The History of The Period (And How It Impacts Us Today)

The History of The Period And How It Impacts Us Today

Menstrual History is an important piece of Women's History that is generally ignored. Considering that we – and our mothers, grandmothers, and great-great-great-great-great grandmothers, etc. – were conditioned to hide our periods and be ashamed of our cycles, this is not surprising.

But, hello, menstruation is mega important! The fact that humans continue to exist and have any history at all depends on the biological feat that our bodies can CREATE HUMANS and our period is critical in making that possible. Beyond allowing for the continuation of our species, power dynamics and societal norms were shaped around menstruation, the ludicrous misinformation spread about it, and the horrible ways that people were (and in many cases still are) treated while on their periods. All of this continues to impact us today and we believe we can't fully move forward without looking back.

For the Women's Movement to truly succeed, we must unpack period shame and suffering, the history that got us here, how it continues to limit us, and what we can do about it. So, in the hopes of closing the knowledge gap, we're taking the history-focused chapters of our founder’s book, Seeing Red, out from behind the paywall and sharing them here. Our goal is to get this information out to as many people as possible – we hope you'll read it, learn from it, and share it.

Enough secrecy, suffering, and sanitization. It's time to own our periods, heal our bodies, and thrive.

The History of the Period: Nothing has Changed for Menstruating Women in the Last 14 Centuries

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” —George Santayana

When I was building Brazen, I was reading all of the epidemiology literature about what I call “menstrual disease.” These are all of the significant symptoms and diseases that affect women throughout the life of their reproductive cycle. Even though I had been fixing periods for well over 20 years, until then, I’d never looked at the pervasiveness of menstrual disease. I was always looking at it as a factor of infertility—not as a massive problem in its own right.

I knew that about one in seven women were infertile, but I was shocked, dumbfounded, and speechless when I read that 82 percent of women reported that they had significant premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and cramping every month. That’s about 75 million women in just the United States alone. I kept saying to myself, “How can we be in the middle of a women’s movement with the majority of us still so sick...and no one is talking about it?” Worse, no one was doing anything about it.

I wanted to figure out why it seemed OK for so many women to suffer every month and for pretty much everyone to think that was not a problem—even the women themselves! Being a former cultural linguist , I started this exploration by looking at how the history of language played in a role in our present-day lack of communication about women’s periods and the illnesses related to them (It’s the idea that even one word can reveal so much meaning that led me to the name of my company: Brazen. When I read the definition of “brazen,” which means “to overcome something shameful with swagger,” I thought, “Oh, just like period shame. Maybe it’s time to embrace our periods instead.”). We have been conditioned to hide and sanitize for centuries. Why? I decided to go back to the beginning of written history to explore the way society talked and related to women—and their periods.

What I found shocked me. I discovered that most cultures have been systematically conditioning women to believe that our cycles are a kind of sickness that makes us feeble and inferior or unclean. It was extremely common in earlier times to perpetuate the myth that women are “limited” by having periods, or worse yet, they’d be sequestered. Never since the beginning of written history have we taken the initiative to teach women that our cycles are a part of being a woman; suffering because of them is not.

Why There’s No History of Menstruation

As I researched, I realized that what was more important than what was written about women and their periods, was what was not written.

Despite the fact that women have been menstruating since the beginning of human evolution, there is very little documentation about women’s periods in ancient history. For the first 1,500 years of written language, there isn’t one reference to menstruation. Complete radio silence. It’s as if menstruation didn’t exist, even in medical and religious texts—probably in large part because men were the only people who were taught to write, but more likely because menustration was considered such a taboo subject (the term “taboo” comes from the Tongan tapu, and is used to signify something excessivly repulsive or too sacred for ordinary folk—anything forbidden or restricted such as incest, patricide, or cannibalism).

Earlier civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Greece, despite their many differences, all shared the same approach to describing women’s periods: silence. Spanning more than half a dozen diverse cultures, almost no society that left written records mentioned the subject. The only culture that was talking about it were the scholars of traditional Chinese medicine around the year 200 BCE.

I don’t know about you, but I find this incredible—and really disturbing.

From what we can see—even from the silence—period prejudice goes way back. Of course, we really don’t know what women thought about their periods, because the men were doing the majority of the writing. But no matter where and when they’re from, as texts began to occasionally mention the menstrual cycle, the message from most sources was that women who are menstruating are filthy and should be avoided until they are cleansed of their (and I’m not exaggerating here) “pollution.”

The first widely public statements about menstruation come from the book of Leviticus in the Bible around the year 500 BCE. Whoever wrote it was a big fan of menstruating women and couldn’t wait to get near some ladies on the rag. Kidding. The book perceives menstruating women as filthy and, quite frankly, dangerous to a man’s soul. It says:

“Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean.

If a man has sexual intercourse with her and her blood touches him, her menstrual impurity will be transmitted to him. He will remain unclean for seven days, and any bed on which he lies will be unclean.

When the woman’s bleeding stops, she must count off seven days. Then she will be ceremonially clean. On the eighth day she must bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons and present them to the priest at the entrance of the Tabernacle.”1

Similarly, the Quran (2.222) has this to say about menstruating women: “It is an impurity, so keep away from women during it and do not approach them until they are cleansed; when they are cleansed you may approach them as God has ordained.”2

If you are a Shinto, one of the main religions in Japan, menstruating women are not only impure during their cycle—they are permanently impure solely due to the fact that they menstruate. Not only are they forbidden to enter shrines due to their impurity, they’re also forbidden to climb certain “sacred” mountains due to, you guessed it, that same “impurity.”3 I feel the urge to say, “Oh, come on . . .”

Then in the thirteenth century, someone you’ve probably heard of, Saint Thomas Aquinas, described a woman as a “misbegotten male.” He wrote, “The woman is defective and misbegotten for the active power in the male seed tends to the production of the perfect likeness according to the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from the defect in active power or from some material in this position or from some material indisposition, or from external influences, such as that of a south wind which is moist.” The inferiority of women is explained as the result of her menstrual flow, believed to be passive and “moist,” therefore imperfect as an agent of procreation.4

This way of thinking has been pervasive up through the centuries until, well, pretty much now, as we’ll get into later. So, we had the trusted and revered church—practically any church—telling us that we were both physically and spiritually filthy. As for science, well, Thomas was in total agreement with the third-century BCE words of one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Aristotle, who long before him had said the following:

“The outward sign of the female inferiority is menstruation. The female is deficient. Women are the inferior species… because they menstruate. They only contribute the serum (blood) in which the seed (sperm) can grow. The serum contributes the nutrition but the seed is the source of the spirit and intellect.”5

These falsehoods were the prevailing medical thought about women and menstruation until the 17th century. Yes, that is 14 centuries of conditioning.

As I was discovering this, I kept pondering, “Why was no one talking about this age-old attitude? Why had we just accepted this idea that our periods were a curse to be endured, that we were filthy and inferior because we menstruated?”

Women had experienced this systematic conditioning (or a nice way of saying brainwashing) that created an environment in which it’s just accepted that women suffer monthly. Please do notice, I do not use the word “victim,” because I don’t want anyone to be a victim of anyone or anything. Looking through that lens would disempower us from moving away from what’s happened in the past into what we design for the future. But let’s admit this has not been an empowering situation for us—at least until now.

I’m pretty sure that men would never put up with this. Not because they’re smarter, better, stronger, or any of that patriarchal bullshit. But because they don’t believe they have to or they can’t allow anything to suggest they’re somehow flawed. Of course, this belief derives from privilege, which drives an entirely different set of pathological behaviors—think #timesup, right? Still, it’s useful to explore what men might do if they were in the same situation.

I have this little fantasy of attaching menstrual cramp simulators to men’s balls for a day to see what would happen. Think about it. If I went into Congress tomorrow and attached these cramp-inducing mini machines onto the male Congresspeople’s balls, passed out cupcakes, bottles of Tylenol, and boxed wine, and told them, “I’ll be back in the morning!” And then left them to suffer through the night with the toolbox most of us use to manage a bad night of period cramps. What do you think would happen?

I think by the next morning, they’d all be saying, “That shit is never happening again!” They would find a way to shut the country down and order the world’s most brilliant experts on periods to solve this problem before their next cycle.

But women continue to suffer in silence.

I’m no psychologist, but I have a sense that our acceptance started with all those early conversations that influenced our self worth at the deepest place. I think we internalized some part of that story as the truth.

I recently spoke with a very high-profile woman who is originally from India. She’s a very forward-thinking medical doctor here. She shared a story about when her father died a few years ago. She went back to India for his funeral and got her period as soon as she arrived in her hometown. This created a real dilemma for her, because menstruating women are not allowed in the temples—even for their own father’s funeral. She really didn’t know what to do, because she doesn’t consider herself a Hindu any more, and no one else would have known that she was menstruating, but still some part of her felt tremendous guilt about going against the religious prescriptions.

I’m not going to tell you what she decided in the end, because what I want to point out instead is that so many of us face this kind of choice. Even when we think we know better, that we’ve freed ourselves from these constricting ideas, we still face choices in our everyday lives that are impacted by them. We discover that even when we think, “Shit, there’s no way I feel any menstrual shame”— whether it’s feeling shy about having sex during our periods or hating to buy tampons from the teenager at the drugstore—we do. The stories we’re exposed to about our maturation, our bodies, our periods, and our fertility penetrate powerfully into our mindset and can drive our thoughts and actions for our entire lives.

A Brief History of the Managing of Menstrual Blood

We can’t look at the history of menstruation without examining how women and PWP managed their menstrual blood—especially when it was considered more vile than the devil, which made it infinitely more important to hide any telltale signs.

Since we started with Leviticus above , let’s first look at the prescriptions from the Bible. The Bible defines timeframes for how long women are unclean after their periods—and how long anyone who touches them is unclean.7 And right in line with Leviticus’s obsessive concern with our menstrual filth, the Egyptians come on board to sanitize periods with the first tampon. But get this: They made them out of papyrus… yes, rolled wood. Yikes, I can’t imagine how uncomfortable those puppies were. If I’d been around back then, the entrepreneur in me would have been brainstorming like crazy how to improve user experience and figure out a better material!

Now to be fair, they did soften the wood in the Nile, but unfortunately, that’s where most of the real “pollution” existed at the time—so that couldn’t have been healthy for women. At least they were reusable—but it’s too bad they got washed in the same filthy Nile water the other ladies were softening the things in. I can’t believe that all menstruating women didn't die from the first cases of toxic shock syndrome.8

Think things could only get better from there? Not so much. Women in Victorian England decided the plug-type solution was for the birds and just started free bleeding into their clothes – as late as the nineteenth century. I guess if your dress is poofy enough, you can hide any amount of blood underneath. I find that harder to wrap my mind around than even a papyrus tampon.9

During World War I, French nurses got the great idea of making pads out of wood pulp bandages. At last! I’m not sure why it took so long for the whole world to figure that one out. Despite the fact that those first pads were pretty big and cumbersome, the idea took off all over the world thanks to those trendsetting Frenchwomen.10

By the 1920s, a lot was changing for women and their periods. Though pads did a great job of absorbing menstrual flow, they were traps for fecal and urinary bacteria (which in many ways they still are, and some nonorganic ones are chock full of dioxin). Women were dissatisfied with the ability of pads to keep them feeling fresh, which was probably the impetus for the first tampon as we know it. Invented by a doctor of osteopathic medicine, Earle Haas, the first tampon was originally known as the “catamenal device.”11 I can only assume he named it that after the Greek word for menses, but he doesn’t seem to have explained his reasoning at the time for developing such an obscure term for something we PWPs use on a regular basis. However, we do know that he got the idea from a woman friend who had started simply inserting a piece of sponge inside herself, rather than wearing it outside. That made really good sense to the doctor, because physicians had already been using cotton to stop bleeding internally and externally. If the cotton were compressed, he apparently realized, it might be able to deliver longer-lasting absorbency.

While the catamenial quickly grew in popularity, it took a woman to really bring it to life. In 1936, a Denver businesswoman, Gertrude Tendrich, bought Haas’s company and renamed it Tampax. The rest is tampon history.12

Unfortunately, around the same time, we had a pretty serious setback in our journey to menstrual acceptance and freedom, thanks to Béla Schick (most famous for the “Schick test” used to detect immunity to diphtheria toxin). Evidently, one afternoon, he received a bunch of ten dark red roses, which a maid placed in a vase of water. When he saw the next morning that the flowers had wilted and died, he made inquiries and discovered that the maid had been menstruating. The maid reported that often when she touched flowers during her period, they would die by the next day.

Seeing an opportunity to do some serious medical research, Schick then carried out experiments with menstruating and nonmenstruating servant girls, checking the effect their status had on flowers and also on making dough. He concluded that something was excreted through the skin of menstruating women that had a toxic effect—very powerful toxins that he called menotoxins—creative, eh?13, 14

Schick thought menotoxins were some pretty nasty toxins present in menstrual blood right before and during the first few days of the onset of a woman’s period. His and other “research” concluded that menotoxins had an inhibitory effect on the growth of roots, stems, bread dough, and seedlings. Menotoxins were still being discussed almost fifty years later in The Lancet, a major medical journal—meaning that some doctors were still giving that bogus theory real scientific credit in the 1970s!15

Even as companies today such as Thinx and Diva Cup are starting to change the conversation around menstruation, we’re still deeply impacted and influenced by the mostly male-led corporations manufacturing menstrual products, marketing teams created by male ad executives, and religious leaders who tell us how to feel about our periods and bodies. As recently as 1997, advertisements for drugs meant for menstrual pain used the term “hygienic crisis.” Advertising has tremendous power to influence the tone and attitudes in the cultural zeitgeist. Given that the entire messaging around menstrual products has been centered around “hygiene,” it’s quite clear how these very old belief systems have been kept in place. But don’t just believe me. Head over to your local Target, walk down the tampon aisle and see just how many vaginal douches (even though they are extremely bad for your vaginal health), scented tampons, and vaginal fragrance sprays are available. Hell, the aisle is called “Feminine Hygiene”—so much merchandising in the name of sanitizing our crotches. I wish there was a row in the men’s underwear aisle called Skidmark Central and I might feel less discriminated against.

I’m guessing that most of this history is news to you. Again, that goes back to the fact that nobody talks about periods. What’s especially galling—if not downright evil—is how we, as women, are supposed to make sure it stays that way. As Chris Bobel, the president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts, puts it, “The message to women has been: ‘Menstruation is your problem, ladies. Your job is to render it invisible.’”16 After speaking with thousands of women about their periods, I would say that most of us agree with that assessment. Even today, this attitude permeates almost every mainstream advertisement about menstrual products (which, paradoxically, are one of the few sources we do have for “information”), which always include the recurring themes of secrecy and the need for sanitization.

So where does that leave us?

Well, in 1981, Tampax, Inc., published a study called “The Tampax Report,” which found that attitudes about periods and the people who have them are pretty dismal. Though this study is almost forty years old, according to Procter & Gamble (which now owns Tampax) the findings are still right on the money. Here is what the researchers found:

  • One-third of American women were not prepared for menstruation, and two-fifths of them report their first reaction to it to be a negative one;
  • One-quarter of Americans think women cannot function normally at work while menstruating;
  • One-half the population thinks that women should not have sexual intercourse while menstruating;
  • One-third believe that menstruation affects a woman’s thinking ability;
  • One-third think women should restrict their physical activity during menstruation;
  • Nearly one-quarter think menstrual pain is all in a woman’s head.

Other noteworthy findings focused on the differences between men and women’s views on menstruation.

  • 56% of women say menstruation is painful but only 39% of men believe that;
  • 88% of women and 66% of men think menstruation has no effect on work life;
  •   38% of men and only 27% of women believe it’s OK to talk about menstruation.

So we still have some work to do. But we can get there.

Taking Back the Power

Here’s what I find incredibly ironic: women have been shamed, subjugated, mutilated, beaten, and cast out because they bled. We have been demeaned and labeled by the Church and scientific leaders as filthy, feeble, and inferior. But in reality, folks are super fucking scared of the mysterious power of menstrual blood. Unfortunately for women, it’s fairly easy to indoctrinate the young, ripe minds of adolescents into the dominant belief system—and they may never break free of those ideas.

Historically, when young women first get their periods, many cultures have directly or indirectly let them understand exactly how their community feels about them and their maturing, menstruating bodies. From forced seclusion and beating to cutting and circumcising, the rituals that are performed when a young girl starts her period send a clear message that now that you’re a woman, you need to be docile and agreeable.

The question is, Why is that so important? The majority of taboos and myths around menstruation stem from the fear that menstruating women’s power to also create signals they have the power to destroy, and that power must be contained for the well-being of society—or, maybe just the well-being of men in order to enforce their economic power in society. Just sayin’.

Fear and the desire for power or control drive almost everything in our society, and we can see how these rituals, taboos, and mythology have set the tone around menstruation since practically the beginning of time. Let’s look at just a few examples of the mighty power of menstrual blood that illustrate exactly what has been driving different societies’ need to disempower us. If any ideas of the following examples are true, menstrual blood is the most powerful, badass substance on the planet.

In ancient Egypt, menstrual blood was literally considered sorcery and incorporated into spell casting and medical treatments. In the first century BCE, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder claimed that menstrual blood was poisonous, could perform alarming magical feats, and caused wine to sour, trees and crops to die, mirrors to cloud, swords to blunt, and dogs to go mad should they chance to taste it. In primitive societies, menstrual blood was “known” to cure leprosy, warts, birthmarks, gout, hemorrhoids, epilepsy, and headaches.17 Even as late as 1870, Augustus Kinsley Gardner, the author of Conjugal Sins Against the Laws of Life and Health, said that menstrual blood is corrupt and virulent, threatening an unwitting penis with a syndrome now known as gonorrhea.18 Different eras, same story, eh?

After reading about the magical and mysterious powers of menstrual blood, you can imagine all the reasons menstrual sex has long been deemed a terrible idea. Here are just a few (OK, a ton) of the rules, laws, and prohibitions that further make my point that menstrual blood is some mighty juice.

In the early part of this century, doctors and psychiatrists perpetuated the myth that women are sexually passive members of the species and that they are the least interested in sexual activity while they are menstruating. Kinda weird, since there does seem to be plenty of evidence that a lot of women do in fact have increased libido during their periods.

Nevertheless, even if your girl wants it, you should probably stay far away when she’s on the rag because nothing but bad is coming your way if you enter that red tent.

Check it out: one South African clan believes that having intercourse with a woman having her period can make a man’s bones go soft. In Zoroastrianism, there’s a belief that any man who lies with a menstruating woman will beget a demon and be punished in hell by having filth poured into his mouth.19 The Torah warns against having intercourse with menstruating women because doing so will cause the “cutting of life on earth and the denial of life to come.”20

Taboos aren’t all bad. Historically, they’ve existed to protect human beings from danger through imagery and storytelling. But this taboo is ironic because, in fact, menstrual intercourse is actually good for the woman—it temporarily relieves cramps by increasing the menstrual flow.

And sure, it has long been argued in medical circles that the combination of menstruation and intercourse is harmful to women, but there is absolutely no data to support that.

Given that menstrual blood and having sex with a menstruating woman is so dangerous, you have to wonder, how the hell did we get into this situation where we are so ashamed of such a powerpants showing up once a month? Truthfully, I firmly believe that, very early on, we missed a critical opportunity to have total world domination. I joke a lot, but I am dead serious here.

It was pretty much commonly agreed that our blood was a source of power, magic, and sorcery. But instead of using it as our lightsaber, our powertool equipped with unsurpassed power, somehow it got turned upside down into this super gross, vile, filthy thing to be hidden and ashamed about.

The moment I thought about it like this, a lightbulb went off and I saw everything about our situation differently. I totally understood why we are where we are and where we needed to go in order to make some meaningful changes.

It was what I call a therapeutic revelation. Now, I don’t know if you have ever been in therapy or done any group self-improvement work, but sometimes you have a really difficult and/or painful realization. It can happen when you’re working with a therapist or doctor and asking “Why am I so sick?” or “Why do I feel so crazy? So depressed? I just don’t understand what’s going on.” Then the others say something like “Well, when you were little, you witnessed something horrible, then your parents had a nasty and violent divorce, or you got mugged in college,” and suddenly, even though you knew all of those facts, the impact of the sum of those events comes into focus and you have an Aha! moment. You develop a certain amount of newfound compassion for yourself that allows you to begin to transcend your past. You start the process of freeing yourself from the constraints of what has already transpired.

That’s how I felt after I learned about the history of the menstrual cycle. It’s one of the main motivations behind this book. I want to share how history becomes herstory. I want to finally untangle the shame and association with filth.

So, here’s where our story actually begins, through clearly retelling the past, trying to understand its motivations, and deciding that this is the last time that story about women is told— that we seize the opportunity today, right now, to change the way women relate to and experience our periods.

Notes / Sources:

  1. Leviticus, in The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testa- ments: King James Version (City: American Bible Society, 2010).
  2. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, translator, The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  3. Miyazaki Fumiko, “Female Pilgrims and Mt. Fuji: Changing Perspectives on the Exclusion of Women,” Monumenta Nipponica 60, no. 3 (Autumn 2005): 339–91,
  4. Thomas Aquinas, “Question 92. The Production of the Woman,” The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, New Advent,
  5. Nicholas D. Smith, “Plato and Aristotle on the Nature of Women,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21, no. 4 (October 1983): 467–78,
  6. A. K. Gardner, “The Causes of Physical Degeneracy,” Popular Science Monthly 1 (August 8, 1872): 482–91,https://en.wikisource .org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_1/August _1872/The_Causes_of_Physical_Degeneracy.
  7. Leviticus.
  8. Petra Habiger, “Early History: Menstruation, Menstrual Hygiene and Woman’s Health in Ancient Egypt,” A Note from Germany, 1998,
  9. S. L. Read, “Thy Righteousness Is But a Menstrual Clout: Sanitary Practices and Prejudice in Early Modern England,” Early Modern Women:AnInterdisciplinaryJournal,3(2008): 1–25, https://dspace -EMWJ2008v3.pdf.
  10. Sabrina, “The History of the Sanitary Pad,” Femme Interna- tional, June 24, 2013, -history-of-the-sanitary-pad/.
  11. Earle C. Haas, “US1964911A—Catamenial Device,” July 3, 1934, Google Patents, /bc/1c/3572a17ff720e9/US1964911.pdf.
  12. History of Tampax,” Tampax, /history-of-tampax.
  13. J. A. Bryant, D. G. Heathcote, and V. R. Pickles, “The Search for ‘Menotoxin,’ ” The Lancet 309, no. 8014 (April 2, 1977): 753, -6736(77)92199-7/fulltext.
  14. Kate Clancy, “Menstruation Is Just Blood and Tissue You Ended Up Not Using,” Scientific American, September 9, 2011,
  15. Rahel R. Wasserfall, Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), /Wasserfall.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y.
  16. Roni Caryn Rabin, “Free the Tampons,” February 29, 2016,
  17. Pliny the Elder, Natural History: A Selection, translated by John F. Healy (London: Penguin Classics, 1991); Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth, The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 29–38.
  18. A. K. Gardner, “The Causes of Physical Degeneracy,” Popular Science Monthly 1 (August 8, 1872): 482–91, https://en.wikisource .org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_1/August _1872/The_Causes_of_Physical_Degeneracy.
  19. T. R. Sethna, Vendidad: The Law of Zarathushtra to Turn Away from Evil (Karachi: Sethna, 1977); Lebogang Keolebogile Maruapula, “Menstruation Myth: Why Are African Women Still Paying for It?,” World Economic Forum, May 9, 2016, https://www -african-women-still-paying-for-it/.
  20. Torah, edited by Irmtraud Fischer and Mercedes Navarro Puerto (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014).