Lara Freidenfelds, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America

People, The Modern Period is fantastic, and you should probably go read it now.

I randomly met historian Lara Freidenfelds at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association conference in March, because we were both commenting energetically on a paper that had to do with pregnancy and representations of women’s bodies. She’s a delightful person, and we had a delightful between-two-panels conversation about both our careers, parenting, pregnancy, miscarriage, and birth politics and advocacy. I shared this web site with her, and she shared her new book with me.

I admit that I may be biased because I finally got to read a scholarly book just out of sheer intellectual curiosity rather than for a seminar or my dissertation or an article or as part of teaching. And that’s some super-fun stuff. But the book seriously is excellent: well-written, fascinating, thoughtful, and accessible to both scholars and everybody else with an interest in women’s bodies/lives or in twentieth-century US culture.

The Modern Period traces the history of A) how people (men and women, medical professionals and advertisers and laypeople, of various class/regional/ethnic backgrounds) have thought about menstruation and B) the changing technologies available for ‘managing’ menstruation. It proposes the idea of “the modern period,” one effect of the twentieth-century drive toward “a well-controlled body that would not leak, smell, hurt, cause anxiety, appear unfashionable, or lose efficiency” (p. 2). Instead of thinking about menstruation as simply a biological experience,¬†Freidenfelds explores the ways in which individuals’ experiences of menstruation are shaped by the knowledge, technologies, and value systems that surround us. Her work allows readers to understand our own private experiences and assumptions as very far from universal or historically stable.

The language sometimes feels repetitive as the book gets going (so just keep reading), briefly at the end of sections and chapters, and in the conclusion; otherwise, it’s a remarkably efficient piece of scholarly writing. My only other bit of disappointment with the book is that (today’s) cloth pads receive very dismissive treatment and reusable menstrual cups like the Keeper and the Diva Cup aren’t mentioned at all. Honestly, that’s not a problem with the book’s argument–I just really like them and hate to see any wasted opportunity of spreading awareness about alternatives to now-traditional disposable pads and tampons.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its incorporation of interviews as well as archival materials. The seventy-five interviews Freidenfelds conducted lend depth and nuance to the book’s argument; they also help make it an engaging (and often funny) read. The author’s presentation and analysis of the interviewee’s statements is uniformly empathetic and respectful, and her use of the interviews throughout the book allows wonderful individual characters to emerge. If the book offered nothing else, it would still be a delight to ‘hear’ these smart, funny women reflect on something many of them had never considered at length: their own relationships with menstruation and menstrual technologies.

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