- Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology
In 1988, following the publication of the revised edition of The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, I was invited to address the Chesapeake Bay Psychoanalytic Association.1 A doctor attending the lecture said that I should not speak so openly about my own menstruation: “Why, my wife doesn’t tell me when she’s menstruating.” In other words, keep the topic in its familiar brown box, “under wraps.”
Sharra L. Vostral, who exposes the hidden aspects of menstruation in her book, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, compares the act of disguising one’s menstrual blood to an African American disguising his or her skin color. In each instance, the group deemed socially [End Page 578] inferior desires to achieve the attributes of those in power by denying their own identities. In the case of menstruation, menstrual technologies such as the sanitary napkin and the tampon have allowed women to conceal their periods and “pass” for healthy, able-bodied nonbleeders.
While other writers have discussed the hidden nature of the menstrual process, none, to my knowledge, has used the analogy of passing with such consistency. Vostral presents a fourfold argument based on her theory of menstrual passing: first, there is the “narrative act of passing” (18) through advertising, educational materials, and other accounts; second, there is the technological success of the artifact of passing, for example, the triumph of the tampon in enabling a woman to swim during her period without drawing attention to her condition; third, there is the user’s manipulation of the technology of passing as a form of empowerment; fourth, there is the evaluation of the potential dangers of the technology, as emphasized in her discussion of the Rely tampon, whose unreliable construction from polyester and chips of carboxymethylcellulose has been linked to fever, chills, toxins, rash, and even death.
Vostral notes that as part of a massive marketing campaign, Proctor & Gamble sent free samples of Rely to at least 45 million consumers. The Center for Disease Control soon became aware of a new disease associated with the increase of toxins in some women prone to a Staphylococcus aureus infection. The new disease was named Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). It was then determined that the disease was related to superabsorbent tampons, and especially to Rely. The manufacturers recalled Rely on 22 September 1980, with other companies following their example. This section is one of the most intriguing parts of Under Wraps, for it demonstrates the manner in which the trial lawyer, a male, was able to win his case against Proctor & Gamble by presenting evidence that only a woman could possibly know. The sister of Patricia Kehm, the young mother who had died in 1980 of TSS, testified that the victim was wearing a Rely tampon when she began to exhibit symptoms of fever, nausea, and chills. The subsequent trial revealed “the horrible unmasking of passing” (158).
Another strong feature of Under Wraps is Vostral’s well-documented review of women pilots and their periods during World War II. Because a visit to the infirmary for cramps and other menstrual problems could result in a diagnosis of “menstrual disorders,” women in the armed services showed a “willingness to disguise their periods, and carry on without claiming their rights of menstrual debility” (105). When the military brass questioned the pilots’ ability to fly during their periods, women were able to disguise their menses through new technologies (the tampon) and through false reporting of their cycles. One informant recalls hearing a “doctor conclud[ing] jokingly that we were a very unusual group of women because we did not menstruate” (107).
When she is addressing the issues of menstrual technologies and of passing, Vostrall’s arguments are the strongest. Less forceful are her studies of [End Page 579] the menstrual theories of Drs. Mary Jacobi, Edward Clarke, Mary Putnam, Clelia Duel Mosher, and other medical authorities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had debated the...