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 nature of the categories "woman/women," recognizing that women of colour, working-class women, and lesbians might have very different concerns from the white, middle-class women at the centre of Western, second-wave feminism and postmodern thought. This was true for the experiences of menstruation as well, since queer people had very different experiences of menarche than their cis-gender, heterosexual counterparts.
Forged in the 1990s, the third-wave feminism is arguably the latest and the youngest expression of feminist thought. Among other distinguishing features, the movement has seen a change in narrative, with greater emphasis on personal experiences. Third-wave feminism, born in a commonly developing understanding that the world has entered a postfeminist space, rejected the essentialism of femininity created by second-wave theorists and embraced the emerging Intersectional and Queer theories. The scope of feminist scholarship expanded to take broader themes under its ambit, and the focus diverted towards the creation of polyvocal scholarship and the inclusion of intersecting vantage points of womxn of different races, classes and sexual orientations.
The relationship third-wave feminism shares with menstruation are complex, riddled with a challenging paradox. If feminism is grounded in the lived experiences of women, what happens when the body, and ‘women’, disappear? Menstruation exists on a crucial crossroad between sex and gender, and menstrual activism provides a key to understanding the bodily agency of womxn. Contemporary menstrual activism is bifurcated into two camps: the spiritual ecofeminists and radical menstruators, both aiming ultimately at ending the shame and taboo associated with menstruation. The latter camp, aided by gender and queer theorists rejected the gender categories, and created a spur by “queering” menstruation, radically changing “women” into “menstruators”.
Radical menstruators combined the queer theories and notions of third-wave feminism to create contemporary menstrual activism. Their act of resistance primarily involves breaking free from their closeted silences and making menstruation a visible public act. Unlike the preexisting women-centric notions, radical menstruators are more inclusive; they aim to empower all gender identities by exposing how heteronormative patriarchal institutions have justified their power and control over menstruating bodies.
The Way Forward
The popular understanding of menstruation has witnessed changes in the past few decades, menstrual activism still being one of the most understudied and controversial themes of feminist scholarship. It engages in an unending crusade against the dominant cultural narrative of menstruation that constructs a normal body process particular to females as disgusting, annoying, taboo and something which is best kept hidden from the public sight and mind. Even after decades of literature being created by radical menstruators, there is a dearth of narratives from the complex intersections of race, class, or sexual orientation. The attempts to incorporate intersectional voices in the mainstream narrative has created a kind of “add on” approach, rather than one that starts from the margins, or women in subjugated class and race positions. The existing literature does not do justice to the distinguished experiences of the menses of lesbian women or those who identify as transgender, since all existing literature has an underlying heteronormative stand.
Nevertheless, the new menstrual consciousness highlights the emerging value of the social and bodily agency and promises the emergence of the powerful potential to create a social environment which strengthens the lives of girls and women through the promotion of bodily respect, health and well-being. The words ``audacious, confrontational, unpopular, and unphotogenic” eloquently sum up members of the new radical menstrual movement. The fight seeks to challenge hegemonic, patriarchal power systems like the government, and capitalism.
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