Frida Kahlo (1907-54), Still Life (on China)
Only connect as E.M. Forster wrote. Menstruation, the immiseration of white women (you are much better off in a city), the plight of Muslim women, cats in medieval manuscripts — are my topics today.
Over 100 years worth of products used for menstruation are skimmingly covered in this informative enough article by Lia Kvatum published April 25th in the Washington Post. It has links to other places where you can read more about this or that issue. Although written in an upbeat tone, the article does tell the truth. You might assume that attitudes towards menstruation are no longer (at least in these official western style ad) as uncomfortable and repressive as they once were: what is interesting is still in the 1990s you see discomfort and the heroine at the center anxious. And the reassuring “second older self” is a girl dressed in a mildly feminine way – her hair impeccably coiffeured, looking attractive as if she’s going out on a date.
From the outset at the opening of the century they can be divided into two types: soothing and reassuring and clinical and practical. They are still constrained but note the article its impetus from a museum of menstruation which has been thrown out of its official quarters in an institution and is now in a private person’s basement:
One purpose is to advertise and hope someone will take up the things and put them where they won’t get lost and dispersed and others can see them.
I recognize just about all the products; the ones used before I was 11 I’ve been told or read about, and I myself made my own home-made products when I was broke at one point. In documents I’ve read (letters, diaries) you can now and again come across a reference to washing a cloth for one’s period:
I did not know that women are still dying of toxic shock syndrome — I would say I understand why a girl would use a tampon (it enables her to swim the first couple of days; it avoids menstrual belts and sticky plastic),
but I know and have seen other uses: use this and you break your hymen and get it over with. And not everyone reads the instructions or is told not to leave a tampon in past at most a couple of hours. We have to remember the state of education today might be very poor for a particular girl in a particular area: sexual education in schools is preaching abstinence in some areas of the US. I have never in my life douched myself with these chemical products. I suspect because at some level of my being I am so sceptical, cautious, and as a result of experience nowadays instinctively uncooperative I was spared some of the worst biologically- and sexually-linked products pushed at me now and again. Here are two recent ads; there are worse ones and there are better. None of those readily available connect sex with sin; they seem to be all secular, non-judgemental (no idea this is a punishment from God):
One video segment resonated with me. A older woman tells of how her mother refused to talk to her or say anything at all when she began to bleed. I remember when I came home frightened, I phoned my father. I never had a trusting relationship with my mother. He must’ve explained enough and said something soothing (the two prongs of the ads) and probably told me to do something to stop getting soiled. But when my mother came home, she came right up to me and slapped me across the face with all her might. And then handed me a pad, wordless. He came home with a thick book probably enlightened for its time — I read about homosexuality for the first time — some title like “Everything you Need to Know about Sex for girls.” He said little himself, only read it.
I was very hurt and later indignant over my mother’s behavior. Just as bad to my mind is the social reinforcement that still goes on for customs of such symbolic punishment. Years later when I finally told someone (perhaps here on the Net somewhere, maybe an exchange of emails but I think it must’ve been on some listserv! or web-, or blog-site), I got justifications from other women for her behavior. This was a custom. It was just fine. I should have taken it or today take it as amusing. I say still it’s a custom she should not have followed mindlessly and without examination. To me it epitomizes not just how she behaved over and her attitudes towards sex (hostile, ashamed on the one hand, conspiratorial when she would be confiding on the other), but in other areas of life.
How did I behave when my two daughters told me “what had happened?” For the older one I tried to explain, had brought home menstrual pads with sticky plastic on the back, offered advice, and gave her a thick book; the younger one had the older one in the house and seemed to know about what was happening, but my procedure was the same, explanation, apparatus to cope, advice and thick book. Perhaps in earlier centuries the girl would not have been home alone and someone (mother, aunt, sister, cousin, governess, woman or fellow servant, girlfriend) would’ve been here to talk and help right away. Perhaps misogynous attitudes would have been inculcated openly.
On a more sheerly sombre note, an all too brief article online abouts an increasing health crisis for US white women: early death, drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, increase of fatal diseases, depression.
A couple of weeks ago (around April 11th), the Washington Post was featuring stories growing out of a study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton (Princeton economists) working and lower middle class white women are doing much worse than they used to — while they still die at a later age than white men and black men and women and other minorities, statistics show a rise in all sorts of destructive behavior (drugs, drink, risky behaviors with men), and the gap is closing. These are directly linked to their status, lack of income; women living in more rural areas and small towns are especially prone to misery and earlier death. Age 45-54 is the worst. However, lonely and anonymous your daily life you are much better off in a city where there are social services and things to join and do with other organized social groups of people.
A sheer uptick in suicide among white women as such was another story. They are experiencing full force what black women in the US as a group have always known: asked to be responsible for families, left alone (divorced, separated, never married), at the same time as they lack companionship and the things that are supposed to make others respect you.
The centrifugal nature of our US culture, long working hours, low pay, unemployment, degrading jobs, high expectations inflicted on women without any reality of real support, the easy break-up of marriages, having children out of wedlock with no permanent partner. It adds up to deep harm for all women but those who are born to the wealthy.
Connect the many stories about the rise of Al-Shabab in Somalia — that means for women horrors western women can’t begin to imagine — terrible economic conditions. you are married off early, ceaselessly pregnant, not trained to do anything for money — a large percentage of the desperate refugees are pregnant women in burkas with children hanging from them. What are they told about their menstruation?
Who is our major hope just now? Hillary Clinton is among the privileged of US society. I loathed her book, It Takes a Village, because in it she showed an unexamined disdain and contempt for women on welfare. She talked of children as a investment and wrote that poor women should have their children taken from them if they are not bringing them up “productively.” I admit I was not at all surprised when her husband with her public blessing destroyed welfare. I was never fooled that it was for these women’s good — this is the idea of “tough love,” yes let me thrown you out and you will be better off eventually. The idea was to stop paying women with children who couldn’t get a decent job and that is what was done.
Yes Clinton has since becoming senator worked for better pay, family paid leave, women’s health care and liberty too worked for real and hard. But where is she for the vulnerable, poverty-stricken, non-employable, partly disabled (from cultural forces) working (often white) women? Where does she identify? Middle class women. Probably she appeals to black women because she has ever presented herself as ambitious, filled with self-esteem, conventionally strong. I grant she has said she will work to extend widow’s benefits. I pay high taxes on my widow’s annuity. But I prefer Sanders’ tone and perspective. He means fundamental reforms, he used to mean of economic structure too, now it’s “just” a genuine movement away from immiseration for all and hope for a better independent self-fulfilling future (he for making state colleges for free — no loans from banks, no massive debt). I voted for him in the primary because on my doorknob was a paper reminder from his organization to vote. That piece of paper cost his organization money. He voted against the TPP; she for. He is faulted for “not having a foreign policy; he does, but he brings it out only in glimpses as it would undercut the US foreign policy since 1947 (he sees the Palestinians are the victims of slaughter, fierce colonialist seizure of their property, starvation policies), a hawkish, adamantinely anti social-democratic one, violent and supportive of horrifying regimes, one she shares despite her late embrace of Obama’s moderated approach.
To change women’s lives something far deeper, far more inward, sexual liberation and self-esteem for who we are, not for any use that will be made of us, is the place to begin to do good work.
In medieval books of hours when one finds cats, they are at the margins of the page and most of the time poignant figures playing some sort of music instrument