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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

Chapter 7


Kotex sent people into our school.1

‘What should girls be permitted to know about menstruation?’ This was a question of considerable social concern in early 20th-century Australia because it introduced girls to the knowledge of their bodies and bodily functions. These were topics still widely believed to be unsuitable for young females, leading into the realms of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, particularly if it stimulated interest in the realm of sexuality. So the risk of endangering young girls who were to be the future mothers of the country resulted in considerations of who should have authority over the knowledge. Was the Australian concern shared in other cultures? What did the women interviewed remember of the cultural attitudes in their native countries? For instance, who should have the responsibility for menstrual education? Mothers? Older women within the family such as aunts or grandmothers? Should the responsibility be with women external to the family such as school teachers? Or even women at all? Should knowledge about menstruation be transmitted from household medical texts written by men? And when should this knowledge be given or allowed to be accessed? How soon before menarche? Or not until menstruation occurs?

Although the shifts in thought affecting how Australian girls learned about menarche and menstruation had little relevance to girls in other cultures at the time, they had a later significance. Consequently, in this chapter I will consider three issues: the ways in which interviewees remembered learning about menarche and menstruation and their channels of information; the changing ways in which Australian girls’ sources of information moved from maternal authority in the privacy of the home to increasingly public knowledge influenced by religious and medical philosophy; and the appropriation of the role of teacher by sanitary hygiene manufacturers. This will be discussed through the chronological progression of product advertisements for each of the two major companies from the 1930s to the 1950s in their construction of the menstruating woman. This third issue is relevant to the interviewees because they influenced Australian women’s social attitudes toward menarche and menstruation, and this culture was encountered by immigrant women and girls in the workplace, labour ward, schoolyard and classroom, as they moved through their daily lives in what was often, for them, a unilateral experience.

Cultural attitudes toward pre-menarcheal knowledge of menstruation determined the way in which the interviewees acquired knowledge. Sun was at a Christian school in Korea, a country described by her compatriot, Jung, as ‘not open to woman’. Sun recalled ‘I knew a little bit at the time. The school had been teaching me’.2 Cecile stated simply, ‘in our culture it is not said’ and Ruth remembered ‘my mum had not talked to me about this at all’.3 Keshini remained perplexed that her ‘mother had never, never, discussed this with me’ and Rosalia conveyed the resentment of being kept in ignorance: ‘Mama never told me anything’.4 This was echoed by Wani – ‘my mother didn’t tell me anything about what menstruation was’ – and by Marjorie, who recalled that ‘no one had actually discussed this with me within the family’.5 Virisila commented that ‘even though my mum was a midwife we never discussed menstruation’ a cultural issue confirmed by Levani: ‘you don’t talk to your mother about these things’.6 There was bitterness in Alisha’s memories: ‘they never told us anything. They didn’t guide us. That sort of education is not given to girls, so they’re ignorant’.7

Yet others such as Rashida had learned in advance from their mothers – ‘she tell me before’ – and Karuna remembered ‘my mother told me when I was young’.8 Karuna’s preparation was repeated by Seda. ‘I know about it because my mother explained to me two years before’. She added ‘I had no grandmothers at this time but now I become grandmother I explained about it because my daughter said “I am ashamed, Mama, do it for me, explain your view to your granddaughters”’.9 Cosmina remembered how she ‘woke up and asked for Mother. Mother explained everything’.10 However, Ramona recalled her mother’s information being limited to ‘look, Ramona you’re going to have your period and after that you have to look after yourself because you’re going to be a little lady’, which told her little about the menstrual process, but much about the Spanish-Chilean importance of maintaining virginity until marriage. Lola was also dissatisfied by her mother’s lack of explanation when she reported, ‘Mum, I think I’ve got my period’. Her mother’s response was identical to that Ramona received. Lola continued, ‘with all this I would like to make a comment. I would wish for more explanation, some more information about what a period is because if it weren’t for my sister, the one I saw, what happens if I had two brothers and no sister? That would have been a shock for me one day to find I was bleeding from the vagina’.11

Lack of maternal instruction and support was frequently compensated for by friends whose knowledge of science-based physiology was limited, but who provided a forum for exchanging thoughts and concerns in cultures where maternal silence existed. Jung, for, instance, remembered that she heard about menstruation ‘from friends who had their periods … a bit shocked’.12 Qing recalled that ‘only my peer group explained to me what menstruation was’ and Levani ‘knew all about the period because you talk to your friends’.13 Elena remembered being confident because ‘I know a bit from the friends … I’m ready’.14 Nirmala related how her ‘mum was always busy trying to make a living, and also my grandma. I have to learn myself, so the first friend who had the period we would ask her what did it feel like? That’s how I learnt because in Indonesia, even though you were at school, we don’t have sex education like, you know, body’.15 Verisila recalled that at boarding school ‘someone talked about it in passing but I really was not paying attention. I thought OK, I’m too young for this. You know, that’s how I felt then’.16 Hetal, motherless, lived in a large extended family as the eldest girl, but ‘nobody said me anything. I was told by friends’ and Marjorie reminisced that ‘my mother didn’t explain anything to me but a girl who started her periods in primary school was my sex educationalist. She told me everything and I didn’t believe her’.17

There were other ways of acquiring knowledge – girls with older sisters and cousins observed, often unconsciously, indications of cyclically different behaviour and hygiene practice, especially noticeable in close living conditions without modern sanitation. Beatriz recalled ‘no one explained about your first period’ but ‘I saw my sister who was a year older and that means I saw how she was having the period’. Lolas’s memories were similar. ‘I knew what was coming because I saw my sister – my sister was older than me’ and Delia, too, ‘knew a little bit more because I have an older sister’. Nadia remembered ‘hearing my sister talking about it because she’s older than me. She was telling my mother about her period so that’s how I was a bit aware of it’. Neve related that ‘my sister show me and teach me everything, not my mother’ and Alcina reflected similarly, ‘I know because I have the sisters’.18 Cecile ‘knew what it is and also I’d seen some girls at school’.19 Corazon had older girl cousins living with her family, and observed with interest how ‘every month they have all this. I saw them washing their undies and sometimes I found stains on the clothing or even bedsheets’.20 Lee believes that, like many girls at the time, she ‘was learning by the knowledge of what you see, and what you gather, and what happened to your mum. Folding papers gives you a glimpse’.21

A small sample of interviewees had been exposed to the effects of advertising, and this was apparent in their reference to sanitary pads as ‘Kotex’ or ‘Modess’, the trade names that came to symbolise far more than simply an absorbent pad, as we shall see. In the Philippines Domini recalled that ‘around 1960 when I was first year high school … in physical education … we have time being taught how to use these things and then, sometimes, people from this company, they come to school and give us hygiene education and how to dispose of [used pads]. They show us movies about how this thing happens, the cycles and everything, and teach us’. In answer to the question about whether or not this was helpful Domini’s response was immediate: ‘very helpful, because I was in first year high school that it [menarche] happened and then every year, up to four, they have a new product they come to school to talk about’.22 Sue remembered that product promotion through education had begun in Singapore schools during the 1960s. ‘I went to a mission school, a convent, and Kotex, which was like a key brand name in Singapore – there was Kotex, there was Modess, those were the two I knew of – Kotex sent people into our school to sort of talk to the students about it and I remember, aged about twelve or something, I had no idea what they were talking about’.23

Domini and Sue were the only two women interviewed who had received menstrual education from a sanitary hygiene company representative at their schools. Domini found it helpful, but Sue was unable to relate to the information at all, a not uncommon situation today according to paediatric researchers Kelly Orringer and Sheila Gahagan, who find such instruction poorly retained.24 That only 2 of 54 women interviewed had received this form of guidance is understandable in the context that only 12 of the 54 had used commercially made sanitary pads at menarche. The remainder were living in countries, or areas of countries, beyond the reach of manufacture and distribution of the products and the associated forms of advertising. Their knowledge belonged to women and followed traditional paths including restricted maternal preparation for menarche. The cultural silence of mothers was offset by the agency of friends, whose subjective experience-based knowledge allayed anxiety for many girls. The interviews also drew attention to the importance of biological timing on the ability of pubescent girls to understand information about menstruation, and provided the interesting perspective of knowledge acquired through the observation of older menstruating sisters and cousins, allowing adjustment to the idea of becoming a menstruating woman.

From the 1930s Australian mothers had been able to obtain guidance in preparing their daughters for menstruation. The earliest text published by a sanitary hygiene company was Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday, and it was promoted to help ‘modern mothers’ discuss ‘intimate problems with a sensitive, growing daughter’.25 The free, mail-order booklet, obtainable from Australian Cellucotton Products (the manufacturers of Kotex), remained popular throughout the 1940s. Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday is about sanitary hygiene and reflects the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s argument that in America from the 1920s, sanitary hygiene was the major focus at menarche, with discussions about menstruation carefully avoiding the danger zones of developing adolescent sexuality, thus desexualising the menarcheal girl.26 In the 1932 Australian edition, Marjorie May is portrayed as a sensitive little girl in contrast with the more sophisticated adolescents in later publications of the genre.

The text is constructed around an affectionate post-birthday party talk that Marjorie and her mother have, initiated by Marjorie expressing puzzled disappointment that her ‘chum’ Margaret, a few months older, was reluctant to join in the party games. Marjorie’s mother explains that Margaret has begun to menstruate, a process referred to as purification, and that she has successfully concealed it from everyone by using Kotex. Marjorie is delighted to learn of the experience she will soon share and also to hear about, and be shown, the wonderful ‘clean looking’ pads. She has learned the first lesson about menstruation: that of concealment, which the anthropologist Cathryn Britton argues is a form of individual seclusion transmitted through family, peers, educational organisations and advertisements.27 Nonetheless, Marjorie is extremely grateful to her mother for telling her the exciting news and comments, ‘I will feel quite a young lady when the new purification comes’.

In 1946, following the success of animated films like Snow White and Bambi, Walt Disney was commissioned by Kimberly-Clark’s International Cellucotton Productions Company to make a 10-minute educational film, The Story of Menstruation.28 The Second World War had ended and the baby boom was beginning, but this was not a sex-education film and no link was made beyond the nebulous unfertilised egg causing breakdown of the uterine lining and the resultant menstrual flow. Although The Story of Menstruation appears quaint today, when viewed in the social context of the time it succeeds as a teaching device, constructed to avoid controversy by not impinging on the maternal right to determine what knowledge would be given to her daughter and by whom. According to the historian Sharra Vostral in her study of menstrual hygiene technology, it was used in schools for over 35 years and reached over 105 million women.29

These young girls from many cultures watched, and possibly internalised, the unfolding of an American woman’s life – symbolised by blossoms, blocks, girlie-dolls and books – to the pubescent Snow White look-alike with maturing hormones. The physical process of the menstrual cycle is diagrammatic, simple and clear, with a non-confrontational menstrual flow. Having explained the ‘why’ of menstruation, the film moves to the ‘how’ with a mature-voiced, reassuring, woman narrator who advises exercise during menstruation, but avoidance of horse-riding, cycling or lifting heavy weights. ‘Snow White’ wears a bathing cap in the shower and avoids very hot or very cold water, but readers are told warm baths and showers are essential because of perspiration odour ‘on those days’. This information was intended to dispel the residual myths of menstruation perpetuated by the non-modern mother, but still maintains traces of those very myths. The psychological aspect is included with advice about the importance of controlling misery or self-pity, illustrated by a bad-hair day, and that avoiding constipation and having a good diet will help with both. Emotional excitement combined with violent activity is construed as perilous, and we see frenetic jitterbugging with a boyfriend as a likely cause of danger. The ubiquitous ‘cramp’ or ‘twinge’ is helped by exercises like toe-touching and by correct posture. Menstrual organisation is stressed, and girls are reminded to mark the date of their next period on the calendar. Looking good while menstruating is emphasised by ‘Snow White’ smiling at her reflection in the mirror of her powder compact, as the narrator speaks of cycles. We see her as a bride, followed by a baby repeating the opening scene, exemplifying life for a woman in 1946.

The Story of Menstruation has an underlying concern with adolescent behaviour masked by menstrual advice. Bad diets, dance crazes, late nights, risky activities and self-interest are all alluded to without elaboration. This concern was not confined to America. In 1951 Melbourne, the dangers of girls having only limited knowledge about basic bodily processes concerned social groups, including the Federation of Mothers’ Clubs, who believed women needed access to accurate information about menstruation and reproduction to enable them to educate their daughters. To that end it was proposed that the Director of Physical Education at the University of Melbourne, Dr Fritz Duras, who lectured widely on human reproduction, be invited to attend a showing of The Story of Menstruation during a conference of the Federation of Mothers’ Clubs. At the completion of the film Dr Duras would give a talk to the women in attendance who wished for approval, by the Director of Education, to have the film shown to all secondary school girls in Victoria and to ‘all teen-age girls in State schools’.30 In this the Federation of Mothers’ Clubs demonstrated some ambivalence, suggesting that mothers should be the principal educators of menstrual matters while at the same time lobbying the Department of Education to have the information supplied by Kimberly-Clark and others through their films and talks given to girls at school.

In an odd recognition of the other half of the population, the Father and Son Welfare Movement, established in 1926, published The Guide Through Girlhood, written by Florence Kenny and edited by Professor Harvey Sutton, principal medical officer for the Department of Education, NSW. The purpose of the 1946 publication, with its male medical authority, was to reinforce the message of special mother and daughter film nights and slide shows, dedicated to educating mothers and girls from eight to twelve years, about the ‘problems’ of life in a ‘clean, wholesome manner’. The Guide would also reach mothers and daughters living in more remote areas. The text begins with the role model of Jesus Christ, not unexpected in the Father and Son Movement, but omitting the gender-compatible Virgin Mary with her Roman Catholic connotation. There is an emphasis on how Jesus, at 12 years old, was growing mentally, intellectually, physically, socially and spiritually, all qualities young girls might aspire to, particularly in thoughts about themselves and their pre-pubescent bodies, at a time of post-war idealism about young women’s sexual purity.31

The Guide Through Girlhood suggests that girls think of their bodies as wonderful and complex machines, with diagrams to assist their understanding of the organs of reproduction and their location. Menstruation is explained as a shedding of the uterine lining, usually every 28 days, with the flow leaving the body through a girl’s ‘private part’, a 19th-century euphemism signalling a topic of silence, so it came as a relief to hear the correct anatomical term, vagina, used in an almost identical explanation in The Story of Menstruation. The Guide informs mothers and daughters that ignorance of menarche produces fear and dread, often leading to concealment and a further cycle of fear the following month. On discovering their menarche, girls are advised to go immediately to tell their mothers ‘or whoever has charge of you’. Brumberg’s ‘hygiene imperative’ is apparent in such a directive, with concealment of stained clothing by a cloth and instructions on how to fasten it being the prime acknowledgement that mother, or carer, can provide.32 Disposable menstrual absorbents are not mentioned. Reassurance comes through the amazing news that bleeding signals the physical changes that will turn them into women and prepare them to become mothers, news that some may find quite perplexing. Further recommendations of how to manage this ‘problem’, another unfortunate euphemism, included bathing, and avoidance of both constipation and the use of laxatives, reminding us that in the 1940s laxatives for children were accepted practice for regular bowel habits. However, there were preferred ways, and a good diet of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of water to drink are advised. The late 19th-century association between menarche, menstruation and unwellness is dispelled.33

Kimberly-Clark’s International Cellucotton Products Company’s Very Personally Yours was published in America in 1946 to reinforce the message of The Story of Menstruation and to extend promotion of the manufacturer’s product, Kotex sanitary pads. An Australian version was published much later, around 1962, containing minor changes to accommodate idiomatic differences. Whereas the film omitted any reference to sanitary hygiene products, Very Personally Yours is an advertising tool in the guise of an educator, linking menarche to an ‘exciting’ new form of consumerism.34 Nonetheless, the explanation of menarche as a physical phenomenon is clear, and benefits from being stripped of the euphemisms of The Guide Through Girlhood. Both texts reflect the interests of publishers, and of society, with Kimberly-Clark emphasising the material aspect of life, and the Mother and Daughter subsection of the Father and Son Welfare Movement placing stress on moral principles, strong stuff for the targeted age group – work, independence, and responsibility.

Menstrual ‘unwellness’ is derided by both, the Movement arguing effect rather than cause, explaining the added burden for others, both domestically and in the workplace. The Movement girl learns to prepare herself for a life of industrious reliability, in contrast with the Kotex girl who has ‘waited on tip-toe for the day of days that would mark the commencement of a wonderful adventure’.

It was not until 1949 that the Australian Cellucotton Products Company released a replacement booklet for the rather dated Marjorie May. That Australian text did not replicate the 1940 American version, in which a mother instructed her daughter in matters of menstrual hygiene ‘as one girl to another’, a situation Vostral argues to have infantilised the mother.35 The Australian As One Girl to Another precedes any acknowledgment of early multiculturalism and is an English-language only text. It deals lightly with several adolescent concerns, beginning with recognition of sexual attraction, changes in physical and behavioural patterns, developing self-realisation, all leading to the menarcheal event which comes as ‘a bit of a nuisance’ to be resolved by Kotex. Advice about adjusting to the monthly cycle is given with further advice regarding individual differences in cycles. Keeping a menstrual calendar is emphasised, and instruction is given about preparing for the next period and why purchasing Kotex from a young man need not cause embarrassment. Pre-menstrual symptoms such as fluid retention and subsequent weight gain are mentioned, and personal hygiene products are promoted including deodorant talc to be sprinkled on Kotex pads to mask odour as a supplement to bathing. Moderate exercise and enjoyment of a normal social life with friends is recommended for the menstruating girl. The subject of tampons is introduced with caution, and the advice to consult a doctor before use, because of the hymen, is given. It argues that pads are better for young girls and gives diagrammatic instructions of how to fasten a pad to a Kotex sanitary belt.36

Not to be outdone, Johnson and Johnson published Growing Up and Liking It in the 1950s, obtainable by sending a coupon attached to an advertisement for Modess to Nurse Reid at Johnson and Johnson, thus investing the publication with the authority of the female health professional.37 The booklet was the first of its kind to be illustrated by photographs of teenage girls enjoying an active heterosexual social life: dancing, clothes shopping, cheering favourite sports teams and wearing their first full-length formal dress. Pre-teens may have difficulty relating to the text, something that would not be helped by the opening paragraph informing them that the experience of menarche is what they have been waiting for. Readers are told it symbolises that they are of an age to think for themselves and gives examples such as choosing their own clothes, noticing boys and being the object of their attention and partaking in a series of ‘firsts’: first date, first party, first formal dance. The physiological explanation of the menstrual cycle is brief, diagrammatic and less clear than offered in Very Personally Yours, with the only reference to Australian girls being their average age of menarche, given as 12. If that was the target age for the text it seems to do less well. It is humourless and probably too sophisticated in its approach to menstrual questions and answers, with old wives’ tales, strategies for developing self-confidence about menstruation, do’s and don’ts with a certain stress on cosseting the self from the elements, general health advice on diet, appearance and sleep, and a general pattern of exercises for health and well-being appropriate for menstrual cramps. ‘Important pointers’ are made, including prohibition of flushing a used disposable pad down the toilet, and when to see a doctor. Interestingly both booklets provide two-year calendars for marking menstrual cycles, inferring constant reference will be made during that time, enabling some ‘growing into’ the texts.38

The booklets indicate how the concept of early adolescence was constructed between 1932 and 1962. The Guide Through Girlhood blends philosophy through the model of Protestant Christianity adapted to women, science in the anatomical and physiological explanation of menstruation, and the social mores that dictate the use of euphemisms rather than correct terminology for perceived sensitivities of young girls and, possibly, their mothers. It seems most unlikely that girls would seek to obtain their own copy of The Guide. Nor was Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday promoted towards girls as consumers. Far from it, given the picture of a distraught looking pre-teenage girl captioned ‘Mother dear – I need you so much!’ One can almost picture Mother running to get her pen, urged by the paragraph below which, surprisingly, refers to menstruation by word in a daily newspaper:

Don’t fail her in her first serious experience. It is so important that your daughter learns the truth from you first. Do not wait until it is too late to give her the necessary facts about menstruation. In too many cases, girls are shocked and frightened when this experience comes unexpectedly. That is why we urge you to send for the FREE booklets which have helped millions of mothers give their daughters a happy, healthy approach to womanhood.39

By the late 1940s girls were constructed as becoming more independent. The advertisement for As One Girl to Another is directly addressed to the girl herself. She no longer calls to her mother not to fail her, but acts independently to obtain information about menstruation, in this instance by filling out and mailing a coupon. The caption follows:

Here is a booklet every lass needs, dedicated to Australian girls by Kotex. From it you’ll learn about the adventure of growing up … how to manage your social life … how to feel secure and comfortable every day of the month.40

Very Personally Yours and Growing Up and Liking It continue the association between menarche and growing independence and are similar in content and expression, but with the former inclined to employ the euphemisms, ‘certain days’ and ‘those days’ for menstruation, sending a negative message of difference. Although Growing Up and Liking It references menstruation as a cause for pride in achieving physical maturity, it uses only material examples, shopping and social activities, to signify coming of age. The text is informative, but lacking the humour that would lighten the message and appeal more to pre-teens, and there are no euphemisms. The commonality in all hygiene product texts is the body as untrustworthy, bleeding – often unexpectedly – cramping, undermining confidence by its tell-tale staining and associated limitations in social and sporting activities. The solution lies in control by becoming a consumer of the manufactured products in a partnership of need and supply.

However, need and supply are situations not exclusive to each other. The young potential consumers, the newly menstruating girls, enjoyed experimenting with the products available to them, causing manufacturers to constantly compete for their custom, and product loyalty, through advertising. The ways in which women are constructed in these advertisements reflect social ideals of the time, telling a story to readers, including young girls whose interest in the products is stimulated by their menarcheal experience and the way in which they perceive the story. I want to show this development during the 1930s to 1950s and particularly the 1939–1945 Second World War years. Australian daily newspapers are my main source, some with dedicated women’s supplements, others scattered through the main body of news, and all pictorial representations are commercially drawn in black and white. Although many women did not read newspapers, they did see advertisements as they handled the paper as a domestic or workplace utensil. The second source used is the Australian Women’s Weekly, which was part of family life during the time.

The early newspaper advertisements placed by the International Cellu-cotton Products Company in 1928 were simply a box of Kotex with a large tick and a warning to women not to be careless about their health, stating categorically that all doctors recommended safe sanitary napkins.41 At the time medical authority to validate women’s sanitary hygiene products was still sought from a disproportionately male profession, with emphasis remaining on the association between good health and disposable menstrual absorbents. A construction of woman as consumer was, as yet, undefined. In 1931 the company announced the establishment of a ‘highly efficient’ factory to manufacture Kotex in Australia,42 and the following year Johnson and Johnson announced the availability of Modess as ‘women’s most intimate personal accessory’. The Modess woman lacks a face but she knows what she wants: a totally disposable, more absorbent and softer filler, and softer gauze, all of which accord with the American Gilbreth findings of 1927, discussed in the previous chapter.43 A week later we meet the Modess woman. Slender, young but age indeterminate, she is alone, signifying independence. She is seated on a bench outdoors, indicating removal from domestic matters, and she is casually but elegantly dressed in slacks, short-sleeved fitted shirt, and cartwheel sun-hat, denoting her modern outlook.44 Next time we see her she is short-skirted and bashing a tennis ball – ‘she wants freedom and comfort and will not tolerate the drudgeries that held her mother in bondage’.45 She is an active role model for the menarcheal girl, but the more mature woman was not ignored and a series of sophisticated non-domestic representations followed. This Modess woman is always slender and glamorously dressed, according to fashions of the time, with daytime gloves, heels, hat and bag signifying a leisured existence; at night she is fur-draped in a long form-fitting gown, the text describing ‘gracious softness, a yielding pliancy’ in a deliberately ambiguous product description.46

Advertisements for Australian Cellucotton Products, manufacturers  of Kotex, were far less ambiguous. They relied on text to undermine the competition through fear tactics, asking ‘How about the nameless substitutes? How are they made? Where? By whom? How do you know they’re fit for intimate use?’47 Their newspaper advertisements continued as a brief text alongside an illustration of the product until 1941, by which time Australia was at war and the Kotex woman was introduced. She is dancing romantically, her partner in a white tuxedo, and she wears a short-sleeved jacket over a long full skirt. She symbolises ‘the poise of confidence. Lilting music … exciting people. You want to live every minute. There’s no time or place for self-conscious discomfort or worry’.48 There is a sense of impending separation from partners and, indeed, familiar life, but for the younger Kotex woman life is full of promise. ‘How our grandmothers would have envied the carefree confidence with which modern women live every day to the full’, one observes as she receives a drink from a young man, carefree in her very short playsuit and very high heels, with a Dutch-hat shielding her head from the sun.49 The Kotex woman is also an accomplished tennis player, backhand at the ready, legs apart, ‘with thousands of eyes watching every movement she is confident, comfortable and carefree’.50 However, change was on the way and in 1942 the Kotex woman had begun to represent the working-class ignored by Modess. She is operating a machine, and finding ‘comfort is half the battle. As you take up action stations Kotex contributes perfection in comfort’.51 This Kotex woman represents the hundreds who released men from the factories for war combat by joining one of the many auxiliary services such as munitions manufacture.52 The theme is repeated with the Kotex woman, in uniform, cleaning the bonnet of an official-looking vehicle.53

The effects of the war on raw material imports were noticeable from mid-1942. Johnson and Johnson curtailed the activities of the Modess woman and a simple notice headed ‘Modess shortage’ explains why:

The present shortage of Modess sanitary napkins is not as generally believed the result of undue rationing of imports by the Australian Govt. The cause, chiefly, is lack of shipping space. Raw materials for sanitary napkins naturally get left behind when war goods compete with them for space in ships coming to Australia. Supplies of Modess will be low for a few more weeks, after which larger quantities are confidently expected to be available.54

Johnson and Johnson were to be disappointed. The notice was repeated in August, and again in November, this time appearing in the main body of The Mercury rather than in the women’s supplement, reiterating that supplies still remained on overseas docks awaiting space on Australian-bound ships and that the shortage would continue.55 However, three weeks later the Modess woman returned, working as a nurse in a distinctly American uniform, but not tending war casualties. Rather, she is dramatically masked to weigh a baby, commenting that ‘a nurse has to be on her toes in the baby ward! That’s why on “difficult days” I’m doubly grateful to Miracle Modess. It has a wonderfully soft filler of fluff’. It is difficult to know if the supplies had arrived, or a desperate substitute ‘fluff’ had been created, in the manner of Kimberly-Clark’s First World War Cellucotton, to provide Johnson and Johnson with their ‘Miracle’.56 As Christmas 1942 approached, advertising shifted to memories of past leisure with the Modess woman smilingly reclining on a chaise longue, her legs covered by a full-length satin evening skirt, her arms raised to support a cushion behind her head, sighing ‘comfort, it’s wonderful … particularly on “difficult days”’.57 The representation of the leisured woman in wartime may have had some association with the 1942–1943 influx of many thousand American servicemen to Australia, which the historian Marilyn Lake argues offered young women the opportunity for sexual romance, their particular danger zone during the war years.58 The following year, 1943, reflected more focus on wartime Australia with the young Kotex woman seen initially holding a spanner, hands on hips. Her appearance coincides with the introduction of industrial conscription for Australian women who were either single or divorced. It was also a time of increased feminist activity with the goal of advancing women toward greater participation in public life. Readers are informed that ‘women enlisted in the fighting services must have the comfort and security of Kotex for maximum efficiency. We are sorry that it is impossible to fully supply civilian needs as well but we trust the day is not far off when Kotex will be available for all of us’.59 The young Kotex woman is later seen in two versions of auxiliary uniform: that of factory worker, and of the armed forces, captioned ‘service is the theme today’ signifying the service Kotex has given women in the Services, with reference to the absorbency advantages of Cellucotton.60

Kotex chose to continue an advertising presence but Johnson and Johnson’s Modess woman was conspicuously absent from newspapers for the duration of the war. Kotex employed two strategies to identify as the ‘tried, tested, and true’ product – the one most in touch with women’s changing lives – by using the young Kotex servicewoman in the present, and the other linking the product and women in the past. Readers were reminded of women’s struggles to achieve freedom, socially and militarily, at the time of the Great War, when ‘only daring women bobbed their hair’ and ‘women marched in suffrage parades’; and how lack of cotton for surgical dressings in army hospitals had led to the invention of Cellucotton surgical dressings, appropriated by nurses to use as sanitary pads, a story both celebrated and promoted as a freedom bestowed on women by Kotex.61 The series continued, recollecting the fashion of the body-skimming skirts of the 1930s, their appearance concurrent with the introduction of Kotex’ ‘flat pressed ends’ to facilitate concealment of the pad in situ, and the use of a ‘Consumers’ Testing Board’ of 600 women in 1937, who approved the ‘double duty safety centre … developed to prevent roping and twisting’ in Kotex pads.62 These reminders of progress past were intended to placate women for the present problems of supply. Kotex would not relinquish the place it held in women’s minds, although young girls’ experiencing menarche would use the time-honoured menstrual cloth of washable towelling or similar fabric.

By 1944 there was a suggestion that women’s optimism about the progress of the war had to be maintained, and Kotex constructed a tomorrow for their Woman, through futurist fashion, as the dream to off-set wartime rationing. Illustrations show her alone against the night sky and a sleek twin-level aircraft. She, and the reader, are asked, ‘will an evening date see you stepping from a shining taxi of the skies … your shoes glistening gold or metal, light and flexible as the air itself? Research by Kotex … insures that you benefit from constant new developments’.63 Next we see her, alone in her futuristic home, all her wartime experiences reduced to a ‘model kitchen’ in which she wears ‘resilient cork-soled shoes’, and ‘heat resisting gloves’, and the reminder that ‘women never imagined they could be comfortable on difficult days. But Kotex changed all that’.64

Examples of increased independence by women, including attitudes toward their bodies, were further promoted through tampon advertisements. Johnson and Johnson used the teacher and the nurse as likely representatives of modern women who understand their physiology. The nurse comments that ‘it would be silly for a nurse not to keep up with modern ideas’ and that ‘Modess had brought out Meds … the best tampons I’ve ever used – and the only tampon in individual applicators …’65 The teacher, standing in front of a globe and holding a book, tells the reader that ‘ancient history is my subject but not when it comes to sanitary protection. I’m all for the modern internal way’.66 There were no notices published regarding shortage of supplies, but this would appear so because advertisements were suspended until 1946, and Tampax, imported from England, remained unavailable throughout the war years until 1947.67

The post-war years were times of reconstruction culturally, socially and economically, with immigration programs attracting British families and major developmental projects progressing with a labour force significantly made up of non-British refugees and migrants from southern European countries, many of the women finding work in factories.68 The war years for these women had meant far greater deprivation than a shortage of sanitary pads, but advertisements showed them vignettes of the life enjoyed by the Kotex woman: her femininity, her slinky long evening gowns, her stylish hair piled high, the text describing her as poised and self -assured, wanting the luxury that all women craved, and finding it in Kotex. The younger, carefree, Kotex girl played tennis, skied and leapt out of a canoe, watched admiringly by her boyfriend, and totally confident of ‘no telltale outlines’.69 The Modess woman continued to be constructed as leisured, sophisticated, elegantly groomed, always in the public space but never as a maternal figure. Her younger counterpart replicates the Kotex girl, also playing tennis. She is seen dressed in casual pants and top with hair in a pony-tail, or short-haired in checked capris, top and print scarf, espadrilles on feet. The Modess woman is ‘modern’, ‘hard to please’, ‘confident’ in her choice of ‘softer, safer, economical’ pads and the Modess girl is ‘gay and carefree’, ‘smart’, ‘active’, ‘busy’, and ‘discriminating’ in her choice of sanitary napkin.70

Tampons had a much greater advertising presence from 1947, the need for product promotion possibly reflecting prejudices found by historians Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant in their studies of New Zealand women, which indicated tampon use by virgins remained limited until the 1960s.71 Once again two age groups of women were targeted. The 1946 Meds girl becomes the young mother, indicating social awareness by the manufacturers and caution in promoting the product to virgins.72 In one advertisement an older woman is seen handing an apple to a glamorous younger one, captioned ‘Go merrier with Meds’. Alongside is a smaller sketch of a young girl walking her dog and the text continues, ‘women who long to try new fashioned protection will find the “small diameter” Meds Slender the perfect way to begin’. Clearly Johnson and Johnson were seeking ways to reach young, unmarried consumers.73 They continued a series showing women encouraging each other to try Meds, the activities of these women illustrating a growing independence and awareness. Women are mobile, driving cars that may be their own – ‘you can go anywhere, anytime, with Meds’.74 They play tennis and golf, they push heavily laden wheelbarrows with ‘the accent on freedom’ and are informed of ‘comfort and economy’, ‘protection and extra safety’ and ‘safety and economy’, reassuring women who still remained uncertain about tampon use.75

By 1952 Johnson and Johnson began to openly contest the widely held social belief that tampons destroyed virginity, omitting reference to safety and replacing it with ‘enlightenment’. The Meds girl wears a modest one-piece swimsuit under a cover-up: ‘Single girls? Certainly. Medical evidence shows that any normal full-grown girl can wear Meds’. Moreover ‘4 out of 5 doctors report it is safe to swim on “those days” provided the water is not cold’.76

The change of promotional strategy is evidence of wider social change in thought about the young female body. In comparison, Tampax used the word ‘safety’ less in promotional texts, ensuring that ‘freedom’ became synonymous with their tampon. The Tampax woman of 1947 and 1948 has ‘true loveliness’ springing ‘from confidence, from assurance, from the knowledge of freedom’. She plays active sport, and strides out in winter, hands in pockets and bag over shoulder, or is dressed more formally in a city, exuding independence and confidence. Apart from male-partnered social dancing, she is alone, and outside the domestic environment, reflecting the independence and individuality the war years gave to Australian women.77

For nearly 30 years the sanitary hygiene companies constructed women characterised by an absence of domestic environment, the two exceptions being the futuristic kitchen at the end of the war, when housing was desperately short,78 and the mother–daughter series for Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday. Consequently, the loudest message for young adolescents looking at the advertisements, regardless of their ability to read or speak English, was that women who had wealth and lived enviable lives used these products. However, there were two other significant messages. One, that menarche and menstruation did not interrupt normal activities and, two, that concealment was mandatory. So the recurring terms ‘security, safety, confidence, protection’ signify menstruation to be ‘other’ to normality, which is characterised by the state of non-bleeding.

Immigrant women brought their cultural beliefs about the female body, often contesting knowledge transmitted by welfare bodies and sanitary product manufactures. For instance, Rosalia’s ignorance at menarche was common to Italian immigrants, as Brumberg noted with older Italian-Americans. Their cultural beliefs determined continuing use of washable menstrual cloths because disposable absorbents were thought to hamper the good flow that indicated health and potential fertility.79 Qing, in Hong Kong, recalled that her mother, a midwife, never spoke of menstruation, and the sociologist Cordia Ming-Yeuk Chu explains the reason. Chinese culture regards both menstruation and sexual activity as being unclean, consequently the transition of girl to woman by menarche signals her role as potential sex partner. Social rules governing women’s behaviour include avoidance of reference to any unclean state, a custom giving rise to unease between mothers and daughters.80 Lack of maternal explanation about menarche and menstruation can also cause resentment, as Wani in Indonesia remembered feeling, but psychologist Deanna Dorman Logan’s study of the menarcheal experience in the 1970s indicates that Indonesian girls, informed about menstruation by their mothers, reported a need for greater biological and practical explanation of the whole subject, a desire echoed in the study by psychologist Ayse K. Askul on the menarcheal experience of women from diverse cultures.81


The desire of pubescent girls for accurate knowledge about menarche and menstruation was widespread but the manner in which this information was obtained depended on cultural factors. Interviews demonstrate that between the 1930s and 1960s, the transmission was oral, controlled by women – mothers, friends, older sisters or cousins – and combined personal or anecdotal experience with traditional lore. By comparison, in Australia until the 1940s, many mothers shared a commonality with mothers in other cultures in the suppression of pre-menarcheal information. This was challenged by the publication of informative booklets, although maternal control continued to be held over daughters’ access to the publications. The content of early menstrual education texts, including the non-commercial Father and Son Welfare Movement 1932–1949, reflected both religious and medical influence, but as sanitary hygiene companies developed further texts they incorporated the influence of US ‘teen culture’, with an increasing emphasis on the menstruant being sexually attractive, an aspect of maturation remembered by interviewees as causing considerable maternal concern in cultures that value virginity until marriage.

Interviews made evident the role of peer-group friends as menstrual informants. Their experience-based knowledge contributed to the attitudes formed toward menarche and menstruation by interviewees, a knowledge obviously valued by many women. However, the Australian-edition text Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday makes clear that girls in the 1930s and 1940s were not encouraged to share their menstrual experience. Later texts, both booklet and advertising, acknowledged that it was part of pubescent life.

Learning by observing a menstruating older sister was recalled by interviewees as a lesson in the normality of menstruation. This was almost certainly a part of the Australian girls’ menstrual education too, but less effective as the use of shared bedrooms decreased, menstrual absorbents improved, and washing machines became part of domestic life. Consequently, observation shifted from the actual to the fictional, through magazine advertisements promoting sanitary hygiene products which constructed menstruating young women according to the wider social context, but always as capable, glamorous, and middle-class Anglo-Australians, engaged in a series of enviable activities, their menstrual lives enhanced by pads and tampons. Language used in accompanying information was sanitised to conceal the reality of periods at a time when young women were being encouraged to break free from the persisting 19th-century illness construction, and participate in the exciting moment of menarche and normal, healthy, active, menstrual life.

The waves of immigration that brought multicultural interviewees to Australia also brought old traditions associated with menarche and menstruation. Their daughters, experiencing menarche in their new country did so according to maternal cultural beliefs, with none of the menstrual educational texts discussed providing any other than an Anglo-English perspective. Had the cultural traditions of the major immigrant groups toward menarche and menstruation been acknowledged, and briefly explained, both Anglo-Australian and immigrant girls would have been helped to bridge cultural differences through understanding the non-biological meanings attributed to this phenomenon.

1    Sue, 13 years old at menarche, Singapore 1967.

2    Sun, 13, South Korea 1962; Jung, 13, South Korea 1959.

3    Cecile, Uganda 1965; Ruth, 17, Uganda c.1974.

4    Keshini, 12, Sri Lanka 1969; Rosalia, 13, Italy 1950.

5    Wani, 13, Indonesia 1954; Marjorie, 12, England 1956.

6    Virisila, 11, Fiji 1964; Levani, 16, Fiji 1967.

7    Alisha, c.14, India c.1943.

8    Rashida, 14, Lebanon, year unknown; Karuna, Kenya, age and year of menarche unknown.

9    Seda, 14, Armenia, year unknown.

10  Cosima, 12, Moldavia 1953; Nirmala, 13, Indonesia 1964.

11  Ramona, 15, Chile 1964; Lola, 17, Chile 1967.

12  Jung, 13, South Korea 1959.

13  Qing, 12, Hong Kong 1962; Levani, 16, Fiji 1967.

14  Elena, 14, Greece, year unknown.

15  Nirmala, 13, Indonesia 1964.

16  Virisila, 11, Fiji 1964.

17  Hetal, 14, India c.1952; Marjorie, 12, England 1956.

18  Beatriz, 12, Chile c.1960; Lola, 17, Chile 1967; Delia, 11, Greece 1960; Nadia, 11, Alexandria 1950; Neve, 11, Italy 1941; Alcina, 15, Italy 1947.

19  Cecile, 16, Uganda 1965.

20  Corazon, 12, Philippines 1956.

21  Lee, 13, Singapore 1962. See previous chapter for reference to folding papers.

22  Domini, c.13, Philippines 1960.

23  Sue, 13, Singapore 1967.

24  Kelly Orringer and Sheila Gahagan, ‘Adolescent girls define menstruation: a multiethnic exploratory study’, Health Care for Women International, vol. 31, no. 9, 2010, p. 841.

25  Mary Pauline Callender, Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday, Australian Cellucotton Products P/L., Sydney 1932.

26  Joan Jacobs Brumberg, ‘“Something happens to girls”: menarche and the emergence of the modern hygiene imperative’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 4, no. 1, 1993, p. 123.

27  Cathryn J. Britton, ‘Learning about the ‘the curse’: an anthropological perspective on experiences of menstruation’, Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 19, no. 6, 1996, p. 650.

28  Kotex Products, The Story of Menstruation, Walt Disney Productions 1946,

29  Sharra Vostral, Under Wraps: a History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland 2008, pp. 123–124. Brumberg states that the Story of Menstruation has been seen by 93 million American women, indicating that it reached 12 million girls outside America. See also Brumberg, (1993), p. 124.

30  ‘Showing of sex education films’, The Argus, 23 February 1951, p. 7. See also reference to Dr Fritz Duras, ‘Lack of physiological knowledge held harmful to young people’, The Mercury, 14 January 1946, p. 9.

31  Florence Kenny, The Guide Through Girlhood, Prof. Harvey Sutton (ed.), published by the Father and Son Movement, Sydney 1945, pp. 2–3. This was still in publication in 1961. See also Megan Hicks, ‘The rags: paraphernalia of menstruation’,

32  Brumberg, (1993), pp. 100–101.

33  Kenny, (1945), pp. 6–7.

34  Very Personally Yours, Education Department for Kimberly-Clark of Australia, Lane Cove, NSW 1962, pp. 2–19.

35  Vostral (2008), pp. 120–121.

36  As One Girl to Another, Australian Cellucotton Products P/L., Sydney 1949, pp. 1–18.

37  ‘Free’, Growing Up … The Mercury, 22 August 1952, p. 4.

38  Growing Up and Liking It (1952), Johnson and Johnson Pacific Limited, no publishing details, c. 1968, pp. 2–25.

39  ‘Mother dear – I need you so much!’ The Mercury, 30 January 1940, p. 6.

40  ‘Free’, As One Girl to Another, The Mercury, 11 March 1949, p. 7.

41  ‘Next time … Kotex’, The Argus, 13 April 1928, p. 18.

42  ‘The establishment of a highly efficient factory’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 1931, p. 6s.

43  ‘Announcing women’s most intimate personal accessory’, The Brisbane Courier, 16 February 1932, p. 17.

44  ‘To meet the requirements of the modern woman’, The Brisbane Courier, 23 February 1932, p. 17.

45  ‘To meet the requirements of the modern woman’, The Brisbane Courier, 1 March 1932, p. 17.

46  ‘To meet the requirements of the modern woman’, The Brisbane Courier, 15 March 1932, p. 18 and 26 April 1932, p. 15.

47  ‘At such times take care’, ‘Woman’s Realm’, supplement to The Mercury, 21 April 1937, p. 10s.

48  ‘The poise of confidence’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’ supplement to The Argus, 8 February 1941, p. 9s.

49  ‘Carefree confidence’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’ supplement to The Argus, 12 April 1941, p. 9s.

50  ‘Spotlight confidence’ ‘Woman’s Magazine’ supplement to The Argus, 13 September 1941, p. 9s.

51  ‘Comfort is half the battle’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 21 March 1942, p. 5s.

52  Marilyn Lake, ‘Freedom, fear and the family’, in Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, Marian Quartly, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble Publishers, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1994, pp. 256–7, 259.

53  ‘Comfort is half the battle’, The Argus, 2 May 1942, p. 5.

54  ‘Modess shortage’, The Mercury, 22 July 1942, p. 6.

55  ‘Modess shortage’, The Mercury 12 August 1942, p. 8; ‘Supplies still limited’, The Mercury, 13 November 1942, p. 6.

56  ‘Try it now’, The Mercury, 27 November 1942, p. 7.

57  ‘Comfort, it’s wonderful’, Woman’s Realm supplement to The Mercury, 4 December 1942, p. 7s.

58  Lake in Grimshaw et al (1994), pp. 261–262.

59  ‘Priority for the women’s services’, The Argus, 18 January 1943, p. 6. See also Lake (1994), p. 260.

60  ‘Yesterday’s fashions’, The Argus, 13 May 1943, p. 6.

61  ‘Can you date this fashion?’ The Argus, 2 March 1943.

62  ‘Can you date this fashion?’ The Argus, 13 and 17 April 1943.

63  ‘Fashions of the future’, The Argus, 13 March 1944, p. 6.

64  ‘Fashions of the future’, The Argus, 11 May 1944, p. 8.

65  ‘Why I switched to Meds by a nurse’, The Argus, 14 April 1943, p. 8.

66  ‘Why I switched to Meds by a school teacher’, The Argus, 21 April 1943, p. 8.

67  ‘Tampax is back’, ‘Woman’s magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 9 February 1947, p. 20.

68  Lake in Grimshaw et al (1994), p. 272–273.

69  ‘Not a shadow of doubt’, Sydney Morning Herald 25 October 1947, p. 12 and 11 November 1947, p. 13; ‘Carefree’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 September 1951, p. 37; 26 March 1952, p. 10.

70  ‘Modern women prefer Modess’, The Argus, 11 February 1948, p. 7; ‘More and yet more women are changing’, The Argus 30 May 1954, p. 22; ‘Women who know are hard to please’, The Mercury, 7 October 1950, p. 14; ‘Each year more and more women look forward to Holiday Time’, The Mercury 18 December 1954, p. 8; ‘Just as important as the selection of a new season’s gown’, The Mercury, 29 October 1954; ‘More Australian women buy Modess’, Sun-Herald 29 November 1953, p. 52; ‘Gay and carefree is the modern miss’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’ supplement to The Argus, 21 December 1948, p. 6s; ‘Comfort’s the keynote’, The Mercury, 5 April 1952.

71  Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant, ‘Making girls modern: Pakeha women and menstruation in New Zealand, 1930–70, Women’s History review, vol. 7, no. 4, 1998, pp. 575–576.

72  ‘Free as the wind’, The Mercury, 20 November 1946, p. 10.

73  ‘Go anywhere’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 19 October 1948, p. 6s.

74  ‘You can go anywhere’, The Mercury, 22 May 1946, p. 3.

75  ‘Accent on freedom’, The Mercury, 27 February 1946, p. 5; ‘Accent on Freedom’, The Argus, 25 May 1946, p. 22 and 20 December 1947, p. 10.

76  ‘The beach? Why yes! Any day for me’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 26 March 1952, p. 47.

77  ‘To women who love freedom’, Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 12 March 1947, p. 21; ‘Make a date with freedom’, Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 16 April 1947, p. 14; ‘To women of action who love freedom’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 17 September 1947, p. 18; ‘Beauty is not looks alone’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 1 June 1948, p. 6; ‘Beauty has a better chance today’, ‘Woman’s Magazine’, supplement to The Argus, 10 August 1948, p. 6.

78  Lake in Grimshaw et al (1994), p. 274.

79  Brumberg (1993), p. 120–121.

80  Cordia Ming-Yeuk Chu, ‘Menstrual beliefs and practices of Chinese women’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 17, no. 1, 1980, p. 50.

81  Deana Dorman Logan, ‘The menarche experience in twenty-three foreign countries’, Adolescence, vol. 15, no. 58, 1980, p. 251. See also Ayse K. Uskal, ‘Women’s menarche stories from a multicultural sample’, Social Science and Medicine, vol. 59, no. 4, 2004, p. 674.

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery