Reverse the Curse
New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation
By Chris Bobel
Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010, 256 pages, paperback, $26.96
Reviewed by Rachel Fudge
A quick survey of the contemporary feminist agenda as espoused by the major national organizations reveals a deep concern with the politics and realities of reproductive health but precious little interest in that of menstruation—despite the fact that, in the minds of many, menarche is synonymous with becoming a woman, and what is feminism concerned with if not women? Could it be that menstruation is simply too messy, symbolically, politically, and literally? That’s part of the answer, says Women’s Studies Professor Chris Bobel, but not all of it. The real “problem” with menstruation, from a feminist perspective, she asserts, is that although the arrival of Aunt Flo has become shorthand for a universal female experience, it turns out that women’s experience of menstruation is far from universal.
New Blood, Bobel’s book about menstrual activism, is at heart an exploration of third-wave feminism and its deeply complex relationship to its predecessors. Menstrual activism happens to be a convenient, and highly potent, jumping-off point for Bobel’s ethnographic study of third-wave activism in general. Framed by an astute analysis of the tensions between the “waves”—and a generous commitment to pointing out the overlooked commonalities among them—New Blood delves into the history of menstrual activism, defines and describes its two contemporary wings, and concludes with an assessment of what these divergent approaches say about the contemporary women’s movement and where it’s headed.
As the women’s health movement gained steam in the 1970s, writes Bobel in Chapter 3, “Feminist Engagements with Menstruation,”
increasing numbers of women began to question the safety of menstrual products and, more fundamentally, the social construction of menstruation as little more than a shameful process.
In short, she says, “they cultivated a menstrual consciousness.” In response to the everexpanding “FemCare” industry—the companies making and marketing so-called feminine hygiene products—and its remarkable inattention to consumer safety and environmental concerns, feminist health activists banded together with consumer and environmental advocates to pressure the industry to make its products safer and more environmentally sustainable. Bobel describes the evolution of this “menstrual consciousness” as occurring in three phases. First came a shift in women’s perception of the FemCare industry “from convenience to concern” in the 1970s. Second, a growing feminist-consumer alliance developed in the 1970s and 1980s, spurred by outrage over an outbreak of toxic-shock syndrome that was traced to superabsorbent tampons. Finally, small businesses began producing nontoxic, environmentally friendly products, such as the Keeper menstrual cup and reusable cloth pads, as alternatives to conventional FemCare supplies.
In 1990, feminist and consumer lobbyists finally succeeded in persuading the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require FemCare companies to rate tampon absorbency according to a standard system, enabling tampon users to make informed decisions about choosing the lowest absorbency tampons to meet their needs—and thereby reducing their risk of toxic-shock syndrome.
After this, menstrual activism shifted away from legal and regulatory reform and toward personal transformation. In her two beefiest chapters, Bobel identifies two contemporary wings of feminist menstrual activism: spiritualist and radical. Spiritualists, whose origins are traceable to the cultural feminism of the 1970s, wish “to reclaim menstruation as a healthy, spiritual, empowering, and even pleasurable experience for women.” You can identify them by their fertility goddesses, moon worship, and Red Tent–inspired workshops and retreats, in which Bobel participates, so she can report back to her readers. She approaches these experiences with an open mind, acknowledging the spiritualists’ sincerity in aiming to counteract women’s shame and alienation with affirmations whose goal, Bobel writes, is to “usher in the empowered body awareness that (ideally) promises to inoculate young women against perniciously gendered discrimination.” Ultimately, though, she criticizes the “feminist-spiritualist tendency to collapse womanhood with reproduction,” as well its inward, individualistic focus and faith in transformation by consumption.
Bobel’s sympathies clearly lie with the radicals, who are inspired by third-wave antiessentialism, environmentalism, and do-it-yourself punk culture. In contrast to the spiritualists’ romanticized view of menstruation, one radical sums up her attitude saying, “You don’t have to mythologize it for it to be okay. It is all right in its own right. It is blood. Period. We bleed.” For radicals, Bobel explains, “[M]enstruation is neither a gift nor a curse; it is a bodily process understood as the object of corporate colonization, and it is time to take it back.” The radicals “take it back” not by reforming the corporate FemCare industry, but rather by disengaging from it. They promote self-care; homemade cloth pads, the Keeper and other ecofriendly, reusable products; street actions; and disseminating information about all of the above through print and web zines, and skill-sharing sessions on college campuses and in communities—all of it done with a good dose of humor.
In these efforts, Bobel sees clear, undeniable links to second-wave feminist activism and consciousness-raising—even though her third-wave research subjects seem to be unaware of their history. It’s hard to refrain from rolling your eyes when one of Bobel’s younger interviewees scoffs at the long-lobbied-for tampon absorbency ratings, clearly clueless about the effort it took to achieve them. Bobel is deeply invested in tracing the links and demonstrating the commonalities between second- and third-wave tactics and beliefs, but her repeated descriptions of third wavers as regrettably ahistorical, especially when it comes to their second-wave foremothers, hew a little too closely to the second-wave stereotypes third wavers find so frustrating. She reports that “nearly all” of the third-wave activists she interviewed were ignorant of the efforts of women’s health activists to reform the FemCare industry in the 1980s—yet this may not be their fault. Bobel notes in her introduction that “to date no one has devoted a study to the diverse range of strategic efforts young women and girls use to challenge the culture of menstruation.” In her conclusion she admits that before embarking on this research, she herself “assumed that menstrual activism was a third-wave brainchild—funky, fresh, edgy, and new.” It wasn’t until she investigated further that she realized the movement dated back to the 1970s—and she’s a researcher.
Although Bobel continually hammers on the ahistorical stereotype, she also describes the third wave as an admirably intersectional movement, attuned to differences of power and inclusion. She does not, however, offer many examples of precisely how third wave menstrual activists put this intersectional philosophy into practice; in other words, she frequently describes the talk but doesn’t really show the walk. Thus she may be letting the activists off the hook a bit too easily, especially compared to her more rigorous critique of the spiritualists.
In a short but significant chapter titled “Making Sense of Movement Participation,” Bobel explores the demographic profile of the menstrual activists she interviewed, as they identified themselves: overwhelmingly white (88 percent) and female (94 percent); arrayed across the class spectrum (close to half identified as middle class, nearly a third as “working, poor, or lower class”); college educated. She also finds that her subjects are primarily nonheterosexual (63 percent), or queer—a term she uses to collectively describe those who identify not only as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer but also as “ambiguous,” “undefined,” “no distinction,” or “questioning.”
In trying to untangle the question of how a movement could be so welcoming to a large proportion of queer people, “themselves socially marginalized,” and yet inhospitable to women of color, Bobel notes significant parallels with the role of women of color in third-wave feminism generally. Despite the rich history of the black women’s health movement and the tireless activism of women of color on behalf of reproductive health and justice, she finds very few women of color involved in the menstrual activist movement. She ascribes this both to her own research failings (“My lens on the movement was white,” she acknowledges; “I found mostly white activists because, unwittingly, that’s who I looked for”) and to deeper issues: differences in black women’s definitions of activism, for instance, as well as an engrained culture of self-reliance and the still-lingering effects of the oversexualization of black women’s (and girls’) bodies. There is indeed a flourishing alternative-health movement by and for people of color, but due in part to differing definitions and perhaps also out of self-protection it is largely invisible to the dominant white culture—although a serious and dedicated researcher like Bobel ought to be able to dig deep enough to find it.
Similarly, Bobel is unable to find much evidence of transpeople’s participation in the movement—and finds no willing research subjects who identify as trans. She reaches out to trans bloggers and authors, and posts queries on publicly accessible trans-supportive online message boards, but not one female-to-male transgendered person will talk with her. One prospective source tells her that because menstruation is popularly identified as a women’s issue, “pushing transmen into that category hurts” and is “demeaning to them.”
This popular (mis)conception is precisely what radical menstrual activists are targeting. As Bobel elucidates, feminist menstrual activism is not just about the body, it’s about language. While the feminist-spiritualists Bobel encounters use goddess-inflected language, the radicals attempt to “uncouple the gendered body from menstruation. Women [and, Bobel specifies, people who were born with female bodies but who identify as men] who menstruate become ‘menstruators.’” This radical shift in framing from an essentially gendered perspective to a mostly degendered one (or, to borrow a phrase from Judith Butler, a gender-troubled one) points the way to a new understanding of feminism’s relationship to women and the female body. With each utterance, this new language challenges the essentialist gender binary that is so problematic for many feminists. For some, this is terrifying. For others, it’s not only liberating but the only way for feminists and allies to “challenge sexism without reifying a fundamentally flawed category”—that is, without locating identity in the biological body.
In short, it’s the only way forward. As Bobel writes,
How can we talk about body-based discrimination...without talking about women as women—even with all the differences within and among women? At the same time, how can we not afford to incorporate a questioning of fundamental categories like gender as we develop feminist agendas for the twenty-first century?
These are the hard questions with which forward-looking feminists—whatever wave, gender, race, or sexual orientation they identify with—must grapple, now.
Rachel Fudge is a freelance writer and editor. She sits on the National Advisory Board of Bitch Media, the publishers of the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, and is a frequent contributor to that magazine.