Women in the nineteenth century rarely mentioned menstruation in their journals and diaries. I suspect that they did not do much chatting about it with their friends, either. So, it is difficult to ascertain how mother, aunt, grandmother, or friend communicated information about menstruation and reproduction to a young girl. However, what if women were a bit more forthcoming with each other? It might look like this excerpt from Walk by Faith.
Maggie took a bucket to the wash boiler, filled it and toted it back to where Matilda stood at the sink. She gently poured the water in as Matilda held her hands clear. Once the basin had been filled, Matilda cleared her throat. “You know, my girl wants to be just like Frankie. Why she gonna be thirteen years old next week. ‘Spect she’ll become a woman soon. Answer me something. When did you all get your first time of the month?”
“Oh,” Lydia said, “I think I was fifteen. Frankie was about the same age.”
“I was around sixteen,” Emily replied.
Maggie added, “I was sixteen as well.”
Matilda nodded. “Then I need to tell her soon ‘bout what’s gonna happen and why.”
“I certainly would not wait any longer,” Lydia advised.
Maggie sighed. “I feel so old! Chloe may be starting her monthlies and I am stopping mine!”
“Oh, Mother.” Lydia chuckled. “Menses do cease any time once a woman is in her forties. But you needn’t worry. You are perfectly healthy and not in any way old.”
“It would be nice to have a baby with Eli, though.”
“I don’t see why it can’t happen. Your times haven’t stopped altogether, have they?”
“No.” Maggie blushed. “My! What times we live in now. Even my governess would never speak of such matters when I was growing up. When my monthly started I thought I was bleeding to death!” Maggie shook her head at the memories. “I came to her in tears. She looked appalled but brought out a rag and told me how to wear it, saying I did not want to bleed all over my clothes like a poor farmer’s wife. It was a terrifying moment for me. And now, look at us speaking of such things openly.”
“And isn’t it fun!” Emily joked.
Lydia set her dishcloth down. “Honestly, I find it disconcerting that we rarely speak of these natural processes outside of our most intimate circles. Why should we not talk freely about menstruation and menopause? There would be far fewer misunderstandings then.”
My, isn’t Lydia quite the modern woman! Sadly, her attitude does not catch on for another one hundred years.
My research indicates that in practice women of the 1800s approached menstruation in varied ways. Some, as Maggie notes, bled onto their clothing and let the menstrual blood run down their leg. Although, as one website noted, all those layers of petticoats might have helped disguise what was going on somewhat. If women were in the upper classes, they might have used a rag held up by a belt or suspenders. The cloth most likely would not have been washed daily. There also is some indication that women used early forms of tampons: absorbent material rolled up and inserted into the vagina. Since Maggie was raised in an upper-middle class household, she was instructed in the use of a cloth and belt. And, being Maggie, she would pass this information to her daughters and those in her “family.”
Telling young girls about menstruation probably involved a great deal of euphemistic language (hey, it was the nineteenth century and some uber-genteel people would refer to a piano’s “limb” rather than say “leg”). Some girls, like Maggie got no information at all until she started her period. But this wasn’t just an 1800s thing. Hesitance to speak of menstruation continued well into the 20th century. I know women in their 60s and 70s whose mothers did not tell them about menstruation and so they were terrified like Maggie when they began to bleed and didn’t know why.
One more big question: did the men know women were “on the rag”? Answer: How could they not? Eli, being intimate with Maggie, naturally would know. But, since menstruating carries an odor, he and the other men would know which of the women in the household were having their period. And, as anyone who has lived with a group of women knows, women’s bodies can get in synch, so they end up menstruating around the same time. And that means at least in the Saint Maggie series, the men will do well to keep their heads down and mouths shut during “that time of the month.”
In case all this chat about vaginas and menstruation freaks you out, let me explain that I am immune to freaking out. When I was an adjunct professor I had to start a class about what it means to be an individual with a discussion on intersexuality. And then there was an earlier time when a church where I served as Christian Educator had a sexuality seminar for middle school kids and their parents. We recruited the middle school youth leaders to serve as facilitators and we all went through professional training. I understand that the youth leaders, having lost their shyness over using certain terminology, went out to dinner and were laughing and shouting about penises, vaginas, menstruation, orgasms, etc. over their meal. I’m sorry I didn’t go. It would have been fun to watch the faces of the other diners!
I did most of the original resource for the scenes in Walk by Faith from the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health's website. However, to update the information that originally appeared at the back of the novel, I did some more checking. I still believe that the Museum of Menstruation had the best information. However, the website's homepage is very old school, hard to navigate. It is run by Harry Finley who is, from all appearances, very sympathetic to presenting information on menstruation and women's health, and not a fetishist. Of course those of us engaged in historical specialties know darn well that we all tend to develop a heavy-duty fascination with our discipline... so draw your own conclusions!
I do find it interesting, though, that three of the four authors below are men. I wonder what this is saying? And I wonder if men really do write about menstruation more than women, why they do it. Hmmm... something to look into.
I’ll have a less “icky” subject tomorrow. Promise.
Bushak, Lecia. Medical Daily. "A Brief History Of The Menstrual Period: How Women Dealt With Their Cycles Throughout The Ages"https://www.medicaldaily.com/menstrual-period-time-month-history-387252
Finley, Harry. "What Did Women Use for Menstruation in Europe and America from 1700-1900, and Probably Earlier."
Jenner, Greg. Blog. "History of Periods: How Did Women in the Past Deal with Their Periods? The History of Menstruation."
Stockton, Richard. "Let It Bleed: A People's History of Menstruation."
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder