On the morning of my first period, I snuck quietly into the laundry with bloodstained sheets and tried hard to avoid having to ‘confess’ my menarche to my parents. I grew up in the kind of household where pads and tampons were literal unmentionables. Later on in my teens, I was thrilled to find an open shelf in my friend’s bathroom stacked high with Tampax boxes. I couldn’t believe that her father would allow such flagrant evidence of the inexorable leakiness of women’s bodies to be on display in his home. In the 1990s, menstrual shame was still in vogue.
With the second decade of the twenty-first century in full swing, it seems Aunt Flo has had a makeover. Periods are so ubiquitous right now as to be not only artistic but even plausibly cool. At least, they are more visible. We’ve hit what American feminist Jessica Valenti calls ‘peak period’.
But at the same time as the monthly bleeding of most women has, thankfully, begun to lose its shamefulness, some have continued to use it as a weapon against a minority of women.
In November 2015, celebrated critic of transgender women Germaine Greer spoke at Cardiff University. During their coverage of the controversy, the Guardian quoted Greer as saying: ‘If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were thirteen there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know. It’s not all cake and jam.’
The shorthand we use for formative girlhood experiences privileges the white, middle class, heterosexual stories of cis girls in the Anglosphere.
Aside from the ludicrousness of suggesting that trans women – a population who choose feminine identities despite the increased risk of violence, homelessness, unemployment and discrimination this exposes them to – actually expect lives that are all ‘cake and jam’, this statement tells us a lot about why many radical feminists, like Greer, have lost relevance. Cleaving to essentialist ideas about bodies and what they do is bad enough; insisting on shared cultural and psychological experiences of those bodily functions is worse. In fact, this kind of ‘feminism’ shows that Greer’s position on trans women is not, as Meanjin editor Jonathon Green claimed on Twitter, coherent. At best, it’s poor academic practice.
Of course it’s true that transgender women don’t experience menstruation. I don’t think that’s very interesting, of itself: plenty of cis women don’t either. Nor, for that matter, do all women experience the following: childbirth, lactation, penetrative vaginal intercourse, bikini waxing, swooning over Colin Firth in a wet white shirt, wearing lipstick, and so on. And yet all of these are variously held up as universal – or definitive – experiences of womanhood in popular discourse.
The shorthand we use for formative girlhood experiences privileges the white, middle class, heterosexual stories of cis girls in the Anglosphere. This is the shorthand Greer relies upon in her cursory dismissal of the possibility of trans womanhood: an intellectual analysis not far above Cosmopolitan magazine.
I would argue that the experience Greer is claiming as central to girlhood, and therefore a kind of lady-shibboleth, is not one of bleeding (after all, not only women bleed) but one of feeling shame for it. That feeling of somehow having been caught red-knickered; of being complicit in this peculiarly furtive rite of passage; of being cursed.
Which begs the question: why on earth would radical feminists, who so rightly argue against the subjugation of women on the grounds of physical or other perceived sex differences, wish to cling so tightly to this special experience of unfounded guilt? I, for one, would like the discussion of gender to broaden beyond who has been hurt by ‘the curse’ and who hasn’t.
So what would a more interesting conversation about the role menstruation plays in shaping girlhood and subsequent female identity look like?
Undoubtedly, social discourses of menstruation should be more inclusive. Currently, many schools still separate students by sex in order to deliver education about reproduction, including menstruation. This is a practice that not only makes intersex, trans and gender diverse young people uncomfortable, but one that actively excludes cis boys and men from the conversation. Men are subsequently socialised to be at best clueless about periods; at worst, they are hostile and ‘grossed out’. This positions women’s bodies to remain unknowable and pathologically untrustworthy – both tropes that lead to negative views of female sexuality.
Yet it is not only feminine bodies which menstruate: trans men sometimes have periods, and this should be acknowledged. The Gloria Steinem adage about male periods becoming a competitive sport may not have come true, but her sentiment was not far off. There is no reason for women to hoard menstruation as a singularly feminine experience. Rather, to de-gender it would be to remove its shamefulness and increase social acceptance of this basic physiological function.
Furthermore, I would argue that it is the shame of inhabiting a ‘cursed’ body that has the most potential to make menstruation a point of solidarity between women, rather than a wedge to be wielded by trans exclusionists. Transgender women may not have periods, but they do experience sexism, slut shaming, and body image problems. Their bodies are scrutinised and pathologised. They are subject to beauty norms and, in fact, all of the daily pressures that menarche can herald for teen cis girls. To give a single narrative of menarche the power to denote femaleness in a way that sexual harassment or swimsuit anxiety does not is, as I have said, unnecessarily essentialist and incoherent. But it is more than that.
What the trans exclusionary insistence on women ‘passing the period test’ reveals is not that menstruation is essential to femaleness but rather that their politics fails to incorporate a more meaningful understanding of gender.
I feel a great deal of kinship and solidarity with women – fellow feminists – who inhabit very different bodies to my body. The phenomenology of living in my very fat body is one that profoundly shapes my life and my politics, but it is not a bodily experience that all women share. Likewise, childbirth and breastfeeding have been features of my womanhood but I do not proclaim my child-free friends to not be women. What the trans exclusionary insistence on women ‘passing the period test’ reveals is not that menstruation is essential to femaleness but rather that their politics fails to incorporate a more meaningful understanding of gender. Gender is a fuzzy set – there are normally huge variations in height, shape, hairiness, voice, breast size and shape, hormone levels, and so on, all of which we readily accept as feminine – except when it comes to trans women, who are assumed to belong to a separate ontological category no matter what their features. To insist on some markers as more essential than others is a cissexist project at heart; ‘an instance of the part mistaking itself for the whole’. It’s also a retrogressive project that does nothing to help women.
Feminism demands greater honesty about the diverse lived realities of women. My experience of menarche – though not unusual – was hardly universal, even for my class and generation. Australians menstruate earlier these days, with the majority of girls younger than Greer’s thirteen when it happens. Menarche for a girl on Manus Island who knows she’ll be forced to queue for hours for her humiliating ration of pads is a kind of shame not included in the blithe universalising of most narratives. Menarche for a girl with a disability, which triggers her forced sterilisation, is likewise not a broadly acknowledged experience. Erasing the realities of these women is unfortunately still common practice, ‘peak period’ notwithstanding.
Women who bleed are not cursed – we are simply experiencing a normal physiological process which may or may not be important to our gender identity.
Feminism also needs to account for evolving practices surrounding gendered upbringings. Trans children are increasingly receiving treatment to ensure they are not forced to undergo the ‘wrong’ puberty, and so subsequent generations of transgender adults will have a very different set of experiences of adolescence to those of older trans people. Trans boys will be born with uteruses that never bleed. Trans girls will be socialised as girls who, whilst they won’t use tampons, will understand everything else about female adolescence first-hand. It’s hard to see how periods can possibly count as definitive for much longer.
This is a fact that feminists of all stripes ought to embrace. Periods are an expense, an embarrassment, a pain that cis women needn’t shoulder as any kind of singular burden. Women who bleed are not cursed – we are simply experiencing a normal physiological process which may or may not be important to our gender identity. And however we felt about it at thirteen, we can all surely agree that no young person should any longer feel guilty for bleeding on their knickers. Women who menstruate, we have nothing to lose but our shame. And if we can stop the self-defeating urge to wear the curse as a badge of honour, we have much to gain: including a more inclusive sisterhood.
This article originally appeared in Overland journal.
Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on twitter @mymilkspilt.