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Periods in sociobiology: the status of women and sanitary protection

By Valerie Yule - posted Friday, 13 May 2016


I read about a tribe where women walk bandy-legged because of the scratching from the grasses they use as sanitary protection during menstrual periods.

The status of women depends not only upon education, but also on what is available for what is euphemistically called feminine hygiene.  Until recently, this was not a topic for polite discussion, and women have suffered because of this. As a non-medical person, I have never read anything about its social significance except in anthropological writing.  It is a sociobiological issue, similar to how Chadwick’s pioneering of clean water supplies has had more to do with eradicating cholera and typhoid than anything medical science could do. There may not be a simple answer of tampons for everyone, however.

When human females’ menstrual cycles began to differ from the oestrus patterns in other mammals, there were significant effects in making possible the development of human mating and family behaviour. But humans also developed another characteristic - thinking about what they observed.

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Early humans could not understand the biology of female menstruation, and different societies developed different ways of trying to socialise the phenomenon so to speak - commonly but not always by fear, revulsion, isolation and adding it to the fact of male superior physical strength as a further reason for lower status for women.  Even in modern times, it has been known for celibate priests to be advised to think about female menstruation to help resist the temptations of the flesh.

For pre-pubertal children, this aspect of the ‘facts of life’ in public sex education can be counter-productive in the formation of attitudes to women. Adolescents can be ambivalent about how much this messenger of adulthood is welcome.  Coping with the monthly flow has never been easy until recent times. Many traditional patterns of behaviour, especially seclusion and reduced mobility for women, derived from earlier lack of suitable sanitary protection, and continued long after more adequate materials were available.  The segregation and the cleansing rituals could be continued and justified by accreted religious sanctions, so that nobody remembered the original stimulus - as has often happened with religious tenets.

In some places, women have had to resort to walnut shells, grass tufts and other inconveniences that kept them less than able for a week per month. Serial pregnancies reduce that problem, but at the cost of another.

Wools and furs were a softer improvement. The invention of weaving was more dramatic still, because rags and woven grasses could be used, although these were still not pleasant to use, wash or dispose of.  When Isaiah condemned God’s People because ‘all our righteousness is as filthy menstrual clouts’, there was no stronger language he could use. (Isaiah 64.6.  English translations usually euphemise this as ‘filthy rags’.)

Imagination boggles at how women coped with their periods as civilisations developed long and cumbersome clothing that kept aristocratic women, particularly, in a disabled status. Thick layers of petticoats.  Crinolines? What did they do in the absurd courts of Versailles and the other eighteenth century royal theatricals? One might suspect a cover-up job that was pretty revolting.

However, with affluence come the possibilities of better laundering and the affordability of disposal.  The invention of the safety pin must have been of huge benefit in allowing women to continue to be physically active, less encumbered and more secure. But even in my own adolescence, there were material reasons why we could not swim or do acrobatics during the flow of periods.

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Complete freedom has come with tampons and pills. Neither is yet the perfect solution for all women. Users of tampons must be able to have clean hands during insertion; there must be protection from risks of cervical or other infections or abrasions.  However, without tampons and the increasing sophistication of external pads, it would be difficult for women to be able to claim entry into every occupation there is, including space, in war, and in gruelling Olympic sports.

Small things are easily overlooked, as if size was the measure for importance or triviality. Schumacher observed that Small is Beautiful.  Small can also be critical, like the flutter of the butterfly’s stamping, that Kipling rather mocked, but chaos theory respects. In promoting education for women as the most effective way to both raise their status and limit disastrous population growth, availability of convenient sanitary protection is a must.

There are continuing problems. The three greatest are poverty, water and population growth.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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