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  • The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America
  • Carla Bittel
Lara Freidenfelds. The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 242 pp. Ill. $60.00 (ISBN-10: 0-8018-9245-7, ISBN-13: 978-0-8018-9245-5).

In the early twentieth century, the New Woman represented aspirations of modern middle-class femininity; she seemed poised, confident, independent, and active, leaving behind the constraints of the Victorian era. She had new opportunities for education, work, and political participation. She also had a well-managed period. In her compelling book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, Lara Freidenfelds describes how modern womanhood became associated with good menstrual hygiene. She traces a dramatic shift in the prescribed behavior, attitudes, and technologies surrounding menstruation and argues that women largely embraced new hygienic practices, especially the use of disposable products, which became widely available after 1921.

Freidenfelds seeks to revise the history of menstruation by listening to the voices and memories of women and men spanning the twentieth century. Based on a series of seventy-five oral history interviews, the book includes rich excerpts from lively, humorous, and very personal conversations with the author, who shows that diverse groups of Americans generally welcomed new products and more accurate sources of information. The book challenges the notion that the hygienic imperative was "oppressive" or "potentially ominous" (pp. 7, 10). It questions a previous generation of historical literature that offered critical views of medical authority and consumerism. Freidenfelds presents a different story, arguing [End Page 529] women "collaborated" to change menstrual practices, actively following the advice of experts and seeking hygiene products that promised cleanliness, convenience, and comfort. As the author contends, "'modern' bodily management could be experienced as satisfying" and even "potentially liberating" (p. 7).

Freidenfelds begins with a prehistory of modern menstruation, when "ignorance, shame, and secrecy" defined much of the menstrual experience (p. 32). Until the early twentieth century, girls were often surprised by menarche and learned about it only gradually through experience and female family members. There was no single authority on menstruation or one explanation of its purpose. Some sources described it as a healthy evacuation of excess blood while others painted it as a precarious state and a sign of female fragility that required rest and restraint from strenuous activity. To control bleeding, women used, washed, and reused cloth pads and rags, which were of great discomfort and inconvenience. With this early history, the stage is set to illustrate major changes in personal hygiene practices.

Freidenfelds then shows how modernity transformed the language, behaviors, and management of menstruation. Women gained greater access to information about health and hygiene via Progressive Era reformers, then menstrual product manufacturers (especially Kimberly-Clark), sex educators, and school programs, and eventually films and juvenile literature (don't forget Judy Blume). Experts now said menstruation was not a serious health concern and the modern woman should be active during her period. Finally, the use of commercial hygiene products increased as manufacturers associated them with bodily control, glamour, beauty, success, work productivity, and leisure. Moreover, they became a sign of middle-class status and Americanization. The author, expecting to see diverse reactions, surprisingly found that young women from different regions, classes, and racial/ethnic backgrounds responded similarly to these changes and even helped propel them.

In Freidenfelds's fascinating book, we hear about women's struggles, discomfort, and embarrassment with menstruation as well as their relief that hygiene products and greater physical freedom arrived in their lifetimes. And yet scholars have shown that new standards for health and beauty demanded more of women as well. Then, as now, a powerful consumer culture promises "freedom" and empowerment through purchases while constantly raising the bar on physical perfection and bodily control. As historians revisit the history of menstruation, the next step may be to refrain from weighing oppression versus liberation since modern menstrual management is simultaneously less burdensome and more demanding. Instead, we can analyze the social forces and political interests that produce knowledge, shape technologies, and frame gender identities and experiences. Ultimately, Freidenfelds's book will engage both scholars and students in important discussions about the impact of...


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pp. 529-530
Launched on MUSE
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