Ever since patriarchy spread its tentacles around humanity, narratives that were skewed towards privileging men over women have been constructed. Women, in turn, have been socialised to accept, as legitimate, the norms and more that these narratives engender.
The legitimacy of the existing power structures at any given period is accepted because the hegemonic ideology has conditioned people to do so. The oppressed become so accustomed to these structures that they believe the existing power relations are natural and justified.
Under patriarchy, women are accorded an inferior and degraded status. Anything that relates to women carries a pejorative charge. Any challenge to the unjust power structure is often met with resistance since the privileged, that is men, wish to maintain the status quo.
Simone De Beauvoir, a French feminist philosopher, in her masterpiece, The Second Sex, beautifully sketches how these heteronormative narratives have successfully defined and stereotyped women as the “other”, an inessential and incidental being.
This category is objectified in the sense that it can be acted upon by the subject, men. She further explains how these narratives manipulate the facts of biology in order to justify the status of women as the “other”. Beauvoir says:
“The facts of biology take on the values that the existent bestows upon them.”
Thus, menstruation bears a social meaning, as ascribed to it by patriarchy. Comprehending this requires that it be located in the larger historical context. Although we have an abundance of discourses that dealt with the women question, drawing on Marxist Feminist discourses will give us a clearer illustration of how material conditions preceded ideas in constructing history.
Marx himself did not write extensively on the question of women. Instead, his thoughts on the matter were left to be developed later by Engels. In his work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels explores the link between private ownership of resources and the status of women.
Polygamy was the prevalent form of marriage till the coming of private property. With the advent of private property, men had to pass on their privately owned wealth to their legal heirs, something which was not feasible under polygamy where there was uncertainty regarding the paternity of children.
Unless this uncertainty is resolved, a smooth transfer of property to children was not possible. Hence, monogamy, under which men could have sexual control over their wives in order to ensure undisputed paternity became the norm. In the words of Engels:
“It’s based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.”
Now, monogamy has come to play a pivotal role in sustaining the capitalist system where a clear division of labour occurred. While men were assigned the tasks directly related to industrial production outside the family, women were left with the task of child-rearing and other housework.
Elsewhere, Marx analyses how the monogamous family caters to the needs of capitalism. It feeds off the labour-power maintained in good health and condition by the family. This maintenance requires women in the role of housewives.
One of the basic commodities that capitalism needs, labour, is produced by the family. In it, women produce and rear children, a labour that does not have to be paid for. It is worth noting that in the pre-industrial agrarian societies, where the family was the unit of production, the sexual division of labour and the gendered segregation between home and workplace did not exist.
Ann Oakley, a distinguished British sociologist and feminist, argues that married women have to endure more monotony, social isolation and pressure of time than even assembly line workers who are seen as the most alienated workers in the labour force. Women are treated as instruments for the sexual gratification of men, reproduction and child-rearing. Moreover, she’s the emotional bedrock of the family that serves as a safety valve on which men returning home from the drudgery of work can vent their frustration.
Oakley points out four major effects of industrialisation: separation of men from domestic life, the economic dependence of women and children on men, the isolation of housework and childcare from other works, and the institutionalisation of the mother-housewife role as the primary role of women.
The two major factors that triggered these effects were the banning of child labour in the 19th century and the restrictive measures on female labour outside the home. With the growing conviction that child labour is illegal and that children require a sheltered upbringing, it was banned, the result of which saw women be confined to their homes for child care. This was paralleled by the growing fear among men that women would dominate workplaces, throwing them out of jobs.
This prompted men to lobby with the government to legislate restricting female labour outside the home. They excluded women from trade unions, pressurised the government to enact laws withdrawing female labour from factories and carried out propaganda to confine women to the household. Thus, female labour got relegated to the role of housewives and mothers at home.
Men who were guaranteed control over the outside world, on the other hand, worked hard to get women to internalise the gender stereotypes. From a very early age, girls were preconditioned to the adult roles, instilling the belief in them that in no way could they find more pleasure in something other than serving their husbands and his kin.
In the 1970s, Sue Sharpe, a sociologist, conducted a survey among working-class girls in the secondary schools of London Borough of Ealing. When the girls were asked what their priorities in life were, they answered in the order — love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs and careers. In schools, girls were steered towards activities like cookery, needlework and housework, and boys towards scientific and technical subjects.
Sue argues that girls were schooled with the marriage market in mind. Once the girls are married off, they have to undergo the “Pygmalion Effect”, a phrase adopted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. It implies the wife’s “redefinition of the self and an active reshaping of the personality to conform to the wishes or needs of the husband”. This submission is met with no resistance as a false perception of self deceives women, that must sacrifice its well-being for that of the family.
Amartya Sen propounds that most women lack a clear perception of self-interest. He states:
“Acute inequalities often survive because the underdog comes to accept the legitimacy of the unequal order and becomes an implicit accomplice.”
Altruism is forced upon women through ideology.
There, of course, are cases of discontent brewing among married women. But this is often concealed by an overt appearance of compliance, a survival strategy for women who may have nothing to fall back upon if ditched by their husbands.
Even though under late-stage capitalism there is an influx of women into the labour market and that they are armed with more political rights and financial independence, they still have to straddle the dual roles of wives under men and labourers under the employer.
It’s interesting to note that the adverts of washing machines address the question of easing the washing but not that of the desirability of shifting the responsibility. At home, men serve the role of an exploiter, akin to capitalists, and women are the labourers.
We may conclude from all this that industrialisation and capitalism have influenced the way gender-relations work in order to fulfil its requirements. This is not to overlook the fact that other forms of gender inequalities existed before the industrial age.
Besides, under capitalism, we can still find communities like the Kibbutz of Israel, where men and women have equal standing with child-rearing being the common responsibility of the whole community. Yet, in the face of gross gender inequalities that persist across countries under the capitalist world order, we are compelled to gloss over these exceptional cases.
Now, this structure of gender relations must be taken as our frame of reference in analysing the social and political dimensions of menstruation.
As pointed out earlier, facts of biology don’t stand independent of social factors. How biological factors are interpreted comes down to the power structure in society. The existing power structure that ascribes inferiority, timidity, docility and meekness to femininity is the reason behind menstruation bearing a negative connotation.
Tabooing and stigmatising menstruation is a way of legitimising the status of women as subordinate. The socio-cultural definitions that are tagged on menstruation arise from the underprivileged position of women in society. Menstrual stigma is rooted in their degraded status.
To quote Beauvoir: “Just as the penis derives its privileged evaluation from the social context, so it’s the social context that makes menstruation a curse. The one symbolises manhood, the other femininity; and it’s because femininity signifies alterity and inferiority that its manifestation is met with shame.”
Menstrual blood is seen as a repugnant fluid, the sight or even the mention of which attracts abhorrence and contempt. Bloody leaks or stains are taken as symbols of cultural inferiority and irrationality. The women who don’t care enough to get their skirts stained are seen as irrational beings, closer to the savages.
Ironically, the coming of this “repugnant” fluid is a matter of celebration for some families as it signifies the entrance into motherhood. We have to note here that celebrating menstruation as an entrance into motherhood further typecasts women as mothers. When such conceptions are imparted through religion, they become so entrenched that a retreat from these dogmas becomes impossible.
However, in a sexually egalitarian society, things would be a lot different. In the words of Beauvoir:
“In a sexually egalitarian society, women regard menstruation simply as her special way of reaching adult life; the human body in both men and women has other and more disagreeable needs to be taken care of, but they are easily adjusted to because, being common to all, they do not represent blemish for anyone; the menses inspire horror in the adolescent girl because they throw her into an inferior and defective category.”
Applying Foucauldian discourse analysis here, we can see how the power relations in society and the norms that they endorse are expressed through language and behaviour.
Modern individuals are the embodiment of the modern industry in the sense that they are docile, malleable and submissive to social norms and will police themselves to ensure that they conform to these norms. This is a form of self-objectification.
Thus, in a patriarchal system, under the male gaze, women match up to the expectations regarding femininity. The modern society is a surveillance society where the behaviour of subjects is scrutinised. Women regard their self-value as reflected through the heteronormative narratives constructed by the authoritative male and regulate their bodily movements in conformity to the male gaze. On their period, girls walk and dress in a prescribed manner and they try hard to hide the fact that they are menstruating. Women are, thus, puppets manoeuvred by the authoritative male to suit their whims.
Capitalism has often capitalised on this socio-cultural construction of menstruation. As Marx beautifully put it:
“Capitalism will cut down the tree if it can’t sell its shadow.”
At the beginning of the 19th century, advancements in medical science were paralleled by the growing prominence of the Germ Theory of Disease. It labelled menstrual blood as too unsanitary and unhygienic that new ways of menstrual health management were thought to be necessary.
American physician Edward H Clarke in Fair Chance for Girls even went to the extent of saying that girls should shelve their schooling once they started menstruating. He believed education could distract them from proper menstrual management, which could be detrimental to their chances of becoming a mother.
The feminine hygiene industry capitalised on the germ theory and the myths surrounding menstruation. It created new needs apart from the basic needs concerning hygiene. With the backing of the medical discourse that dubbed menstruation as a feminine handicap, the industry advertised the products keeping in view the popular disdain towards menstruation.
Products like Amolin, Lysol and Zonite were marketed to “married women” and were promoted to cure all “marital ills”. For instance, one Lysol ad offered women “morning-after freshness” with the warning; “beware of the one intimate neglect that can engulf you in marital grief”, a code word for avoiding vaginal odour during and after sex.
When tampons were introduced, they were promoted as an internal form of protection, an idea that implied menstruating in a “civilised” manner.
From the 1940s, when the Second World War was gaining momentum, there was a shift in the themes of ads. Around this time, women entered the labour force in the U.S. to aid war efforts. Women’s bravery and competency in the workplace was the main thrust of these ads.
In the 1950s, when women started retreating from factories, the ads portrayed women as ornamental beings, underlining that their only burden was to be beautiful. In the 1960s too, firms capitalised on the notions of idealised womanhood. From the 1970s onwards, the hygiene industry linked women’s liberation with the consumption of menstrual products.
With the coming of the 21st century, the industry began profiteering by circulating ideas of freshness and concealment associated with menstruation. When firm’s cash in on such notions, they are exploiting the status of women as the “other” for corporate profit.
So, the kind of emancipation of women they promise, through consumption, comes at the cost of further degrading their status. In the words of gender scholar Elizabeth Kissling:
“Freedom is never really free under Capitalism.”
The exploitative nature of capitalism is more explicit in the fact that menstrual products are taxed. Sanitary napkins, tampons and menstrual cups are seen as “luxury items”. Since the use of these products cannot be avoided, women have no choice but to buy them. Such a scenario puts the destitute and poor women in trouble, denying them the right to basic health.
The environmental degradation that the use of plastic pads leads to is another cause for worry. Capitalism, thus, manipulates every facet of menstruation to its benefit.
Therefore, within the structure of the existent monogamous family in the service of the capitalist mode of production, women’s emancipation isn’t accomplishable.
Menstruation as a purely biological process and nothing more will be acknowledged only in a sexually egalitarian social structure.
As long as the Capitalism-Patriarchy nexus is the preponderant world order, gender equality will remain merely a concept.