“Wonderfully Made” lecture series discusses menstrual justice, period stigma
Genevieve Coleman | Wednesday, October 27, 2021
The Saint Mary’s Department of Religious Studies hosted the third installment of the lecture series “Wonderfully Made,” Tuesday evening in Stapleton Lounge. The event was co-sponsored by the Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO), Sexuality and Gender Equality (SAGE) and the Office for the Common Good (OCG).
BAVO coordinator Liz Coulston began by introducing the night’s speakers — religious studies professors Molly Gower and Stacy Davis. Coulston also discussed the initiative started by BAVO and the OCG with the goal to place menstrual products in all restrooms on campus.
“You might have noticed a couple of baskets in the student center, a couple in Le Mans and Angela,” she said. “We are hoping to put initiatives together to have various departments and groups on campus sponsor a basket so that people can take something when they need either in case of [an] emergency or if that’s where you might not be able to put your money. We want and believe that everyone should have equal access to menstrual products.”
Gower began the first of the two talks by overviewing how historically, Christianity has considered menstruation a process that made the body impure, especially in Old Testament texts like the Book of Leviticus.
However, she noted the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke include the story about the hemorrhaging woman who was cured by Jesus — a change from earlier Biblical texts.
“On the one hand, interpretations place this story in the context of the purity codes — reading the story as a moment in which we see the Christian movement considering itself, experimenting with its identity and trying to differentiate itself all in relationship to Jewish practice,” Gower said.
This difference of interpretation is based on whether an individual believes that the hemorrhaging woman touched Jesus’s clothing, like in Matthew and Mark, or if she touched Jesus himself, as distinguished in Luke. According to Gower, this contact with Jesus has significantly affected thought about how menstruators can engage with the Eucharist.
Gower then addressed conflicting views by Church leaders about menstruators’ place in the church. At one time, Pope Gregory the Great was the authority on whether individuals could worship while they were menstruating.
“He responded emphatically when Augustine of Canterbury asked him if a woman could properly enter a church while menstruating and whether she could receive Communion at these times,” she said. “Gregory observed that a woman must not be prohibited from entering church for this natural flowing cannot be [controlled].”
After describing the contrasting opinions of other men, Gower said now, more focus is placed on virginity over menstruation.
“In short, these conversations do not maintain their lively status in the Christian tradition,” Gower said. “This is because more and more Christians turned their attention away from menstruation and toward virginity in order to think with and talk about notions of purity.“
Gower described the clear connection between menstrual blood and the blood of Christ through examining historical sources.
“Drawing on ancient pagan sources, medieval Christian theologians worked with menses as a kind of sacred or magical material for human generation, inspiring life and offering form to the unborn,” she said. “In the 13th and 14th centuries in particular, Christians connected reproductive blood, sacrificial blood and the Eucharist. [Scholar] Caroline Walker Bymun has demonstrated both male and female writers … envisioned menstrual blood as powerful and believing sacrifice, especially when they described Christ’s sacrifice — Christ’s painful death on the cross.”
Gower continued by speaking about how Mary typically is not associated with menstruation because of her celebrated virginity.
“It seems to me that this is a missed opportunity to talk about and perhaps pray about marriage, what it means to be human, what it means to be a woman,” Gower said. “I don’t think that is a simple or easy question, but I think it’s a question that we can think about here — all of this in relationship to God and in relationship to our communities.”
Davis then began by asking the audience what they learned in school about menstruation and used the concept of intersectionality to emphasize that menstrual equity needs to occur for all who menstruate, including transgender men.
She continued by acknowledging that accessing menstrual products is an issue, individuals should also be aware of conditions like primary dysmenorrhea — recurring painful periods and secondary dysmenorrhea which could be a sign of endometriosis, which take years to diagnose.
“We got to have more education about what is considered a normal cycle and what is not,” she said.
Davis encouraged the audience to take their bodies seriously and know their family history, which are key factors to earlier diagnosis.
In addition, Davis discussed premenstrual syndrome (PMS), a condition in the DSM 5, a recognized mental health diagnostic manual. She, as well as many researchers, posit that PMS should not be considered a mental health condition because of the many physical symptoms that are often left untreated.
Davis highlighted low-wage workers, children, prisoners and homeless individuals as groups that are most likely to be victims of inequity. Davis also noted issues with access to menstrual products for people of lower socioeconomic status.
“Part of the problem is that because tampons and pads are not considered medical supplies, they are taxed in most states, including this one,“ she said. “What really got me is that in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which [distributes] food stamps, you can’t buy tampons or pads.”
To combat the stigma around menstruation, Davis concluded her presentation by offering the solutions of menstrual leave in the workplace to stop referring to menstrual items as feminine hygiene products because they denote only women menstruating and that menstruation itself is something unclean.