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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
 
Med Hist. 2010 October; 54(4): 564–565.
PMCID: PMC2948699

Book Reviews

The modern period: menstruation in twentieth-century America
Reviewed by Anna M Piechowski

Lara Freidenfelds,  The modern period: menstruation in twentieth-century America,  Baltimore,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  2009, pp.  242, £31.00, $60.00 (hardback  978-0-80189245-5). 

Although American women (and men) may take contemporary menstrual knowledge, education, and products for granted, Lara Freidenfelds, in her book The modern period, reminds us that our current ideas concerning menstruation and its management are neither inevitable nor given. Rather, through a skilful weaving of archival and interview sources, Freidenfelds demonstrates how contemporary menstrual management was born from a cooperative effort between “experts” and ordinary women operating within a particular nexus of modern beliefs and practices. Ultimately, Freidenfelds concludes that the modern way of managing menstruation allowed women to fashion and control their bodies in accordance with a particular set of class and racial standards, as well as in ways that enhanced comfort, lessened anxiety, and fostered feelings of liberation.

Organizing her book into five thematic chapters, as opposed to chronologically, Freidenfelds cleverly demonstrates how the transition from “old-fashioned” to “modern” menstrual management was far from “common sense”. Separately tracing the developments of menstrual education, health beliefs, and management, the author shows how intersecting advances and changing beliefs in science and technology, as well as the industrialization and urbanization of America, combined to create the need and desire for efficient, controlled bodies that could function to their full capacity each day of the month. Additionally, modern menstrual management could not have advanced without an emerging and expanding middle class, and the hygienic beliefs and appearances it espoused, as well as a burgeoning consumer culture that offered a wide range of products to help individuals attain a middle-class hygienic ideal. Key to this transition were progressive ideals, particularly faith in science as an explanatory power and a tool for the betterment of society. This faith fostered increased education efforts and lessened concerns about activities disturbing the menstrual flow. Moreover, it generated and supported the expectation that women could carry on with their normal activities all month long, aided, of course, by ever-improving menstrual technology, such as pads, tampons, deodorants, and medications. Freidenfelds shows that not one, but all of these factors were necessary in order to persuade women to switch from homemade cloth pads to disposable items, as well as participate in more open education, discussion, and display of menstruation and menstrual products.

Freidenfelds is careful to note, however, that this transition did not occur all at once. Rather, it was an ongoing negotiation between women and marketers, educators, and health professionals that crossed classes, races, and generations. A chapter on the medical and social controversies surrounding tampons shows that not all menstrual modernization was welcomed enthusiastically. This negotiation, however, is best illustrated by the author's use of interview material from seventy-five women and men of different ages, class, and racial backgrounds. The words of these individuals demonstrate not only the piecemeal way in which modern menstrual practices were adopted, but also the struggles, joys, and humour both women and men found in making menstruation modern, adding a unique and engaging touch to the text.

Disappointing in this otherwise well-written and entertaining account, however, is Freidenfelds’ characterization of the march of menstrual progress as doing away with a substantial amount of menstrual shame. Although she notes that the increased menstrual “openness” of modernity is constrained to particular locations and discourses, she seems to insist that this circumscription is not necessarily problematic for women, both as individuals and as a gender construct. While it certainly is important to remember the positive, liberatory impact that new menstrual knowledges and management had on many women's lives, it is equally important to acknowledge the utilization of these same knowledges and practices to shame, denigrate, and control women's bodies by extension of their bodily processes.


Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press