The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal- Pt 6.

This extract from a longer piece of writing was written in 2016, before the explosion of the insistence on gender neutral language specifically in relation to female bodies and female bodily functions and experiences. Yesterday I posted about how gender-neutral language is officially infiltrating our cultural narrative and is being institutionalised particularly within medical literature. I am interested in considering the implications of this beyond linguistics.
“According to the Western medical model, pre-menstrual syndrome is a disease, menstruation is a disease, pregnancy is a disease, childbirth is a disease, and menopause is a disease. From this model, I have reached the conclusion that being a woman is a disease.”
Quote from Women’s Health Advocate Sibyl Shainwald
Part 6 of The Red Death considers the pathologizing of female biology and also touches upon how women’s bodies, due to being pathologized are big business for pharmaceutical companies.

Gnostic Woman

“The medicalization of our [women’s] bodies is particularly ironic because historically, women served as society’s healers, a role that combined wisdom, nurturance, intuition, and skill.”

This quote from Women’s Health Advocate Sibyl Shainwald points to the medicalisation of women’s bodies as usurping traditional feminine wisdom in favor of androcentric medical practices which pathologise the ontological nature of women. Speaking at the conference for Hysterectomy Education Resources and Sources (HERS), she says:

“According to the Western medical model, pre-menstrual syndrome is a disease, menstruation is a disease, pregnancy is a disease, childbirth is a disease, and menopause is a disease. From this model, I have reached the conclusion that being a woman is a disease.”

You can read the full speech here- Sibyl Shainwald Talk

From my own perspective, in considering who ultimately benefits from the wide spread consumption of menstrual suppressants, there is the question of economics: Barr pharmaceuticals earned a $50 million…

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The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal- Part 5.

Mother of God

Protection of the Mother God-Orthodox Image found on google images

What may loosely be termed as a ‘menstrual revival movement’, beginning in the 1970s and taking hold in the 1980s continues today as many women seek to honour menstruation and even utilise it as a method of empowerment for women. Fedele says: “By the end of the 1980’s, a movement to affirm the power and importance of menstruation had developed” (Fedele 2013.p. 151). Chris Knight credits a significant contribution to Shuttle and Redgrove and claims that

“It was above all The Wise Wound that presented a new generation of emancipated women in the 1980’s with what seemed to be at first a daring and paradoxical message: Menstruation can be an empowering and indeed magical experience” (Knight, 1991, p.378).

While much negativity, past and present, has undoubtedly played a part in our current menstrual rejection, it is clear that the empowering message from The Wise Wound and other seminal texts such as Vicki Noble’s Shakti Woman, and Sjoo and Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother finds strong resonance today. In the feminine spirituality movement, goddess and pagan groups and in ‘pro-women’ circles all over the Western world, women are reclaiming their “wise blood”. Alexander Pope, a leader in the menstrual movement promotes her Red School by declaring “We’ve got a radical new approach to women’s leadership, creativity and spiritual life based on a uniquely feminine way – the menstrual cycle(, 2017). 


Looking Out Of The Red Tent by Renee Kahn

Similarly Red Tent is a grass roots movement where circles of woman gather regularly to share and endorse the experiences of womanhood through different stages. The first circles appeared in the late 1990s but it was after the release of Anita Diamant’s book of the same name in 1997 that the movement really gained in popularity. Red Tent the book is a feminist retelling of the biblical story The Rape of Dinah (Genesis); in a review of the book, Emily Dwass says that the book’s success lies in, “giving a voice to Dinah, one of the silent female characters in Genesis” (Dwass, 2000). The novel”, says Dwass has “struck a chord with women who may have felt left out of biblical history…. it celebrates mothers and daughters and the mysteries of the life cycle” (Dwass, 2000).

Writing for the Huffington Post last year, Vanessa Olorenshaw, says:

“Red Tent and women’s circles are about something that can happen when women showing an open mind gather…. it’s not magic…. saying that, I occasionally get the feeling that, once, we women of the Red Tent would have been burned at the stake” (Olorenshaw, 2017)

Drawing a parallel between ‘menstrual revival movements’ and ‘witch burning’ could have deeper and more profound implications that the author of the article may have realised: for Shuttle and Redgrove “the persecution continues, and is current” (Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p.204). Among the many people who believe that the number of women tortured and sentenced to death during the ‘witch trials’ is a staggering nine million, Shuttle and Redgrove chillingly link this figure with the modern figures of 90% of women who suffer from ‘dysmenorrhoea’.


unknown image- google images

Linking past stories to our present experience as Shuttle and Redgrove have done can be illuminating in exploring the mythical and archetypal essence at the core of things. In a documentary released in September 2017 entitled Sacrificial Virgins, film maker Joan Shenton traces a thread from the HPV vaccinations currently administered to young girls, back to the 1960s “Thalidomide tragedy” when a drug prescribed to pregnant women resulting in thousands of babies being born with deformities. Shenton travels back further on the cultural timeline to draw parallels with sacrificed virgins from ancient cultures where pre-sexual girls were “chosen” to give their life and autonomy to the king or other important men. Shenton says she chose the title Sacrificial Virgins “because the vaccine is often given to girls before they are sexually active”. (SanVax,Inc.,2017).

While this point may appear to go off at tangents to the issues raised in this essay, I feel it is important on two accounts: firstly, while we are caught up in the minutiae of our lives we rarely drop beneath the surface of things to connect with the archetypal, symbolic and mythic aspects of our cultural shared past. Secondly, one of Shenton’s main concern is that the efficacy of the HPV vaccination in preventing cancer is still unproven and yet:

“Adverse reactions are blighting and even ending the lives of girls and young women across the world. Pharmaceutical manufacturers and many health authorities are refusing to acknowledge there is a problem and the medical community is continuing to offer the vaccine (SanVax, Inc., 2017).

This is concerning in the same way menstrual suppression is – it is clear that modern medicine does not fully understand women’s bodies and reproduction, or feminine consciousness, as Hillman says:

“We must bear in mind that the evidence in anatomy, as in all fields of science, is gathered mainly by men and is part of their philosophy. We know next to nothing about how feminine consciousness or a consciousness that has an integrated feminine regards the same data” (Hillman, 1972, p.249).

Ultimately however it is the work of women to reclaim their menstruation, bodies and biological processes – menstruation may be “woman’s curse”, or “an unexplored resource”, “magic” or “madness” (Shuttle and Redgrove, 1978, p. 213). Perhaps it is for each woman herself to decide how she makes sense and integrates menstruation in her life… or not. While so little is known about menstruation on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, there needs to be more awareness and conversation about the implications of erasing it from our feminine experience.

Hannah Adamaszek

Image by Hannah Adamaszek

The Red Death: Menstruation as a Symbol of Renewal- Part 3

Larrissa Morais

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.”

seasonale ad 3

Seasonale Advertisement

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