How are we to understand menstruation in our modern world? Is it “like a vestigial organ, left over from an outworn evolutionary stage, or could it be the accompaniment of some hitherto unused ability in women?” (Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.13). If it is the first option, it is little wonder that with the aid of pharmaceuticals, many women are choosing to reduce or eliminate their monthly menstrual cycle. If the latter is true, humanity is in danger of disregarding a gift, given through women, but potentially beneficial to all. In their seminal book on menstruation, The Wise Wound, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove introduce a daring and controversial proposition: “Suppose that society is a lie, and that the period is a moment of truth which will not sustain lies” (ibid). Suppose indeed that menstruation, maligned and rejected in our culture, is in fact threatening because it is powerful. The anthropologist George Devereux says that “the menstruating woman can be defined as both sacred and dangerous, and in a good many ways, as “sacred because dangerous”, and “dangerous because sacred”’ (Devereux, 1950, p. 252).
The Red Death is an enquiry into the recent trend towards menstrual suppression that is occurring over the Western world. For the first time in history women can choose to opt out of menstruation with the aid of a new type of oral contraceptive (OCP’s), known as ‘menstrual suppressants’. While many women are relieved to be freed from the “curse”, others are concerned about the long-term health implications of this procedure. My own concerns are less tangible: while I am naturally concerned about the health risks of menstrual suppression to women’s bodies, I am also troubled by the potential loss of women’s emotional, psychic and spiritual well being. On a darker note, I am uneasy about what appears to be control and manipulation of women’s bodies and women’s power- history shows us that misogynist attitudes have been instrumental in shaping and containing knowledge within religious, cultural and academic institutions. Throughout this essay I offer some examples of institutionalized misogyny which implicitly or otherwise collude in the control of women’s bodies.
Menstrual suppression also raises deeper questions about our human relationship with the non-human worlds, the animal and plant kingdom, the waters of life and the cycles of the moon. Ecology, then, how we interact and co-exist with the world around us is of importance to this enquiry. At the centre I place the flowing blood of menstruation as a symbol of renewal: “The main theme of the Goddess symbolism” says Maria Gimbutas, “is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life, not only human life but all life on earth and indeed in the whole cosmos” (Gimbutas, 1989, xix).
We have moved, in our modern scientific culture, “from enhanced control over external nature to the harnessing and transformation of internal nature” (Clarke, quoted in Fosket and Mamo, 2009, p. 927). And in our pursuit of knowledge we have developed technologies capable of “transforming life itself” (ibid). On this human odyssey towards perfecting life something is being lost, something is forgotten … On reaching the point of no return, the pinnacle of human mastery over nature, can we can boldly cross into a ‘brave new world’, protected at last from the “devouring Mother”? (Neumann, 1994, p.177). The Sufi Mystic, Ibn Arabi tells us that “universal nature is the feminine, or the maternal side of the creative act and is the merciful breathing-out of God” (quoted in Marshal, 1996, p.157), but science, intent on “wrestling the secrets from nature to gain mastery over its operations” (Merchant, 1980, p.111), is in danger of violating all that is sacred.
In an anonymous text called the Purissima Revelation, there is caution against usurping nature in our attempt to steal the ‘Golden Fleece’ And woe to him, who, like Jason, lets himself be seduced by his dangerous conquest and submits to nature the sorceress, instead of remaining constant and true to his divine bride, wisdom” (Quoted in Marshall, 1996, p.157). Guidance on correct behavior and the laws that must be adhered in order to attain the ‘Golden Fleece’ are offered in the text: “only the wise Argonauts, who strictly observe the laws of nature and are completely devoted to the will of the Almighty can win the precious golden fleece” (Marshall, 1980, p.157). In a contemporary context, the ‘Golden Fleece’ may be seen as the secrets of renewal and regeneration, the giver of life and the bestower of wisdom found in the “wise blood” and cycles of women – menstruation as a physical representation of “the laws of nature” that will help us to live in harmony with the natural world.
In interfering with the human body and natural bodily functions, the modern scientist, homo scientificus, has transgressed the laws of nature, and setting himself apart from nature has developed an attitude of domination: “In order to do violence to Mother Nature and other sister beings on the earth, homo scientificus had to set himself apart, or above Nature. The modern scientist is the man who presumably created nature as well as himself out of his brain power. He is the new god, the culture hero of European civilization.” (Mies and Shiva, 1993, p. 47).
“Biomedicalization” of women’s bodies – that is the “harnessing and transformation of internal nature” (Clarke, quoted in Fosket and Mamo, 2009, p. 927), takes us dangerously close to a rejection of embodiment, and in particular female embodiment. For Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies this is “characteristic in “Enlightenment thought” which is “purified” of all traces of the fact that we are born of women and that we shall die, that we are carnal, mortal beings” (Mies and Shiva, 1993, p.226).
Of concern is that while menstruation is in danger of becoming obsolete, so little is actually known about it. Many of the ideas that informs modern gynaecology are remnants from a darkly misogynist past where according to James Hillman, “upon the physical body of the feminine the fantasies of female inferiority become most florid” (Hillman, 1972, p219). I am curious to discover what collective cultural motivations have led us to a point in history where menstruation, the most basic, primal, and arguably most powerful symbol of the feminine is in danger of vanishing forever.
In enquiring into the nature and archetype of menstrual suppression, I look for a cultural meaning of menstruation by tracing a time-line back into our collective history to identify predominant attitudes. What I discover is that menstruation as a subject is not cohesive – opinions, research and belief about menstruation throughout modern Western history is fractured. A prevailing sense of rejection keeps the subject of menstruation hidden and ‘taboo’; even today we don’t generally talk about menstruation, or we refer to it in negative terms – “the curse” or “the rag”. With a cursory glance into the physical and emotional problems associated with menstruation, it is reasonable to assume that menstruation in the modern West is pathologized.
According to Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 90% of modern women suffer dysmenorrhea and in the Guardian newspaper on 6 September 2017, it was reported that 176 million women worldwide suffers from ‘endometriosis’ (Lee Kennedy, 2017). Feminist scholar Mary Parlee says: “What little we do know of menstruation has been defined in terms of pathology; menstrual studies are incomplete while we only chart the sickness of the cycle, and not its peaks and inspirations” (Parlee, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove 1978, p.72).
Neither does there appear to be a cohesive ‘menstrual myth’ in our culture which suggests that menstruation has become dislocated from its symbolic meaning. While fragments of a menstrual mythology may be found in the symbolism of folklore and fairy tales – according to cultural anthropologist Chris Knight, ‘” Sleeping Beauty’ –along with others of its kind – is in its logic entirely and consistently menstrual” (Knight, 1987, p.4), views on the meaning and interpretations of the symbols hidden in these stories differ and are inconsistent.