“Our Revolution Has Style”: Contemporary Menstrual Product Activists “Doing Feminism” in the Third Wave
An in-depth content analysis of five web sites and eight paper zines (self-produced and distributed magazines) was conducted to uncover the inspiration, content, and unique strategies associated with text -based contemporary menstrual product activism. Menstrual product activism is loosely defined as various attempts to expose the hazards of commercial “feminine protection” to both women's bodies and the environment and the promotion of healthier, less expensive, and less resource-intensive alternatives. This activism's discourse draws on many traditions to produce its resistance to mainstream menses management. The movement, first and foremost, is the legacy of several decades of related activism, dating to the mid1970s. Contemporary menstrual product activism updates and modifies this tradition with the “do it yourself” ethic and anti-corporate philosophy of Punk culture and Third Wave feminist ideals of anti-essentialism, inclusion, humor, irony, and reappropriation. To date, this activist agenda has received little scholarly attention, yet it promises to yield meaningful insight into so called Third Wave feminist theory and practice and reveal the resilience of a woman-centered modern history of resistance.
KeywordsMenstruation Women's health activism Third wave feminism
(The Bloodisters, Red Alert #3, circa late 1990s, p. 3).
in spirit of challenging and collapsing
the insidious nature of the corporate monster
that gobbles and trashes and fucks us over …
in response to the dirty business …
we have made this recipe book.
as an act of resistance to the system
that tramples over the homegrown d.i.y. style
we are sick of how they co-opt our life
to spit out into franchises …
to over package our needs into taxed luxuries …
we are sick of the garbarators
that insists to dismember …
we are sick of how it insists to hide
and disguise our experiences
fuck the mark up they make on their lies …
DOWN WITH THE INVENTORS OF NECESSITIES!
to the uprise when we stop popping tampons
and the popping big business medicines …
we fuck the poisons
that kill our free remedies …
when we fuck the complacency
to build the uprising …
to bleed and use weeds
to stop feeding the corporate greed
when we ax tampax and what it embodies
This piece–part poetry, part manifesto, and part statement of conscience–shouts from a publication produced and distributed by a Montreal-based activist group called “The Bloodsisters.” They are dedicated to exposing the risks associated with conventional so-called “feminine protection,” that is, menstrual products, and raising awareness about alternatives, such as reusable cloth pads, internal collection devices, including sea sponges and various cups, such as the Keeper, and organic and/or natural commercial tampons and pads (For a more detailed description of menstrual care products taken from the perspective of a menstrual product activist, see Appendix A). Their writing (never attributed to an individual but always to the group) is a poignant example of the kind of discourse typical of the contemporary “menstrual product activism” practiced by a small but spirited number of mostly young women in the US and Canada. Angry, inventive, tongue-in-cheek, anti-corporate, and evocative of an earlier era, menstrual product activists are simultaneously the product of an earlier phase of this movement–inspired by the Second Wave feminist health movement—and the creators of a new style of activism infused with the energy and attitude of contemporary young women. Before delving deeply into contemporary menstrual product activism, I will offer a brief overview of the roots of this movement.
A Brief History of Menstrual Product Activism
Menstrual health activism is rooted in the women's health movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which challenged the male-dominated medical establishment and empowered women to take control of their bodies and their health. Through the development of various self-help methods, feminist-run clinics, and a plethora of resources (such as the ubiquitous Our Bodies, Ourselves first published as Women & Their Bodies in 1970 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective), women learned to rely on themselves and each other to meet their health care needs (Morgen, 2000; Ruzek, 1979; Weisman, 1998; Zimmerman, 1987). This movement, which interrogated the status quo surrounding every aspect of a woman's embodied experience, naturally led some activists to ask questions about how women managed their menstrual cycles. For example, early in the movement, Lorraine Rothman pioneered menstrual extraction, primarily as a self-help means of abortion, but some women used her patented “Del Em” apparatus to shorten their menstrual period from a matter of days to a matter of hours (Copelton, 2004; Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers, 1991, 1995; Ruzek, 1979). Menstrual extraction involves manually extracting the contents of the uterus around the time of the month when a woman anticipates her menses or up until approximately 8 weeks from the first day of the last menstrual period (Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers, 1991, 1995). But the dawning of a critical menstrual product consciousness did not occur until the mid 1970s. In Delaney, Lupton, and Toth (1977) published The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, which devoted a full chapter to the “sanitary protection” industry, questioning the biodegradability of disposable products and challenging the industry's use of “gimmickry to liven up sales” (p. 110).
A year later, Boston Women's Health Book Collective (BWHBC) members Esther Rome and Emily Culpepper launched what would become more than a decade of unprecedented activism when they penned a brochure entitled “Menstruation,” which devoted a full page to menstrual product use including a discussion of the sponge and the diaphragm as alternatives to conventional pads and tampons (Boston Women's Health Book Collective, 1977). At the same time that BWHBC released this brochure, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research was founded. These events marked the legitimization of the menstrual cycle as a worthy subject of scholarly research and provided an active context and network for members to promote menstrual health. In 1979, Jeanne Pavarti published her now classic Hygieia: A Woman's Herbal. In addition to promoting a positive view of menstruation as a source of women's pride and power, the book included a pattern for homemade cloth menstrual pads. Still, at that time, only the fringe of the women's health movement took notice of menstrual products and considered alternatives until a medical crisis hit and thrust tampon safety into the public consciousness.
The Toxic Shock Syndrome Crisis
Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is a rare but potentially fatal disease caused by a bacterial toxin, most commonly streptococci and staphylococci. TSS struck very small numbers of people until Procter & Gamble, a newcomer to the sanitary protection market, introduced a new super absorbent synthetic tampon called Rely®. The TSS epidemic reached its peak in 1980 with a total of 813 cases of menstrual-related TSS, including 38 deaths (Food and Drug Administration [FDA], 1999). By 1983, more than 2,200 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the majority of those cases involved menstruating women (Tierno, 2001). Under extreme pressure from the FDA and to avoid the imminent threat of a damning product recall, P&G “voluntarily” withdrew Rely® from the market and removed itself from the tampon production business until it bought Tambrands (makers of Tampax®) in 1997.
The TSS crisis stimulated a wave of activity aimed at tampon safety. Tampon manufacturers themselves, engaged in a bit of damage control, ceased using polyester foam—implicated in toxin production—in their products. In 1981, journalist Nancy Friedman (1981) published Everything You Must Know About Tampons. The book with the arresting title discusses the tampon-TSS link and alternative products. Also in 1981, Rome and Culpepper updated their brochure “Menstruation” with an addendum titled “Toxic Shock Syndrome: A 1981 Update,” a very clear message of extreme caution for consumers. Around the same time, ostensibly in response to activist demands in the wake of the TSS crisis but unwilling to issue a mandate, the FDA requested the Association of Testing & Materials (ATSM) to convene a group that consisted of tampon manufacturers, consumers, the FDA, and other interested parties to write a private, voluntary, tampon standard. Three members of the BWHBC, Judy Norsigian, Esther Rome, and Jill Wolhandler attended on behalf of consumers. Sadly, the ATSM group disbanded after 3 years of virtual intransigence (Rome & Wolhandler, 1992).
Although the FDA was unwilling to mandate safety and performance standards, it did issue a regulation that requires tampon package labels to advise women to use the lowest absorbency tampon to meet their needs. This regulation, enacted in 1982, encouraged companies who had voluntarily printed such information on the exterior of boxes to move the statement to box interiors. Around the same time, Nancy Reame, nursing professor and reproductive science research scientist at the University of Michigan and SMCR member, appeared on The Today Show with Jane Pauley to discuss tampon safety (Reame, personal communication, June 9, 2004). In the fall of 1983, the FDA, independent of ATSM, extracted an agreement from tampon manufacturers to put lowest-absorbency-needed advice on the outside of packages. This advice, however, was practically meaningless, because there was no uniform product labeling across the industry. In response, activists Rome, Wolhandler, Reame, and the not-for-profit public advocacy group Public Citizen initiated a campaign to standardize absorbency ratings. This battle was won in 1990.
In 1989, microbiologists Philip Tierno and Bruce Hanna (1989) published the results of their research on tampon ingredients and the link to Toxic Shock Syndrome in the Review of Infectious Diseases. Their research established a link between super absorbent synthetic materials and the production of the bacteria-causing TSS, legitimized fear of tampons, and helped to create and maintain a market for alternative products in the US.
In Britain, 1989 was a watershed year. A small group of feminist environmental activists led by Bernadette Vallely organized a national media blitz designed to enrage consumers and motivate them to take action. Vallely and fellow activists Josa Young and Allison Costello published the Sanitary Protection Scandal, which inspired the national network television program World in Action to air a program on the hazards of chlorine gas bleached paper products. In a mere 6 weeks, all of the major British sanitary protection producers, except tampon manufacturers, pledged to eliminate the use of the chlorine gas bleaching process (Armstrong & Scott, 1992; Vallely, personal communication, September 5, 2003). In 1990, while listening to a keynote address delivered by Vallely, nature photographer Liz Scott was inspired to export the British success to North America (Armstrong, personal communication, November 5, 2003). Two years later, Armstrong, together with environmental lawyer Adrienne Scott, published Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women's Sanitary Products an Disposable Diapers—What You Can Do about It.
During the next several years, a vigorous wave of activity took place. Several alternative menstrual product companies were founded: Lunapads (1993), Ecologique (1994), Organic Essentials (1996), Instead (a disposable menstrual cup) (1996), and Goddess Moons (1997). Harry Finley opened his “Museum of Menstruation” in the basement of his Maryland home in 1994; the museum tells the history of the industry and raises questions about product safety. In 1995, Penny Wheelwright and Theresa MacInnes (1997) released their independent documentary film Underwraps: A Film About Going with the Flow (it has since been renamed Menstruation: Breaking the Silence). Their film featured a number of members of what they called “the menstrual underground,” and brought visibility to an otherwise little-known movement.
In the next several years, several key texts appeared and stimulated young women to pick up and continue the work that Rome and others began in the mid 1970s. In 1995, writer Karen Houppert, angered by the rising cost of tampons while the number of tampons per box decreased, wrote an investigative expose for the Village Voice titled “Pulling the Plug on the Sanitary Protection Industry.” This widely read and very controversial feature later grew into her 1999 book The Curse—Menstruation: The Last Unmentionable Taboo. In 1998, Third Wave feminist Inga Muscio published Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, which challenged (mostly young radical feminist) readers to rethink the ways they manage their bleeding. Soon thereafter, the Student Environmental Action Coalition, a national, grassroots, student, environmental organization, founded its “Dioxin Out of Tampons” campaign in 1999, and the first ever Anti -Tampon conference was held in 2000 at James Madison University. Also in 2000 the poet/writer Geneva Kachman and filmmaker Molly Strange established “Menstrual Monday,” a “holiday” designed to challenge menstrual taboos, secrecy, and negativity (see www.moltx.org). It is in this context that contemporary menstrual product activists articulated their call to arms to “Ax Tampax!”
Contemporary Menstrual Product Activism
Today's menstrual product activism, sometimes called “radical menstruation,” “menstrual anarchy,” “anti-tampon activism,” “alternative menstruation” and my favorite (the name of an e-zine) “menarchy,” is loosely defined here as various strategic attempts to expose the hazards of commercial “feminine protection” to both women's bodies and the environment and the promotion of healthier, less expensive, and less resource-intensive alternatives. But why? What's wrong with “feminine protection” in its current form? Why aren't some consumers satisfied with the gains already made in the area of tampon safety? In short, menstrual product activists advance five main concerns and focus their disapproval primarily with what's now called the “femcare” industry.
the tests that have been done were provided by the tampon manufacturers, and no tests that have been done can prove that any tampons are completely dioxin free. When dealing with the most absorbent part of your body, why take the risk? (SEAC, 2004, n.p.)
Second, contemporary menstrual product activists question the safety of the common tampon material, rayon, independent of the bleaching process used. Miniscule amounts of rayon can be left behind in a menstruator's vagina when she wears a tampon (especially after prolonged use), activists allege, and fiber loss has been implicated as a health risk. In addition, rayon has been linked to vaginal ulceration and peeling of the mucous membrane, thus producing a breeding ground for infection (Bloodsisters, n.d.; SEAC, 2004, Wilkins, 2000).
A third activist concern regarding conventional menstrual products is the environmental devastation brought on by the use of commercial, non-biodegradable, disposable products. Not only does the production process generate contaminated wastewater, but also tampon applicators wash up on beaches and pads and tampons and their packaging clog landfills, sewers, and water treatment plants. Estimates vary, but if a woman uses five tampons a day for 5 days per month for 38 total menstruating years, she consumes and disposes of 11,400 items (see Fawn, 2001; Houppert, 1999; SEAC 2004) Activists regard this amount of waste as irresponsible and unnecessary.
A fourth concern is cost. Activist Fawn P., as cited in Wilkins (2000, p. 17) stated “the average menstruating consumer will spend at least $2,137.00 on feminine products during her lifetime” (though this appears a low estimate given rising costs). Activists encourage women to avoid supporting an industry they regard as potentially hazardous to both menstruators’ bodies and the environment and to channel their resources elsewhere.
The fifth and final activist concern is more abstract but nonetheless potent. Activists resist the use of commercially produced disposables because, in their view, they are designed to obscure the reality of menstruation. Products are marketed to women to hide the fact of their bleeding by using materials that can be wrapped up and tidied away. Menstruation is constructed as a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” Premiums on discretion, convenience, modesty, and cleanliness, activists say, are industry-promoted (if not created) and cost women their self esteem and a positive, affirming, menstrual experience (Houppert, 1999; SEAC 2004).
As shown, contemporary menstrual product activism springs from a tradition of agitation and progress of nearly 30 years. Yet, although it is inspired by this history, it is also a movement shaped by other recent cultural and ideological developments. In particular, contemporary menstrual product activism is influenced by the Punk movement and emerging Third Wave feminism.
The Punk movement dates back to the late 1960s in North America and the 1970s in the United Kingdom (see Leblanc, 2001). It is difficult to provide a coherent history of Punk because, as ethnographer of girls’ Punk subculture Lauraine Leblanc (2001, p. 33) stated, “there is little agreement about its geographic origins, its ideologies, its membership, and even … its continued existence.” There is agreement, however, that Punk began as a subculture based on music that more generally enacted a disgruntled and direct opposition to authority and mainstream culture. Further, it is agreed that Punk has historically existed as an overwhelmingly white subculture.
Rather than subscribing to norms of compliance and obedience expected of youth, Punks, including “hardcore,” “Spirit of ’77,” “gutter,” “crusty,” “postcard,” “new school,” and “old school” (see Leblanc, 2001, for in depth descriptions of each Punk type) embrace their own stylized norms of opposition “as members of a “reflexive” subculture. Punks seek “to remain outside the dominant culture, while illuminating central features of it” (Levine & Stumpf, 1983, as quoted in Leblanc, 2001, pp. 63–64).
A key feature of Punk, called DIY: Do It Yourself, first materialized as a form of self-reliance when Punks picked up guitars and taught themselves and each other how to play. This enabled them to found their own self-styled garage bands. DIY is also the means used to produce homemade, handmade, photocopied, and self-distributed magazines, called zines (more information on zines will follow). Self-help or DIY is the bridge that links the women's health movement's focus on self-help with Punk.
Third Wave Feminism
Existing alongside and often intersecting with Punk is another movement mostly associated with youth, though recent scholarship has disputed a generational specificity (Henry, 2004). Third Wave feminism, the newest wave of the women's movement, is gaining increasing attention as a force to be reckoned with among activists, academics, and anyone who takes seriously the theory and practice of contemporary feminism (Bail, 1996; Baumgardner & Richards, 2000; Garrison, 2000; Henry, 2004; Heywood & Drake, 1997; Orr, 1997). Scholars and activists struggle with the notion of the Third Wave. Is it a movement? Is it a generational variant of the Second Wave? Because Third Wave is very much in development, a consensus has not yet been established, but certain themes have emerged that seem to characterize Third Wave and set it apart from its First and Second Wave feminist predecessors. Most significantly, Third Wavers are noted for their attempt to break with the past of the Second Wave, especially the racism, heterosexism and classism of much of that era's theory and practice and to reckon openly with contradictions such as critiquing consumerism while participating in it, or, as Rebecca Walker (1995) wrote, “using and much more than we use either/or” (p. xxxv).
In order to better understand contemporary menstrual product activism, I conducted an in-depth content analysis of five web sites or e-zines (I will use these terms interchangeably) accessed during the period September 2001–January 2003 and eight zines produced by various menstrual product activists. Most of the paper zines are still available through various zine distribution services, called “distros” in the DIY/Punk community. For a complete listing of the materials included in this analysis, see Appendix B.
Zines are defined as “noncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines, which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves” (Duncombe, 1997, p. 6). According to Duncombe (1997), zines in their distinct form were born in the 1930s when fans of science fiction began producing what were then called “fanzines” as a means of communicating with each other as consumers, critics and producers of science fiction. In the 1970s, fans of Punk rock music started producing their own zines in which they discussed the genre and culture unique to Punk. In the 1980s, the Sci Fi and Punk tradition of zine making was joined by fans of myriad other cultural genres, alienated self-publishers ignored by the mainstream, and political dissenters from the 1960s and 1970s, and thus, the current generation of zines were born. The “fan” has been dropped, and, according to Duncombe and others (see Vale, 1996, for example) the culture of zines has grown dramatically. Due to the ephemeral nature of any self-published and distributed product, however, it is difficult to find an accurate number of zines in circulation, let alone track a growth curve from past to present. One zine researcher cited between 10,000 and 50,000 zines traded or sold to an estimated readership of 1–3 million (Chu, 1997). Regarding e-zines specifically, the Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists includes over 3,400 titles, a 100% increase over the previous year's count of 1,689. The number of e-journals (which includes titles classified as “e-zines,” or magazines) makes up 72% of the total, with 2,459 listings, whereas e-newsletters account for 955 entries (Mogge, 1998). Why study zines to better understand contemporary menstrual product activism? According to Chrisler and Kaufman (1988) magazines are a popular source of health information for women. In fact, they found that young women prefer magazines as a source of their information about health. It may follow, then, that zines, the magazines of many contemporary youth, serve a similar function.
In order to locate the materials appropriate for this study, I engaged in a thorough search between September 2001 and January 2003. During that time, I searched various on line “distros,” using the key words “menstruation” and “tampons.” I also searched using the engines google.com and yahoo.com for appropriate web-based or e-zines. I quickly discovered the self-reflexive community doing the work of menstrual product activism. The websites linked to one another and often referenced the paper zines I then set out to acquire. In some cases, a website also has a paper zine version. Most of the materials I located were produced from the late 1990s through 2002.
In general, the websites and zines utilized a similar format. In most cases, the zines and websites begin with an explanation of what's wrong with the conventional or mainstream “feminine protection industry” in terms of hazards to women's health and devastation to the environment. Typically, this exposé is followed by a detailed discussion of alternatives to mainstream, commercial, sanitary napkins and tampons. Usually, this in-depth description is written as a personal narrative in which the writer shares her experiences with each of the alternatives. Finally, the zines and websites typically provide a list of resources for further information—other zines, websites, and sources for purchasing alternative products. Sometimes, the zine or website includes a pattern for making one's own homemade, reusable, cloth, menstrual pads. It is important to note that the zines, as self-published, independent publications, typically lack dates of publication and page numbers, which is often frustrating for researchers studying the materials.
Once I collected all available zines and identified all currently active web sites/e-zines,1 I employed the axial coding method of thematic analysis (Lofland & Lofland, 1995) to reveal how the selected texts aimed to expose “the industry” and promote the use of alternatives. In particular the key themes, tensions, and strategies employed to meet the activists’ goals were interrogated.
The present analysis is divided in two parts. Part One demonstrates how contemporary menstrual product activism is reflective of the philosophy and strategies associated with the earlier phase of this movement, positioned as a direct descendant of the Women's Health Movement. Through the discussion of three interrelated themes, I attempt to show specifically the legacy of previous activists in the work of today's menstrual product activist zine producers. In brief, earlier efforts–inspired by the feminist health movement–-are evident in contemporary menstrual product activist's attempts to displace authority and challenge the secrecy and misinformation about women's bodies. The activists perceive corporations as nefarious institutions that engineer campaigns to keep women ignorant and therefore dependent on unsafe and expensive commercial products when in reality, they claim, the products are hardly problem-free, and alternatives do indeed exist.
Part Two reveals legacies as well, but of different sources. I aim to show how a Third Wave feminist sensibility combined with a Punk critique of consumer culture and various tactics of resistance update menstrual product activism. These influences, I show, produce a unique form of activism that is contemporary and innovative.
Part one: Legacies of the past in contemporary menstrual product activism
I think it has definitely been ingrained in all of us to not want to touch ourselves when we’re menstruating. There is an intrinsic fear of that blood. And that just seems really fucking unnatural. Its just blood (sic). I don't have nearly as many weird mental ties with the blood that comes out of my knee when I scrape it as I do with the blood that comes out of my cunt. And I mean, the blood coming out of my cunt on this somewhat regular cycle SHOULD be comforting and normal to me. I’ve come a really long way I think as far as familiarizing myself with my vagina goes, but I STILL have this innate fear of getting blood on my hands and on my sheets. I’m working at it, though. I’m working at familiarization. (p. 3)
The commitment to self and body awareness is clearly a legacy of the feminist health movement when women gathered in their living rooms armed with hand held mirrors, flashlights, and plastic specula and began to examine their own cervices (Federation of Feminist Health Centers, 1991, 1995) Usually, however, cervical self-exam was conducted in a group setting. I am not aware of a similar group dynamic at work among the menstrual product activists. Bleeding is still a private matter, even if less stigmatized and shamed. It would be a bit more logistically challenging to gather a group of menstruating women to examine their blood or experiment with their new Keepers, for instance, but it would not be impossible. Why, then, are women not “working at familiarization” together? Women do, however, gather for “pad making workshops,” sometimes called “Stitch n’ Bitch,”2 in which they teach one another how to make their own cloth, reusable, menstrual pads.
Major bummer for the city dweller who hasn't got her own washer and dryer and sometimes doesn't do laundry for weeks at a time. Plus, it's very much a drag when you discover, a week or two after the fact, that you’ve forgotten a used pad, now buried and fermenting at the bottom of your gym bag. True, cloth pads are comfier and less bulky than commercially sold paper ones, but it's a little like comparing a corset with a girdle. (n.p.)
This strategy of sharing personal experience—the good, the bad, and the ugly—serves to reassure the reader that she is getting a (at least one woman’s) true account, one she can trust to be reliable. These raw stories contrast sharply with the slick advertising campaigns most of us are left to decode and decipher when faced with making a product choice. The activists, it seems, work very hard at speaking woman-to-woman, consumer-to-consumer, and steer painfully clear of presenting a picture void of negativity. Personal experiences are not sanitized here. They are real and messy and sometimes contradictory. You, the reader, are smart enough to make your choices—so goes the discourse—and we refuse to insult your intelligence (and buy into the corporate model) by leading you to purchase a product that may not be right for you. Or as S.P.O.T. stated on page 1, “Explore the site, read articles written by others, look at alternatives, and then make up your own mind.”
And if you don't feel comfortable getting a Keeper from me, but you still want one, PLEASE check out Eco Logique, Inc, which is the major distributor of The Keeper. You should definitely go and buy from them, if you feel funny mailing your payment to a little RandomGirl … or if you want to use a credit card … then again, they probably deserve your business more than I do regardless, ‘cuz *they* were doing this when I was still running around wearing o.b. (p. 3)
Another convention of de-centering the self as omniscient is the use of ramble. Random Girl titled her 1997 webpage, “Random Girl Rambles About the Keeper,” in which she did little actual rambling and much dispensing of detailed clearly organized information. Similarly, the e-zine Whirling Cervix heads the first of 11 well-organized and comprehensive pages of information with the title “I babble about menstruation,” again suggesting that the information the reader encounters is to be taken as nothing more than one individual's “take” on one “topic.”
I do not wish to overstate the self-effacing tone because it must necessarily be seen in context. The purpose of diminishing the self as authority has two functions. First, by making very clear that the writer is just one “RandomGirl” for instance, the reader is empowered to value her own experiences and opinions. Critical thinking and personal exploration is modeled and championed. ‘If I did this (resisted, experimented and even wrote a zine or website about it) so can you,’ goes the narrative. The point is not to suppress free expression but stimulate more of it. The second related purpose of the tone of ‘little ole me’ is to place noticeable distance between so-called, often self-described, “experts” who disempower women by dictating what is right and wrong and invite no dialogue (often purveyed as paternal reassurance). In the context of menstrual product activism, public enemy number 1 is, of course, the “feminine protection industry” (a.k.a, “the corporate creeps” as one zinester put it). According to the activists, the obvious agenda of the marketers of the feminine protection industry is to position themselves as knowing best what women need and want when it comes to managing menstruation. Arguably, thinking for one's self and making informed choices that take into consideration both personal and environmental health are not the concern of the industry. The activists vehemently resist this message and, thus, perhaps overcompensate by packaging their own message as individualized and part of a plurality of voices unafraid, even encouraging, to be challenged. The activists, then, seem very aware of the threat of cooptation and work hard to keep their distance from the tactics of the offenders. Keeping in mind the ways that menstrual product activism echoes earlier women's health activism, I turn now to the ways the movement departs from this tradition.
Part Two: Reflections of Punk and Third Wave in Contemporary Menstrual Product Activism
My foray into the world of alternative menstrual products takes the shape of a super hero's quest. Special powers: a death-defying ability to contort my vagina around recalcitrant products. Shazam! An unruly sponge is tamed. Holy nappies! One more double-thick pad is wrestled into submission beneath jeans. My mission: to make the world safe for femi-nazis. My motto: no super plus is too great, no junior/lite too insignificant. Only one thing can bring me to my knees. The Kryponite of the body-and-blood set: celebrate-our-cycles liturgy. Sadly, New Ageans dominates this market. Take New Cycle Products for example. The catalogue cover looks innocuous enough. Just another sea nymph dangling from a slivered moon. But inside affirmations—“May our sunlight-consciousness illuminate the vessel of our moon-womb-chalice”—attack me from all directions. Moon Bowls, pots to soak used pads in before washing them and returning this “rich soaking water” to plants and gardens for “amazing results,” reinforce the over-riding theme: “Women have an innate understanding of the Universe that is directly linked to their ability to cycle.” And catalogue copy is not content with your cycles. It wants your firstborn as well. First timers are sucked into celebrating menarche with the “Cycle Celebration Crown Kits.” (n.p.)
Women give blood without hurting ourselves. Our blood is the womb for life to grow if that is to be. It is a powerful, heavy, magic, life-giving force. It comes as no surprise that in a Patriarchy, menstruation is shrouded in shame and feelings of dirtiness. Women are something to be “sanitized,” we need “protection” from our life-giving forces! The medical profession has treated menstruation as a female “problem” for a long time. This mentality regarding women's monthly flow has raised generations of women who are embarrassed, rather than empowered by their natural state. (p.1)
I don't really know what I’m trying to say here and I’m desperately attempting to not sound really cheesy and wombmoon-ly, but it think there is a definite value to radical menstruation because it breaks down those sterile walls of individually wrapped plastic devices that keep us from becoming friends with our vaginas. (It's Your Fucking Body #2: Reclaim your Cunt, n.d., pp. 6–7).
(Attributed to the Blood Sisters in Femmenstruation Rites Rag, n.d., p. 38.)5
We are feminist terrorists
We are quiet moss bleeders
We are riot grrrl boy catchers
We are goddess thumpers
We are bloody Punk rockers
We are moon worshippers
We are terrible singers
We are dirty girl power
Still, a rift does exist. And why? Why are menstrual product activists who emerged from the ground of Third Wave feminism and Punk culture uncomfortable, even hostile, to one particular expression of Second Wave feminist thought and practice? The answer may well lie in one of the main three constitutive elements of menstrual product activism: Third Wave feminism. As mentioned above, goddess-centered thought and practice is an aspect of Second Wave cultural feminism, features of which are the celebration of certain so-called womanly qualities of nurturance, care, empathy, and compassion, and, in some cases, advocacy for women-only spaces in which to cultivate and strengthen such qualities. Women, say cultural feminists, are oppressed because the qualities of womanhood are denigrated. To eradicate sexism, we must challenge this process of demeaning such gendered attributes. The oppression is not in the gender, per se, but in perception of the gender (Dinnerstein, 1976; Gilligan, 1982). Of course, among feminist theorists, this particular strain of feminist theory's promise for effecting social change has been questioned (see, for instance, Grant, 1993).
Constantly measuring up to some cohesive fully down-for-the-feminist-cause identity without contradictions and messiness and lusts for power and luxury items is not a fun or easy task … For many of us it seems that to be a feminist in the way that we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn't allow for individuality or complexity or less than perfect personal histories. (p. xxxi)
Womb imagery, for instance, rings hollow for women who don't identify with their procreative capacities (or lack of capacities). Calling attention to the uniquely female experience of monthly bleeding excludes young girls, post menopausal women, transgendered and transsexual women and women, who for myriad other reasons, cannot or will not bleed. Third Wave feminists are invested in inclusion, not essentialism and thus, find cultural feminists ideologically rigid and backward.
Furthermore, the (usually temporary) gender-based separatism that is often a part of feminism as a means to build women's community and provide safe spaces for women to explore, question, and heal from the ravages of sexism is anathema to Third Wave feminists, who remain unconvinced that so-called women's culture has caused significant change in the gender order. Besides, Third Wave feminists argue, we need to build more connections with men, not sever the already weak ties. Furthermore, it is argued, we can't expect Women of Color or poor women to deny their race or class and identify only as women, when their identities are much more complex than that. Furthermore, for socially marginalized women, connections to Men of Color or poor women are necessary for survival and solidarity.
Theme 2: “Our revolution has style”: The use of humor, reappropriation and culture jamming as tactics of resistance. But how do menstrual product activists do their activism? We now have some insight into how they make sense of the issue and conceptualize their identity, but what sorts of tactical moves constitute the very stuff of their activism? Remember that this analysis is limited to text and electronic productions as I transition now to three key tactics common to the writing of menstrual product activists.
One unmistakable feature of the zines and websites is the use of humor. When reading these zines, one will likely find oneself smiling, even sometimes furtively at the ribald writing. Make no mistake about it: ‘menstrual product activism is fun,’ the zines seem to proclaim. No one can accuse these young feminists of lacking a sense of humor. The writers of both the paper and e-zines utilize a plethora of tactics to engage the reader and infuse an element of playfulness in the work of the movement, a legacy of Third Wave feminism as previously discussed. For example, in Femmenstruation Rites Rag, “Cunt Woman,” a hand drawn image of a vulva with arms and (hairy) legs, speaks in “thought bubbles” about key topics such as menarche, sex during menstruation, PMS, and tampon alternatives. Another piece in the same zine includes a Blood Cheer set to a Beastie Boy tune that exhorts women to “let it go, let your blood flow” and “smear it on your face and rub it on your body, it's time to start a menstrual party” (p. 19). The cheer's author performed the cheer at a Halloween party while dressed as a bloody tampon. This type of “in your face” humor, with a clear element of shock to awaken consciousness, is very common in menstrual product activist discourse. Clearly, these tactics prevent the criticism often leveled at Second Wave feminists that they are humorless, dry, or too serious and draw in readers who might otherwise find this taboo topic too gross or personal to consider.
Activists who engage in what is known as “radical cheerleading,” a stylized action connected with the Punk and anarchist communities, perform cheers like the one described above. Radical cheerleading is one of many means activists use to recycle mainstream practices and subvert them to suit the needs of their particular agenda. Other creative recycling or reappropriation is evidenced in Red Alert #2 (1999) in which the Bloodsisters offered “thanks for the (respectfully) stolen images” (p. 3) that pepper their pages. Notable images from assorted zines include a skipping, pinafored-and-black-patent-leather-shoes-clad little girl (n.p.); models posing in a circa 1950s sewing pattern publication (n.p.); cowgirls with the copy “why ride the ‘ol cotton pony? GET UNPLUGGED. Choose reusables” (n.p.); and a circa 1950 model sporting a high style bathing suit and cat eye sunglasses with the superimposed text “our revolution has style” (n.p.). Each of these images communicates a message very different than the one the image was originally produced to convey. Sometimes the images are used as exposé (e.g., pretty silly how those women are posing, isn't it?) or reclamation (e.g., let's celebrate the innocence of little girls rather than exploit it, and/or she may look innocent but don't underestimate this someday-woman). In any case, the liberal use of images juxtaposed with self-generated renderings of Punk girls, comic strips of gender ambiguous protagonists, and provocative photographs of women in panties and semi-naked women produce a message that is visually engaging and conceptually complex.
Another form of reappropriation used in the zines is the manipulation of existing, familiar images. Raggedy Ann, for example, is pictured in Red Alert #3 (n.d., n.p.) seated alone in the corner of an otherwise blank page looking very angry. Her eyebrows are redrawn as arched, and her mouth is down turned. She sits opposite the page that features a manipulated box of Always® maxi pads. Now it is clear why Raggedy Ann is angry. Reappropration as subversion is not new, certainly, but what is notable here is the way it is so clearly reminiscent of Punk culture's tactic of taking known artifacts (such as fish net stockings paired with baby doll dresses and combat boots) as a direct affront to “propriety.” Deal with our glaring contradictions, say Punks. I am sexy, I am provocative, and I can kick your butt if you don't respect me on my terms. In Pretty in Punk, ethnographer Lauraine Leblanc (2001) documented the contradictory use of images (in this case projected onto the body instead of onto the page or computer screen) to subvert dominant understandings of youth, gender, and sexuality. Menstrual product activists produce movement materials in much the same way.
Still another common strategy used by the menstrual product activists involves reproducing advertisements by the feminine protection industry and altering them as a means of parody. Reminiscent of graffiti seen on billboards, this strategy directly confronts what the activists regard as the industry's dishonest and empty promises and rewrites the advertisements to reflect a more authentic story, for example, that tampons are linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome. The transformation of the Always® advertisement to read “Go Away” sends a very clear message from activist to industry: We don't want you or your dangerous product. This form of activism is called “culture jamming,” a term coined in 1984 by the San Francisco-based band Negativland (Klein, 1999), and defined as the “the practice of parodying advertisements and hijacking billboards in order to drastically alter their messages” (p. 280). Culture jammers, according to Klein, boldly reject the passive absorption of advertising and challenge what is intended as the one way flow of communication from advertiser to hapless, uncritical consumer, to a “talk back” where the consumer reveals the truth in advertising, the story beneath the advertisement.
Taken together, the uses of humor, reappropriation, and culture jamming subvert the feminine protection industry's control over women's bodies. Laughing, cutting and pasting, and ultimately redefining the symbols of femininity, the menstrual product activists claim a stylized space where bleeding is normal and every menstruator exercises agency and autonomy. Surely, the ultimate aim of the activists is consistent with the aim of earlier activists, but their means to the end differ. The use of humor, the reworking of images intended to objectify women and girls, and culture jamming are not among the tactics employed by earlier activists.
Why shut an M to F trannie out of your music festival (or a transitioning F to M)? Just to reduce things to this minimum, to set up a fence, to establish a false qualifier for all those who are allowed in? It's like only letting the “real” Americans run for president, or only letting the “real” couples get married in your church. I wonder if this isn't what we’re doing with menstrual product activism sometimes. It's true, we all come from cunt, but we don't all bleed, and menstruation isn't the thing that makes us all “womyn.” (p. 3)
i’ve realized over the past few weeks that all of the resources I’ve come across concerning radical menstruation (including the ones I have written) seem to neglect these 2 really important facts:
1. Not all women menstruate
2. Not just women menstruate
Blanket statements that seem to be really prevalent within this movement like “all women menstruate” I think are supposed to “bring us together” but do just the opposite. Statements like that completely invalidate transwomen and nontrans women who do not bleed for a variety of reasons. Not all women menstruate. Lots of nontrans women don't menstruate due to different diseases, cancers, surgical procedures, and just plain menopause and hysterectomy, although transwomen maybe don't have the same need for this information, it's still really crappy to exclude them from our definition of WOMAN by basing it completely on a physical function that some of us experience and some us don’t. (n.p.)
Here, the activist articulated more than a need to include transgendered people and transsexuals, but ANY self-identified woman who, for any number of reasons, does not menstruate. She argued for a truly inclusive movement rooted in a non-biological definition of woman. She acknowledged that some individuals may not want or need menstrual information, but the point is less about audience as it is about an inclusive definition of woman that resists a false solidarity based on biological realities that do not universally apply.
Notably, resistance to the “all women bleed” sentiment in menstrual product activism is slim. The passages excerpted above may suggest a trend at best, but they certainly do not represent a common awareness. Still, the fact that some activists are engaging this issue of inclusion sets the movement a bit apart from the Second Wave feminism that championed a universal definition of woman as a mobilizing force.6
What has this analysis revealed? And what remains to be explored and understood? Because scholarly study of menstrual product activism has only just begun, it seems safe to say that, at this early point, we have more questions than answers. Nonetheless, some understanding regarding the origins, nature, and character of this particular type of activism is taking shape. Menstrual product activism is clearly an outgrowth of the work of earlier activists—themselves inspired by the emerging women's health movement–-who pushed for product safety and labeling and suggested the use of alternative products. Contemporary menstrual product activism's resistance to andocentric and so-called objective authority is undisputedly a legacy of the same critique advanced by the women who challenged the menstrual product industry and the lack of government regulation by fighting to provide menstruators with safer options.
However, a closer look at menstrual product activism forces us to reckon with the myriad ways in which their resistance breaks with the tradition of earlier efforts to develop and promote a critical menstrual product consciousness, as we know it. First, a Punk sensibility opposed to mainstream cultural products, especially commodification and commercialization, inspires activists to critique and resist the “femcare” industry. Through a process of education and empowerment—facilitated by DIY/self-help paper and e-zines, consumers can take back their menstruation and achieve health at low cost to self and planet. But menstrual product activists past and present meet on the common ground of standing up to misogynist conceptions of women's bodies that deny women their own agency and power. Thus the themes of resisting the dominant/status quo standard of care and replacing it with empowered self-knowledge and self-help (or DIY) are at work in both phases of the movement. Second, contemporary menstrual product activists draws on Third Wave feminism to update the movement and produce a form more relevant to many contemporary young feminists. The challenge to essentialism vis á vis cultural feminist constructions of womanhood; the use of humor, reappropriation, and culture jamming; and the nascent but emerging attention to trans issues all reflect the values associated with the feminism that is gaining prominence in the early 21st century.
Nevertheless, my analysis leaves many unanswered questions. For one, it fails to address the many other influences that bear on menstrual product activism such as eco-feminism, voluntary simplicity/simple living and a more careful deconstruction of Punk which focuses on Riot Grrrl, a derivative Punk community that combines the rebelliousness of Punk with a radical critique of patriarchy both within Punk and beyond (Starr, 1999). A fuller and richer analysis of contemporary menstrual product activism must necessarily acknowledge these influences as well.
Further, a number of limitations of this present study provide portals to future inquiry. Because this article is focused exclusively on a small number of electronic and printed representations of contemporary menstrual product activism, it yields only a limited sense of the intentions and strategies of the activists. This discourse, of course, tells only part of the story. Ethnographic data, including in-depth interviews with a wide range of menstrual product activists, promise to reveal much. Questions guiding future inquiry may include: do activist intentions correlate with their actions? Does the text really tell the story? Are the contemporary activists self-aware of the legacies I see at work in their movement? Do they identify with the activists who preceded them? Do they know the history of their movement? Clearly, this work is not finished. Until then, the present analysis offers a glimpse into an important effort at putting women in control of their bodies and their health. A focus on the menstrual cycle, in particular, the interaction between menstruator and the behemoth “femcare” industry, illustrates the ways that activists reinvent the movement to keep it alive and resonant. Above all, contemporary menstrual product activism, simultaneously shaped by its past and its present, demonstrates the persistence and resilience of feminist resistance, day-by-day, year-by-year.
Since conducting this analysis, I have identified several more menstrual activist zines in circulation; thus, this analysis should not be construed as exhaustive but, more accurately, representative.
Feminist legend has it that “sewing societies” of the 19th century operated as places where women surreptitiously hatched strategies for gaining suffrage and staged other gender-based social change actions. For example, a popular contemporary T-shirt worn by young feminists reads “Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society.” It also appears on the back cover of one of the Bloodsisters’ zines. Whether the women designing and naming these events are conscious of this historical (though undocumented) historical reference is a matter for further inquiry.
Simply, cultural feminism, a branch of radical feminist theory, refers to the body of feminist theory and political action that celebrates the differences between women and men and invests energy into the reclamation, creation and nurturance of women's culture (see Gilligan, 1982; Rich, 1977; Ruddick, 1983) for poignant examples. One product of this orientation is the study and practice of goddess-centered spiritual traditions (see Christ, 1997; Christ & Plaskow, 1979; Gimbutas, 1989; Starhawk, 1982, Stone, 1976, for just a sampling of this vast literature that exploded primarily in the 1980s).
While Mama Sutra's Menstrual Moon Magick is no longer online, Anderberg's “vulva museum” expresses a celebration of the historical Goddess tradition and its potential for reclaiming women's power as embodied agents. See http://resist.ca/1kirstena/pagevulvamuseum1.html.
Further evidence of repair to this rift is represented in the evolution of Kirsten Anderberg herself. She reports a dramatic transformation since the mounting of her e-zine. Forged in the fire of street activism and the experience of police brutality, she grew increasingly frustrated with the status quo and grew more militant in her efforts to effect social change. She now identifies more with third wave feminists, though she subscribes to neither the separation between the waves nor the differentiation between feminists (Anderberg, personal communication, August 30, 2005).
For a classic statement of universal womanhood that obscures differences based on class, race, and sexuality, see Redstockings Manifesto (1969).
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