I recently wrote an arti­cle about talk­ing about your period and how to bat­tle stigma about it. It talks briefly about com­mon myths around peri­ods in day-to-day life, and I wanted to expand the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of this. The his­tory of peri­ods is not as bleak as it may seem; not all soci­eties stig­ma­tised or shamed them. But in this arti­cle, I wanted to talk about an aspect of the his­tory of peri­ods cru­cial in devel­op­ing the stigma we expe­ri­ence today. 

That is the idea of ‘impu­rity,’ which in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury was inves­ti­gated sci­en­tif­i­cally in the search for meno­tox­ins. Ideas about impu­rity in peri­ods have per­sisted in soci­eties across the world for cen­turies. In Europe, the influ­ence of Pliny the Elder’s Nat­ural His­tory per­pet­u­ated the idea of ‘pol­lu­tion’ from a men­stru­at­ing body. This went hand in hand with prej­u­dice from reli­gious sources: men­stru­at­ing peo­ple were banned from enter­ing Church by Bishop Theodore of Can­ter­bury in 690 CE. That mir­rors how many holy sites through­out Asia are still barred to men­stru­at­ing peo­ple today.

Peri­ods as impure

In India and Nepal, peo­ple often live in sep­a­rate huts while men­stru­at­ing, as some Hin­dus see men­stru­a­tors as impure and unable to engage in daily life. There is a mis­con­cep­tion that men­stru­a­tors can­not even touch male, non-men­stru­at­ing fam­ily mem­bers while they are on their period, or they will make them sick. This goes to show how wide­spread the myth is, which has a heavy impact on the present day. In many places, these beliefs are still prac­tices, and in oth­ers the stigma remains. When period adver­tis­ing began in the West in the 1870s, it focused on how it was some­thing to be hid­den or ashamed of. Period prod­ucts couldn’t even be adver­tised on the tele­vi­sion until the 1970s.

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Meno­tox­ins in the his­tory of periods

This idea of ‘impu­rity’ was sub­ject to sci­en­tific inves­ti­ga­tion in the 1920s. The story goes that the pae­di­a­tri­cian Béla Schick noticed that ten red flow­ers wilted a day after he received them. After ask­ing the maid who put them in the vase, he dis­cov­ered she had been men­stru­at­ing at the time and sought to inves­ti­gate fur­ther. He con­ducted exper­i­ments on men­stru­at­ing and non-men­stru­at­ing ser­vants with flow­ers and bread dough. Sup­pos­edly his find­ings were that with the men­stru­at­ing maids, the flow­ers wilted, and the bread refused to rise. This matched closely super­sti­tions seen across Europe, wherein a men­stru­a­tor could stop bread ris­ing, kill plants, pre­vent jam set­ting, spoil milk and so on. Schick con­cluded that some­thing must be secreted through the skin of a men­stru­a­tor that was toxic.

The exper­i­ment­ing with ‘Meno­toxin’

At Har­vard Uni­ver­sity in the 1950s, George and Olive Smith – spe­cial­ists in repro­duc­tive dis­eases who would coin the term ‘menotoxin’—also inves­ti­gated. They took sam­ples of men­strual blood and injected it into small ani­mals, which killed them. The Smiths took this as evi­dence that there must be a toxic sub­stance in men­strual blood, but the gynae­col­o­gist Bern­hard Zon­dek dis­proved this. He repeated the exper­i­ment, mix­ing antibi­otics with the men­strual blood when he gave it to the small ani­mals. The ani­mals sur­vived, which showed that it was the bac­te­ria in the blood which killed them, not toxins.

How­ever, when Schick’s story was retold in The Lancet in the 1970s, it sparked dis­cus­sion again. Said dis­cus­sion met an igno­ble end when a doc­tor wrote in to point out that there was insuf­fi­cient evi­dence for Schick’s claim. But 1977 still saw phys­i­ol­o­gists exper­i­ment­ing with men­strual blood. They were try­ing to find any sub­stance that may be poi­so­nous or may affect the menstruator’s mood. So, while the sci­en­tific ground­ing for the menotoxin—and larger ‘impurity’—theory is utterly unsup­ported, the dogged belief in it per­sists, non­sen­si­cal though it is. After all, if the men­strual blood that lines the uterus is toxic, why would embryos implant in it?

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Impli­ca­tions of the meno­toxin and impu­rity theory

Lack of evi­dence or not, the per­sis­tence of impu­rity myths through the his­tory of peri­ods has a strong impact. The stigma men­tioned in the pre­vi­ous arti­cle stems from cen­turies of oppres­sion, secrecy, and shame. The myths men­tioned ear­lier, like that men­stru­at­ing peo­ple shouldn’t cook, touch flow­ers, or even talk to fam­ily mem­bers, only served to make people’s lives more dif­fi­cult. While peri­ods made not have been as reg­u­lar in the past, due to poorer diets and nutri­tion, it was still a reg­u­lar source of shame used to oppress people.

On the other hand, it’s worth not­ing that being banned from oth­er­wise com­mon house­hold chores may have been wel­come for some peo­ple. If you are feel­ing unwell, you prob­a­bly don’t want to spend the day cook­ing or work­ing on the farm. You might be happy to let some­one else in the fam­ily take over. But the intent behind the tra­di­tions and super­sti­tions is to ostracise men­stru­a­tors, rather than make their lives eas­ier. It still feeds into that cul­ture of shame.

What does his­tory mean for peri­ods today?

We sim­ply would not be in the same cul­ture we’re in today with­out the past. That applies to peri­ods espe­cially. While, hope­fully, some of the tra­di­tional super­sti­tions may be increas­ingly uncom­mon, some of them per­sist and remain dan­ger­ous to men­stru­a­tors around the world. Fur­ther­more, while the retired super­sti­tions may not hold any sway, their stigma remains. Peo­ple feel uncom­fort­able talk­ing about their peri­ods. Vul­vani has writ­ten before about adver­tis­ing for peri­ods and the impact it can have. This adver­tis­ing trend has devel­oped over the last cen­tury and a half, with its begin­nings rooted in sham­ing peo­ple who menstruate.

The meno­toxin the­ory is, thank­fully, no longer pur­sued, but the legacy it is a part of lives on across the world. In com­bat­ing it, it is impor­tant to know where we have come from, so that we know what we must dis­man­tle, and where we still need to go.

What do you say about exper­i­ments on men­stru­at­ing peo­ple, the impu­rity the­ory, and the meno­toxin the­ory? Write us your thoughts on the his­tory of peri­ods in the comments!

Ailsa Fraser, writer, Texterin, Vulvani
Ailsa 
Stu­dent & Writer | + posts

Ailsa lives in Eng­land and stud­ies in Scot­land. She spends her time writ­ing, day­dream­ing about fan­tasy worlds and won­der­ing about the future of our own. As a stu­dent of his­tory and pol­i­tics, she is espe­cially inter­ested in think­ing about how the expe­ri­ences of women, LGBTQ peo­ple and other minori­ties fit into all three – espe­cially when the topic of men­stru­a­tion is involved.