Painting by Larissa Morais
How is it that menstruation, once considered a sacred process, has become devoid of meaning in our modern times? What has caused a shift from the sacred to the profane? In The Woman in a Shaman’s Body, anthropologist Barbara Tedlock says: “The unease so many Western women feel about their menstrual cycle springs from a combination of masculine sentiments and religious sanctions” (Tedlock, 2005, p.196). While Psychotherapist and Astrologer, Demetra George says, “Women no longer understand that the instinctive movement during menstruation is withdrawal in order to connect with powerful psychic energies to effect healing in their lives” (George, 1992, p.19-20). 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).
With a cursory glance into the physical and emotional problems associated with menstruation, it is reasonable to assume that menstruation has become pathologised in the modern West. According to Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, 90% of modern women suffer dysmenorrhea and in the Guardian newspaper in September 2017, it was reported that 176 million suffer from endometriosis- that’s 10% of women worldwide. The article states that the prevalence of endometriosis in women experiencing fertility issues can be as high as 30-50%, and concludes that the cause of endometriosis is unknown and there is no definite cure.
In Jungian psychotherapy much has been revealed about woman’s over identification with the animus (male principle) and the consequences of turning against her own feminine biological nature. In a patriarchal culture where the masculine principle has been inflated for a few thousand years it is hardly surprising that women of the modern West have become over identified with the animus, or even possessed by it. This can be seen in women who have rejected part of themselves in order to be successful in a system that denies their feminine nature or qualities. Many women have, as George says, lost their inherent instinctual wisdom in relation to their bodies and natural cycles.
Barr Pharmaceutical, the company who produce Seasonale, the market leader in menstrual suppression draws heavily on feminine over-identification with masculine values in their advertising campaigns, often depicting young, successful urban women who have no time for menstruating. In their critique of Seasonale, scientists Laura Mamo and Jennifer Foskett observe:
“Furthermore, another implicit assumption is that, with Seasonale, women are free to engage (or compete) in the professional world with bodies more similar to those of men…. menstruation is produced as a constraining process that, with Seasonale, becomes something to be overcome: a part of every woman’s and girl’s wellness.”
In Jungian terms, this over identification with the animus necessitates a rejection of the ‘great mother archetype’ which calls forth the ‘negative great mother’. Jungian Jasbinder Garnermann says this denial “can manifest in physical symptoms such as irregular menstruation, amenorrhoea and fertility problems.”
Rarely does allopathic Western medicine consider the under-lying issues of menstrual disorders and instead favours prescription of pharmaceutical drugs or invasive surgery. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2006-2010, 11.7 percent of women between the ages of 40-44 had a hysterectomy. When we acknowledge the connection between hysteria and hysterectomy, it is difficult to ignore the connection between physical disease and emotional experience; it is also difficult to ignore the connection between physical remedy and behavioral control.
Mary Daly has a particular focus on gynaecology and medical practices carried out on women’s bodies which she presents in her 1987 Gyn/Ecology. According to Lucy Sargisson what Daly seeks in this work is “a true, wild, Woman’s self, which she perceives to be dormant in women, temporarily pacified by patriarchal systems of domination” (Sargisson, 1996, p.184). Daly herself says: “The rise of Western gynecology was built on the massacre of women healers, replaced by male medical practitioners. The purpose and intent of gynecology was/is not healing in a deep sense but violent enforcement of the sexual caste system” (Daly, quoted in Noble, 1991, p.35).
Seasonale, is also being applauded as a cure for increasing menstrual problems, hailed as a “radical rescuing of the ovaries and endometrium from modernity” (Gladwell, 2000). Yet few people seem willing to ask why modernity is so detrimental to the reproductive and menstrual health of women. Instead of asking why so many women suffer negative symptoms of menstruation, or why teenage girls view their menstrual blood negatively – “The experience of the first period is associated with hurts and wounds and bodily waste” (Douvain, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove 1978, p.87), the current trend is towards erasing periods all together. For Paula Weideger, “The menstrual taboo… has been one of the most successful methods devised to undermine the self-acceptance and confidence of women” (Weideger, quoted in Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.88). Demetra George, echoing this view puts it like this: “Women are made to feel ashamed of their raw, instinctive sexual desires and to feel that their menstrual blood is dirty and disgusting” (George, 1992 p.50).
In trying to make sense of menstrual suppression and the archetype behind it and in looking to history for a clearer understand of the present, is it worth considering that control of women and their bodies through darkly coercive means with “sinister misogynistic implications” (Hillman) are not resigned to the past? Is it the case that women themselves are unwittingly permitting the control and manipulation of their bodies through a female-denying science and technology?
In considering the reasons why many women reject menstruation, I am led to a thorny debate at the heart of feminist discourse- the ‘essentialism’ and ‘biological determinism’ debate. This dialectic asks difficult questions about the relationship between women and nature – is it the case that women, on account of their biology have a particular and unique relationship with the natural world? This issue has a caused a split in feminist discourse for six decades with cultural feminists rejecting biological essentialism as a tool of patriarchal coercion and control, and other feminist groups, including ecofeminists, insisting on the connection between women and the natural world while reviewing the status of both in our current system. I will explore this in a later section.
For now, an important question I feel in addressing historical misogyny is this: What happened to all that fear, superstition and hysteria? Where did it go … did it simply dissolve as humanity evolved? Did the Church and other institutions quietly become more women- loving? The “witch hunts’” says Carol Christ, “were as much about the control of information and knowledge as it was about controlling women’s sexuality and bodies”(Christ, 1988, p.46). Many women, disempowered within the medical systems are turning to pro- women movements of natural birthing, sacred sexuality, menstrual awareness and the feminine mysteries to reclaim their innate wisdom precisely because they are not ‘being met’ by our institutions- which, it may argued, are still premised on institutionalized misogyny. While there are no modern day witch hunts, many women will testify to feeling degraded, demeaned or in some way harmed or insulted in their interactions with medical and other cultural institutions.
Schools are also being called into question; right now there is a campaign running to challenge rules in school that prohibit teenage girls from going to the bathroom to attend to their menstrual needs.
Ceramic by Margaret Mitchell from Alpaca Ceramics