Inga T. Winkler

Judy Chicago, Red Flag, 1971, photo-lithograph, 20 x 24in. © Judy Chicago

Bloody, bold discussions took center stage in January 2020, as a group of nineteen students and five instructors embarked on a semester-long exploration of menstruation through (almost) every possible lens. Concluding just before the world celebrates menstruation on May 28th, students described the course as unprecedented, enlightening, eye-opening, meaningful, and thought-provoking.

To be sure, my initial attempts to get the course on the books were met with some hesitation: Is there really a need for this? Isn’t it a bit too specific? Can you actually fill a whole semester discussing menstruation?

To anyone still asking these questions, please rest assured that students felt that time was too limited to do the content justice. At a personal level, they described the course as empowering and leading to a better relationship with their own bodies. At a societal level, some of them are inspired to take menstrual activism forward, and we hope to hear more of their #EmergingMenstrualVoices.

The course came at a time when menstruation has taken off as a key concern. It has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. Long gone are the days when Menstrual Hygiene Day was the idea of just a few. Menstruation has made headlines and covers. Major players in the context of international development are engaged. Policies related to menstruation advance in countries across the globe.

Yet, with all the abundance in attention to menstruation, my students have shown that we need a course correction. As Lucie Paradis argues, the menstrual movement must become (or return to being) more political, more radical, and more holistic. The reason we could spend fourteen weeks discussing menstruation (and could easily have added a few more) is that menstruation has an impact on almost any sphere of life. To be sure, menstruation is a normal, biological process. But it is so-much-more than that. Menstruation influences our cultural, economic, political, social, and religious lives.

The current menstrual movement doesn’t fully capture all these dimensions. Too much policy-making, programming, and advocacy focuses on menstrual products—providing pads and lifting tampon taxes.

To a large extent, the menstrual movement is sanitized, driven by quick tech fixes, and focused on infrastructure. Mary Olson mocks the dance every menstruator knows. It “begins long before we get to the bathroom—we slide the tampon or pad elegantly up our sleeve, or, if in a pinch, discreetly grab our bag and quickly dash to the bathroom. Having arrived, we quietly, delicately open the packaging. When the deed is done, we wrap the evidence in 40 layers of toilet paper (no more, no less), and then discard its mummified remains into the metal box or bin.”

While menstrual products are important, increasing access and ensuring menstrual hygiene does nothing to stop the hiding, concealing, and mummifying. To the contrary, the common narrative continues to suggest that menstruators need to ensure that they’re sanitary, clean, and hygienic.

What we need is a movement that goes beyond menstrual hygiene to tackle menstrual stigma, which many of us have internalized as deeply embedded in our culture as Sonya Kim shows.

Alexis Buncich maintains that we need to call out the gender gap in medical research, which forces doctors and menstruators alike to downplay symptoms and concerns with profound implications for menstrual health. Specifically, we need to integrate menstrual health with sexual and reproductive health and rights, including in relation to contraceptive choices as Nay Alhelou argues.

We need to improve menstrual literacy. Menstrual education has to be accurate, non-judgmental, and age-appropriate and should be integrated throughout the curriculum—not presented as a one-off intervention that labels menstruation as something weird and extraordinary. Menstrual education is the best—the only—tool we have to lift menstrual stigma.

In many cases, such stigma intersects with other forms of stigmatization and marginalization. Rowena Kosher challenges us to rethink (and try!) menstrual masturbation. She claims “You have the permission of pandemic sexperts. You have my permission. You have science and the power of a radical feminist mindset behind you.”

Other forms of double stigma might be less pleasurable to address but are at least as important to tackle. Lauren Winters calls our attention to the marginalization of menstruators in detention and the power dynamics that determine their access to menstrual products. Julia Kepczynska addresses the struggle menstruating athletes face: they can’t get it right, being shamed if they bleed and considered abnormal if they don’t.

Overall, we need to acknowledge a much greater diversity of lived experiences of menstruation and address the resulting needs and preferences.

Menstruators experience homelessness, they are migrants and refugees, they are sex workers, they live with physical or mental disabilities, they are trans or non-binary, their experience of menstruation changes with age or other factors. A bold menstrual movement puts all these diverse experiences front and center and seeks to address their needs across the life cycle and in all spheres of life.

Is that a much broader agenda than currently envisaged by Menstrual Hygiene Day? It most certainly is. It is an agenda that cannot be as easily implemented and quantified as the provision of menstrual products. It is an agenda that needs the support of a much broader coalition of actors. It is an agenda that relies on all of us, changing our attitudes, perceptions, and assumptions.

Nothing illustrates better than menstruation that the personal is political. And that is why these #EmergingMenstrualVoices give me hope. They represent a new generation of menstrual advocates who truly seek to advance gender justice.

Inga Winkler is a lecturer in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, the Director of the Working Group on Menstrual Health and Gender Justice, and the co-editor of the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. She was the lead instructor for the course on “Menstruation, Gender and Rights: Interdisciplinary Approaches.”