Free menstrual products are essential for dignity and empowerment

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Scotland has staked a position at the forefront of an international menstrual equity movement. In mid-August, it became the first country in the world to require municipalities to provide free menstrual products to all who need them.

While such legislation may seem antithetical to America’s commitment to free markets, history indicates that in a modern economy and society, access to menstrual products is critical for dignity, empowerment, and upward mobility.

Before the 1920s, most women washed and reused cloth sanitary pads. If they were rich, they had soft cotton pads made of new cloth, and if not, they used all the rags they could steal. The poorer women bled on their petticoats.

“Mary Hanson,” as I will call her (all names in this story are pseudonyms), who was born in the Boston area just after the turn of the 20th century, explained how cumbersome these dressings were. “We didn’t have Kotex. We had diapers.” Menstrual care was infantilizing and frustrating. The pads jutted out front and back, and the pin that attached them to the belt jutted out. As Hanson reflected, “It was like putting you in a harness!”

Meanwhile, towards the end of the 19th century, some wealthy women began making their own disposable cotton pads for sanitary napkins, and the Sears catalog listed disposable ones. Lister’s Towels for a few years beginning in 1896.

But it was in the 1920s, with the introduction of Kotex, that disposable towels really took off. It was a time when flappers wore revealing body-hugging dresses and working women moved to the city to find work behind department store counters and as office typists.

Progressive activists had promoted middle-class values ​​and aspirations among the many immigrants who had come to American cities in the preceding decades. Since the vast majority of Americans aspired to join the middle class, they sought jobs that required the finesse, poise, cleanliness, and self-control attributed to professionals.

Kotex and its more affordable imitators allowed women to control their bodies and their periods, empowering them to meet these expectations and achieve upward mobility. Even amid resistance from retailers nervous about putting a sensitive product on their shelves, by 1927 several million women were using disposable pads.

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However, this transformation was not without drama for many women, because they were defying the traditions of their mothers. Ida Smithson, for example, was born in the late 1910s into a family of dark tobacco sharecroppers in the rural South. She had six older sisters, and yet no one told her that she was expecting her first period. “I remember being at school and I had this accident, I thought, and I came home crying, telling my mom. She didn’t put her arms around me; she didn’t do anything. She just said, ‘Well, go get a cloth and stick it inside your pants.’ ”

Smithson learned more from “some wise boys at school.” When his older brother, who took over the family after his father’s death, gave him a small allowance, he used that money to buy a box of Kotex, which he described as a necessity. But he had to “keep it hidden,” he recalled. She wasn’t sure how her mother would feel about her decision to start “being modern, wearing Kotex, all this kind of stuff.”

Smithson’s concern about her mother’s reaction was not uncommon, as many American families still clung to traditional beliefs about menstruation that had been encouraged by folk medicine and elite medicine for centuries.

Many women had learned that bathing during menstruation was dangerous and that a chill at that time of the month could cause permanent weakness. Smithson recalled, “I knew some girls at school who didn’t change their towels and when they got up you could smell them.” The girls had learned that washing during menstruation posed health risks. According to Smithson, “Some people did not wash during the all time.

But modern young women like Smithson understood that these traditional practices were not compatible with the growing middle-class mores around bodily management, whether at school or at work, and the stigma increasingly attached to them. “We’d laugh about it, we’d say, ‘My God, don’t let it get up!’ you know. So we were cruel.”

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As Smithson and her friends made clear to their more traditional peers, institutions like schools and offices that promoted upward mobility would not be welcoming places for those who would not bathe during their periods and use Kotex, or who could not afford Kotex. . Traditional menstrual customs were more compatible with the poorly compensated agricultural and domestic labor sectors to which African Americans had long been relegated.

Modern menstrual care was not enough to create upward mobility, but it was necessary. The stains and odors associated with menstrual pads disqualified a person from a modern workplace.

Once women adopted modern menstrual practices for themselves, they were eager to pass them on to their daughters. Smithson wanted to save her daughters from the shock and anguish he had faced at menarche, teach them how to wash and use Kotex, and provide basic sex education. She explained that she wouldn’t want anyone to “go through what I went through being DUMB, DUMB.”

Disposable menstrual products became the platform for health and sex education that Smithson saw as the foundation for her family’s upward mobility. Like millions of modern American mothers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Smithson gave each of her daughters an educational booklet on the menstrual cycle published by Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kotex, before they had their first periods.

Building on the trust she established with the gift of the booklet, Smithson continued to communicate openly with her daughters and monitor their cycles to help them avoid teen pregnancies. In a community where it was common for girls to become pregnant, drop out of school, and then earn a living washing and doing other housework for white families, Smithson had the satisfaction of seeing her children go to college and graduate.

The use of disposable pads continued to mark class differences well into the 1950s. Liza O’Malley, born in the 1930s to a white, blue-collar Catholic family in suburban Boston, recalled that poor girls with those who went to school “wore clothes. And they used to call him ‘the rag,’ and that always made me feel very uncomfortable.” She made menstruation “feel dirty” for her. Dorothy Joyce, from a similar background, recalled the unpleasant smell of those used rags boiling on the stove at a friend’s house.

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In the coming decades, the old traditions around menstruation were almost completely superseded. Educational brochures produced since the 1920s by pad and tampon manufacturers became more popular as a way for mothers like Smithson to help their daughters have a calmer, happier and more empowered way into menarche.

“The Menstruation Story,” a film created by Disney for Kimberly-Clark in 1946, quickly became a staple in fifth-grade classrooms as menstruation education became a standard part of curricula. of sex education studies in public schools. The middle-class health professionals who wrote these materials strongly believed that modern ways of managing menstruation could empower girls. Modern times were the norm, embraced by mothers and daughters, educators and manufacturers eager to sell disposable products.

Today it is taken for granted that girls in schools and women in the workplace should be able to manage their periods in a modern way: with products that are comfortable and effective, that keep their users stain-free, odor-free and without distractions, backed by modern knowledge of health and sexual education. But the reality is that period poverty still sometimes keeps the less wealthy out of schools and workplaces once a month. About 16.9 million menstruating Americans live in povertyY studies suggest that most of them find it difficult to buy the menstrual products they need. almost a quarter of American teens worry each month about getting the supplies they need to attend class with their peers, even foregoing meals to buy sanitary pads.

The modern periods were part of what empowered women like Ida Smithson and her daughters to make their way into the broad American middle class. History suggests that a free menstrual products program, especially if tied to strong health and sex education, could support that opportunity for more Americans today.