• Katyayni Sharma

Locating the Experiences of Queer Menstruation in the Feminist Discourse

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Sharma, K(2020, November 11). Locating the Experiences of Queer Menstruation in the Feminist Discourse.

The aim of this article is to understand the genesis of narratives around menstruation in terms of social power structures and explaining how the present narratives around menstruation add to the status that womxn and menstruators have in the social order. The article will analyse the emergence of Second Wave Feminism and the subsequent Women’s Health Movement, followed by an analysis of Third-wave feminism and the radicalized menstrual consciousness. It seeks to parallelly place new forms of menstrual activism with the advent of modern queer feminism.


Feminism and Menstruation: A History

There are few terms used in modern parlance which can yield reactions as polar and prompt as Feminism and Menstruation. In the broadest possible sense, feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women. Feminism includes sociological, political and philosophical theories relating to gender equality, as well as the force needed to advocate campaigns rights for women. Although the term ‘feminist’ did not come into popular understanding until the 1970s, its use in the public sphere was sporadically present earlier. One example of this is Katherine Hepburn speaking of the "feminist movement" in the 1942 film Woman of the Year. The history of feminism can be understood by dividing it into three waves. Roughly, the first feminist wave was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the second was in the 1960s and 1970s, and the third extends from the 1990s to the present.


While the underlying current of all three waves is greater rights and equality for women, the aims, common path and mobilisation they concurred were drastically different. What started as an extended period of feminist activity in the USA and UK aiming at equal contract and property rights for women, soon morphed into the growing demand for a better quality of life altogether, with raised demands for suffrage, and better sexual, reproductive and economic rights. The latter part of the movement paved a clear path for second-wave feminism. Decades of struggle for cultural, economic and social equality, can be summed up in the phrase “The Personal is Political”, coined by the feminist activist and author Carol Hanisch. Starting in the 1990s, the third wave of feminism sought to build upon the perceived failures of the second wave, and often focuses on “micro-politics”, challenging the paradigm of femininity created by its predecessor.


A process as intricately perceived and related to the experiences of femininity, one would assume that menstruation would find absolute representation in feminist literature. However, this is not the case, and as an ironic reality, any literature on menstruation was scarce before the 1970s and 1980s. A plethora of feminist scholarship on women’s bodies work exists pertaining to the reproductive systems, menstruation likely suffered under the shadows since it did not exactly collaborate with the core issues second-wave feminism was fighting for.

Second Wave Feminism and the Women’s Health Movement

Second-wave feminism had a set of social issues that it focused largely upon in its fight for reproductive rights, ranging from the establishment of rape crisis centres and battered women shelters, while parallelly fighting for an end to workplace discrimination and harassment. The movement tried to make women conscious of their bodies and its unique processes by initiating the widespread women’s health movement, but in terms of menstrual activism. It was more reactive than proactive, mobilising only in the face of extreme health conditions, like Toxic Shock Syndrome.


The women’s health movement starting in the 1960s USA singled out three maxims of chief concerns against the healthcare being provided to women at large: a growing disappointment with the medical profession; increased doubt over the safety, and to a lesser degree environmental sustainability, of mass-produced menstrual products; and a surge of distrust involving pharmaceutical companies. This ushered a new conscious effort by women to question the healthcare being provided to them, powered by the newfound feeling of a lack of control over their bodies. In this new struggle, menstruation found some recognition, mostly with respect to alternative menstrual hygiene products like the diaphragm, sea sponges, and the Tassaway cup. The themes of menstruation began gaining some recognition as a topic worthy of feminist scholarship. Despite these efforts, menstruation continued to be in the peripheries of the feminist discourse, well until the 1980s, when the Toxic Shock Syndrome ushered a new health crisis in the USA.


Third Wave Feminism and the Rise of a New Menstrual Consciousness

Menstruation has been associated with a number of things - pain, impurity, menace - to name a few. Over the years, as periods became destigmatized, the previous association began to loosen, but their relationship with womanhood remained socially unchallenged. This changed with the emergence of queer theories. Queer theory and queer studies are approaches that date to the late 1980s and early 1990s. Queering approaches emerged from earlier gay and lesbian studies and the feminist theory, as it questioned the unitary na