practices marked an increased striving toward middle-class American ideals and were keyed to Progressive reform and rational science as well as to a vision of the well-managed modern body.

Freidenfelds is sensitive to the potentially "whiggish" narrative she tells and does a good job of seeking to make it more complex and nuanced. She interviewed 75 women and men of different generations, finding them by the "snowball" method, representing for the most part three different groups (white New Englanders, Southern African Americans, and Chinese-American Californians) and uses their stories effectively to personalize and expand upon the archival and secondary materials. She expected to find cultural differences among these groups, but, except for tampon use, which merits its own chapter, she found "an amazingly robust shared vision of 'modern' menstrual management." (7) And even with tampons, the differences were that Chinese-American young women were slightly more reluctant to go against their family traditions and thus used tampons later than the other groups. She made up names for her interviewees and does not include those names in the book's index, making it difficult for the reader to follow individuals. Nonetheless, their stories are poignant and revealing.

The hook follows three constituent parts of the story - education, or the scientific narrative; changing health beliefs and practices; and technology and the body - over the century. Freidenfelds begins with a short historical look at practices before modern menstrual management, then focuses on early twentieth-century women, who followed many of those traditional patterns. Mothers generally did not tell their daughters what to expect or give them much practical help with managing their monthly cycles. Girls shared information among themselves and vowed to inform their own daughters more thoroughly. Early women washed their menstrual cloths and reused them, which put many in the predicament of being found out by other family members. Culturally, with all the groups, menstruation was not something to be talked about or made publicly evident. Although disposable sanitary napkins were available from the 1880s, they were not widely adopted before Kotex appeared in 1921. Kimberly Clark carried out an advertising blitz about their new absorbent cellucotton and in the 1920s and 1930s convinced even women whose budgets were tight to stretch their money to cover the disposable and much more convenient napkins. Other products and brands followed rapidly, although Kotex had 70% of the market through 1953, and women made the switch rather quickly. When schools introduced sex education and girls learned the basics away from home, mothers actually expanded their own conversations and sharing with their daughters and menstruation became a more public subject that even could be talked about with brothers and boyfriends. Judy Blume's widely read book on the subject in the 1970s expanded the discussion, as did TV and movies. But until the very recent period, women continued to find it awkward to converse about menstruation. Women's experiences over the generations have changed dramatically and the trajectory has been toward greater and greater ease and comfort, in practice and in cultural conversation.

Some of the story of women's adoption of sanitary products has been told elsewhere, and the subject touches on other areas of women's personal hygiene and care such as birth control and cosmetics that historians have recently examined. Freidenfelds is careful to put her story into the context of this other work, and more thoroughly into the story of modernization, advertising, and the rising middle class. But there are two other areas that could have been profitably pursued. One is about language. She notes terms her interviewees used to discuss menstruation, "period," "on the rag," "monthlies," or "flowers," (she did not mention the term my mother used, "unwell") but she did not stop to talk about those terms, or to examine how they changed over time or group, which might have been revealed some interesting variations. The second omission was the context of the second wave of feminism. Freidenfelds mentions a few times that women growing up during and after the feminist revolution understood and experienced their bodies differently than earlier women, but she does not analyze changing menstrual experiences specifically in terms or the women's health movement, which occurred during an important period of transition. Our Bodies Ourselves - an enormously influential and often revised book that hundreds of thousands of women relied on for their health information after 1973 - is not mentioned. The historical analysis would have been richer if this context had been examined more fully and incorporated more explicitly into the story of menstruation changes.

Despite these oversights, this book adds rich, varied, and interesting dimensions to what we knew about this important subject, and it should become required reading for anyone interested in the health of twentieth-century women. Looking in depth at women's monthly experiences with their menstrual cycles and showing how they changed over time and how generations of women became part of the process of change in their interactions with physicians, educators, and industry is fascinating and important. The women's (and men's) voices are eloquent and moving. Freidenfelds understands how medical science, cultural values and practices, education, technology, and economic interests came together in women's intimate lives; her book demonstrates careful and nuanced scholarship.

Judith Walzer Leavitt

University of Wisconsin, Madison
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