Members of the UK Menstruation Research Network reflect on the inaugural workshop, Critical Perspectives on Menstruation at the University of St Andrews, 31 May 2019
Suppressed grins, groans, giggles, downward glances, enthusiastic personal stories, and/or support – the varied reactions whenever we mentioned the first UK Menstruation Research Network workshop to others make clear why this event was important. There is still a huge amount of stigma, disgust, shame, embarrassment, and hidden fascination associated with this everyday bodily function. At the same time, menstruation is having its moment in the spotlight, thanks to activism, the sustainable menstrual cup becoming ‘cool’, the current awareness of period poverty, and high-level political attempts in for example Scotland and in the UN to tackle the issue with free products.
Enter the Menstruation Research Network, a 12-month project founded by a group of academics, artists and activists, with Principal Investigator Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik from the University of St Andrews. It operates as an independent UK-wide network, with support from the Wellcome Trust – an important acknowledgement from the Trust that menstruation is now firmly on its funding agenda. Our first conference, Critical Perspectives on Menstruation, was named in honour of the forthcoming Handbook of Critical Menstrual Studies, Palgrave MacMillan 2020. It took place in St Andrews 31 May, with further conferences planned in Edinburgh 14 November 2019 (on menstruation in the workplace with keynote Jo Brewis) and in Stirling in January 2020 (on menstruation and sport).
The conference consisted of about 60 people, many of them students researching menstruation – evidence of the boom in early career students and researchers recently engaged in the topic. We were also joined by colleagues from charities, activism, and policy working groups. Aside from creating a community, the conference aimed to foster conversation through presentations and group discussions about funding priorities, collaboration, and grant ideas. Artist Bee Hughes presented some of her most recent work in a public exhibition in the cloisters of St Salvator’s Chapel outside the conference venue, which started several conversations with the public and many enthusiastic selfies with the work.
The morning session was dedicated to interdisciplinary critical analysis of menstruation, and the following summary exemplifies how periods provoked enquiries into many other questions and issues.
Lara Owen opened the day with a presentation of her PhD research into menstrual cup use among progressive university students in Melbourne. As one of the few studies on menstrual cups in the global North, this is an important contribution, as Western countries still hold considerable power in shaping advertising, menstrual product innovation, and, through bodies like the UN, policies for the entire world. One of her main findings is that the menstrual cup now carries social capital among this particular group, mainly due to its sustainability relative to other menstrual products. She teased out some of the contradictions in the lived experience of the menstrual cup, which combines greater openness on social media with continuing disgust, and allows users to become more aware of their menstruating bodies but also to forget about them.
Artist and PhD candidate Bee Hughes situated her own menstrual art work in the context of the twentieth-century tradition of artists including Judy Chicago, Carina Ubeda, Cristen Clifford, Jen Lewis, and Vanessa Tiegs. As Hughes observed, menstrual art is often of an intimate nature, involving direct use of the artist’s body or menstrual discharge. She noted that menstrual art has a long tradition of bringing what usually remains confined to the personal spaces into public and political spaces of galleries. In this way, it emerges as an effective way of discussing menstruation beyond products or corporate control – as the exhibition outside the Chapel demonstrated throughout the day.
Professor Sharra Vostral, the keynote speaker, is a pioneer of academic research into the history and technology of menstrual products. Vostral presented a detailed and important overview of the flawed research methods that contributed the tampon-related Toxic Shock Syndrome public health crisis of the late 1970s, and to the inspiring history of finding the causes of this potentially fatal condition. Although a test for the genetic disposition to and for the antibodies against the bacteria now known to cause Toxic Shock Syndrome is available, it is still not widely used and tampons are still marketed with inadequate and ill-defined warnings. Her new book, Toxic Shock: A Social History, will no doubt remain a classic in the field, and it was a thrill to have a superstar in the discipline join us for the day.
Pioneering UK-based activist Chella Quint gave an insight into some of the activities and the philosophy behind her trademarked #periodpositive campaign. She runs workshops in schools, and trains educators to think critically and challenge the involvement of commercial companies in providing free menstrual products in school and elsewhere. Her Period Positive Charter has been developed to provide a generous, research-based, and inclusive counterbalance to the crass commercialisation of menstruation seen elsewhere.
Molly Brown presented a brief overview of the stellar success of the Scottish social enterprise Hey Girls since its founding in 2018. Hey Girls has already sold millions of reusable menstrual products, donating one product for each sold to tackle period poverty; it also runs successful campaigns and workshops for greater menstrual literacy and awareness. Brown is also an academic, and reflected on the complicated balancing act required to ensure that social enterprises remain true to their cause in this field.
Next, Professor Bettina Bildhauer’s paper addressed the deep historical roots of menstrual prejudice in premodern humoural medicine and natural philosophy, also explored in her book Medieval Blood. Though medical science is now based on entirely different principles, many of the stigmatising beliefs that made sense in the ancient and medieval perception of the body as composed of four humours have persisted into the present due to continuing misogynistic bias, such as the idea of menstruation as leakage or of menstruation not only as exclusively female but also as unmanly. It was an important reminder that none of the stigmas associated with menstruation are new, and that in order to challenge these we must understand our history.
As regards next steps, there was agreement in the afternoon’s discussion session that better education, collaboration between academics across disciplines, and quality-control of research and publications is much needed. Many were concerned by Procter & Gamble’s recent inclusion in the government’s Women and Equality working group on menstruation, and wondered how researchers can gain access to such closed groups. Attendees, both early career and pioneers in the field, discussed the potential for a UK-based sister organisation to the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in the US (founded in 1977), as well as avenues for more long-term funding and support. These questions, as well as the continued sharing of new interdisciplinary research, will be on the agenda for our next two workshops. In providing a UK-based space for researchers to meet, begin to collaborate, disagree, learn, and engage, we echo the important activist mantra ‘Menstruation Matters’, adding ‘Menstruation Research Matters’ to the conversation in the UK.
The Menstruation Research Network is funded by the Wellcome Trust for 12 months, beginning March 2019. The piece was written in collaboration by the following people:
Professor Bettina Bildhauer works in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews.
Bee Hughes is a PhD Candidate in the Art School at Liverpool John Moores University. Twitter: @BeeHughes_
Lara Owen is a PhD candidate in the School of Management at Monash University. Twitter: @laraowen
Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews, working on the project ‘”The Painters Are In”: A Visual History of Menstruation 1970-2020’. Twitter: @CRostvik.
Menstruation Research Network Twitter account: @menstruationRN
Menstruation Research Network website – where you can view the presentations from our first workshop and documentation of Hughes artwork: https://menstruationresearchnetwork.co.uk/