Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

SMCR Member Profile: Leading the way on menstrual activism research

July 19th, 2016 by Editor

Chris Bobel, PhD (Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee), Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, University of Massachusetts—Boston

Image of Chris Bobel by Lunette

Image of Chris Bobel by Lunette

When and/or why did you join the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research?
I gave a paper at a conference and in the Q &A, someone suggested I contact Elizabeth Kissling who was doing similar work. In her gracious and generous reply to my email, Liz told me about SMCR, urging me to join and attend the next conference. So I did. I felt like I found my tribe—like-minded feminist scholars, activists and others who saw the value in studying menstrual health while so many of my colleagues just did not ‘get’ it. I remain eternally grateful for this community.

How did you become interested in doing menstrual cycle research?
It grew out of my interest in alternativity and micro-level social change. I had written a book (based on my doctoral dissertation) about what I called ‘natural mothers’—many of whom cloth diaper, co-sleep, breastfeed beyond the second year, homeschool, etc. I thought I had heard about most of the DIY approaches to home and body care. But I was wrong. At the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival one summer, I attended a menstrual activism workshop (Ax Tampax presented by the now defunct Montreal-based Bloodsisters). Here, I learned how menstrual health and menstrual care are fundamentally political and deeply feminist issues. I learned how we actually have OPTIONS to care for our menstruating bodies. I felt like I had glimpsed a rich and wonderful world of new activism and I had to know more. That began a 7-year period of study that resulted in my book New Blood, the first book-length study of menstrual activism. When I wrote that book, I had no idea how much the movement would grow and spread. I worried I was chasing something relatively small, fringy and inconsequential. But now we are seeing the mainstreaming of menstruation across the globe!

Which researcher or paper influenced or inspired you to pursue research in this area?
When I accessed SMCR, I met Phyllis Mansfield, Joan Chrisler, Alice Dan, Ingrid-Johnston-Robledo and Peggy Stubbs—and I read their work and realized how much important scholarship on menarche, menstruation and menopause existed. I was impressed by the spot-on feminist critiques of cycle-stopping contraception—a really helpful model of calling out the manipulation of science against women’s best interests. And I was drawn to Liz Kissling’s work. I learned a lot from her book Capitalizing on the Curse, a smart analysis of how the insidious marriage of capitalism and misogyny plays out on women’s bodies. 

What are the primary areas of your menstrual cycle research?
Menstrual activism—which is moving at breakneck speed. I am fascinated by the body as a site of resistance, which gives rise to so many interesting and provocative interventions. But I am also interested in well-meaning activist efforts that sometimes lose their way, especially in the global development space.

Where can visitors to our blog read about your work on menstruation?
Most of my published work is archived here.

What is your current research or work in this area?
I am working on a book based on my fieldwork and textual analysis of 40+ menstrual hygiene management (MHM) initiatives in the global south. I am wrestling with how many of these campaigns, while benevolently motivated, may in fact construct an overly-simplified consumerist approach to a complex set of issues. And these ‘fixes’ may, ironically, ultimately accommodate rather than resist menstrual shame and secrecy. 

How has the field of menstrual cycle research changed since you entered this area?
It has grown and diversified, but let me just address the huge growth in interest in menstruation.

People across sectors—journalists, NGO founders and staff, social entrepreneurs, funders, state agents, and scholars—are finding their way to this issue. I wish I could put my finger on why NOW menstruation is having its moment. There’s been scholarship, there’s been activism, but it is now getting attention. Is it because of social media? Is it new products on the market? Is it related to cultural shifts to challenge the gender binary? Part of the socially media-enabled capacity to see activist potential in EVERYTHING? The newest wave of seeing the political in the personal? Probably a bit of all of the above?

But why not sooner? I think marginalization of the research is the consequence of the devious brilliance of menstrual stigma. We don’t research what we don’t know much about and we don’t know much about what we are find dirty, shameful, inconvenient. I think there has been, until recently, a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance breeding shame and shame breeding ignorance that we are now interrupting. I just hope we don’t cede this movement to the product makers. The menstrual revolution won’t be meaningful if all we end up with are better products in hands that already have them and commercial products in the hands of those who currently use rags. What we need much, much more is an attitudinal shift. If we don’t challenge the very idea that menstruation is shameful, no product in the world, no latrine, no disposal system, no puberty health curriculum, will substantially and durably change the lives of menstruators. 

For information on becoming a member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research contact us by email: Subject line: Membership.

Will this 2015 menstrual moment make room for all bodies?

November 16th, 2015 by Chris Bobel

This post was first published under the title The Year the Period Went Public on November 12, 2015 on Gender & Society, a publication of Sociologists for Women in Society. It is crossposted here with permission.

By Chris Bobel

In this month’s issue, Cosmopolitan dubbed 2015 “the year the period went public” [It is also the year I, for the first time ever, agreed with Cosmo.]

2015 has brought us a tremendous diversity of menstrual-positive expressions—from the artistic to the practical, the serious and the playful, local and the global.

Photo: RUPI KAUR / INSTAGRAM. Posted with permission.

Photo: RUPI KAUR / INSTAGRAM. Posted with permission.

2015 is the year that Instagram blew up when Rupi Kaur’s photo of her period –stained PJ pants was “accidentally” [twice] removed, and free-bleeding Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon. It is the year that efforts to de-tax menstrual products succeeded in Canada and gained momentum in Australia, Britain, and the United States  while efforts  to “de-tox” the same products, through the Robin Danielson Bill re-introduced in Congress this May, gets unprecedented press attention .

2015 brought us Barbie-alternative Yammily’s “Period Party”– a kit with an educational pamphlet, a doll-sized menstrual care kit including a pair of panties and 15 reusable pads.

In 2015, the unique menstrual challenges of women and girls living on the streets inspired a raft of grassroots campaigns, and a global movement to improve menstrual health for women and girls worldwide is thriving. For example, on May 28, 2015, the 3rd global Menstrual Hygiene Day was recognized through 127 events in 33 countries.

Periods are Not an Insult

Finally, in 2015 nearly everyone rolled their eyes when Donald impugned GOP debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying she had “blood coming out of her wherever“–the most recent in the misogynist tradition of using menstruation to rationalize the perception of gendered  incompetence. But, this time, we reacted differently. In 2015, Twitter slapped back with #periodsarenotaninsult.

Considered together, these events constitute a shift. Menstruation IS having its moment. I know, because I’ve had my ear to the ground for more than a decade and most of what I’ve heard is PMS jokes, goofy menstrually-theme bits in sitcoms and films, and of course, ubiquitous product ads [cue white woman in white pants on white horse].

I am not sure what’s in the soil that is sprouting this new awareness. No doubt, it is the same soil that is nurturing women’s expressions of frustration with stigma, as evinced by the new #shoutyourabortion campaign and the media frenzy swirling around Katha Pollit’s new book Pro.

Maybe the shift is an outgrowth of our breathlessly social-mediated realities, where what’s happening—literally—in one’s own pants can be shared with a few swipes or clicks. Or might the transformation in discourse be the next best example of a micro-level lifestyle movement that galvanizes the personal into a neo-political? I am not sure, but as we ponder this, a bigger question surfaces:

Is the Movement We’ve Been Waiting For?

For bodies with privilege (cisgendered, white, non-disabled, thin and so on), challenging menstrual invisibility and menstrual shame IS perhaps the last frontier. After all, the menstrual body IS abject; it is reviled because it challenges norms of the hyper-disciplined feminine body. The way menstruation and womanhood is socially constructed is perhaps the most vexing of patriarchy’s pernicious contradictions.

But we can’t lose sight of how the politics or respectability is intricately wound up in who can and cannot afford to smash any embodied taboo, least of all the menstrual mandate of silence and secrecy. Thus, the entire black body, trans body, disabled body, and fat body, for example, are read as abject–as deficit and thus, at risk. A blog post at “Crazy Cranky Sexy Cool”  said it best: “So you can put period blood war paint on your face, and yes, in your context, it will probably be subversive and revolutionary. For the rest of us just going outside, walking in the streets, exposing our vulnerable, repulsive bodies is subversive and radical.”

We Can Do Better

So while we are celebrating a new era of menstrual awareness, we need to be mindful of who is authorized to dance at the new party. As we tweet our periods at Donald Trump, we must, at the same time, consider the lived realities of those of us who occupy a social space that vibrates—all day, every day—with peril. We have to remember that some bodies, to invoke Audre Lorde ‘were never meant to survive.’

If menstrual activists can practice some good ole self-reflexivity, noting how our particularly cozy social locations enable us to take these risks, we can build a bridge. If not, we merely prescribe a one-size-fits-all kind of new menstrual consciousness that keeps the movement small and fringy.

We can do better if we seize the chance to see the power of dominant culture to treat some bodies very differently (and very dangerously) than others. If we do, we can make this menstrual moment a powerful opportunity for authentically reckoning with our differences and shape a discourse that makes room for all bodies—bloody and otherwise–far beyond 2015.

Chris Bobel, president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, is Associate Professor of  Women’s and Gender Studies  at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Her areas of expertise include the politics of embodiment, health and social change, and the intersection of feminist theory and action. She is the author of  New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (Rutgers University Press, 2010).

Of Menstruators and Manhole Covers

February 20th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Feminists of a certain age may recall debates about changing sexist language, and the ways feminists were once mocked for insisting on replacing sex-specific terms such as policeman with police officer, fireman with firefighter, stewardess with flight attendant and the so-called generic pronouns he and him with he or she, him or her or they and their. When I tell you that students in my Cultural Studies class last fall asked why Althusser only wrote about men, it’s easy to think those battles have been won. But only about half of the 50 U.S. states have changed their official government documents to use gender-neutral language.

The fact that today’s young people do not understand the generic use of man is just one indicator of the power of language. It matters which words we use to name and describe our world; language both reflects and shapes the way we see the world and our place in it. As a feminist scholar of media and women’s health and sexuality issues, I’ve become increasingly mindful of how labels can be inclusive or exclusive. Anyone who cares about public health usually tries to use the most inclusive labels possible. That’s why blood banks ask if you’ve had sex with men who have sex with men, for example, instead of asking if you’re gay.

Much of my published research deals with media representations of menstruation, so it caught my eye last month when a prominent women’s studies professor posted the following remark on a very active women’s studies mailing list:

There is something a bit problematic going on in menstruation politics. It seems we are required, for sake of politeness to male-bodied transgenders, to pretend that men menstruate too.

She then quoted a paragraph from a book review that referred to radical menstruation and used the term menstruators rather than women or women who menstruate. (Full disclosure: I recognized immediately that the book had to be New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation by my good friend Chris Bobel, a brilliant ethnographic study of feminist activism around menstruation.)

I cite this example without naming the professor or the list because I am neither interested in calling out an individual nor shaming a group. I cite it because I want to talk about why it is important to write of menstruators, not merely a matter of politeness to transmen. (It should go without saying that politeness to transmen is also important.)

Menstruation exists at the crossroads of sex and gender, as Chris wrote in New Blood. It is a biological function, but like every other biological function its meanings are cultural, and the biology cannot be separated from the culture. The activists Chris interviewed emphasized two important biological facts often overlooked in our cultural interpretations of menstruation:

  1. Not all women menstruate.
  2. Not only women menstruate.

Some women don’t menstruate because of diseases, cancers, surgeries, pregnancy (although they may still bleed) or menopause. Other women don’t menstruate because they don’t have functioning uteruses, fallopian tubes or vaginas; maybe they were born that way or maybe they are transwomen. And yes, there are some people who don’t identify as women who do menstruate. Some of them are transmen. Some of them are intersex. Some may have fully functioning uteruses, ovaries and vaginas but may identify as genderqueer, transgender, third gender or something else entirely. They are menstruators, but they are not women.

Calling them menstruators is just like changing other biased language. It helps us tell the truth about our lives, and challenge both gender essentialism and biological determinism. It reminds us that our bodies do not determine our identities, and that we are so much more than merely bodies. Some of us are people who happen to menstruate, some of the time. Using menstruators instead of women also helps make vital health information available to everyone who needs it—not just women.

In Washington, the state where I live, the legislature just unanimously approved a bill that is the fifth and final installment of a multi-year effort to replace male-dominated language from the state code with gender-neutral language. Under the new code, penmanship will become handwriting, freshmen will be first-year students and watchmen will become security guards.

But they still cannot find a gender-neutral term for manhole cover. In a world where we can find a gender-neutral name for men who menstruate, they’re just not trying hard enough.

Cross-posted at Ms. Magazine Blog, February 11, 2013

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.