Episode 64: Anita Diamant Talks Menstrual Justice (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.
[SNL clip] psst… do you have a.. you know… a tampon? Oh, heck yeah. No, not here, someone will see! Relax, no one’s gonna know…
Nahanni: As Saturday Night Live reminds us… it’s tough to be stranded without period products, but the stigma around periods can be even tougher. Anita Diamant wants to help.
Anita: You should put, please, everybody put in your bathroom, the one that you, the guests use. A container with pads and tampons in it. Even if nobody needs them, it is a sign. It signals the fact that this is an amenity, it's a, not a little luxury that needs to be out. Just like toilet, paper, soap, and towels in your bathroom.
Nahanni: Anita Diamant is the author of many books. Her most recent, out this May, is called Period. End of Sentence. A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice. The book shares its title with a documentary film about a women’s collective that makes and sells pads in rural India. The film won an Oscar in 2019.
Anita: When they announced that this movie had won, I jumped off the couch and sort of fist bumped in the air as the director said, “I can't believe a movie about periods just won an Oscar.” That’s when Anita got involved. The film’s producers reached out to her because she’s well known for her period-positive attitude. Her 1997 best selling novel The Red Tent was named for the imagined retreat the Biblical matriarchs went to during their periods. We discussed The Red Tent in a live taping of Can We Talk? several years ago. Anita’s fictionalized vision of ancient menstruation practices struck a chord with readers around the world. Now, with Period End of Sentence, Anita is exploring contemporary menstrual justice activism, globally and here in the United States. I asked her to begin by defining menstrual justice.
[Theme music fades]
Anita: Well, menstrual injustice, let's start with that, is, um, the way that people who menstruate are denied dignity around this very basic function, necessary function of the human reproductive system. And, um, menstrual justice would then be the normalization of menstruation as part of human life that is deserving of respect, um, and just acknowledgement that this is part of life, that it's not a curse, that it's not inherently a problem, that it's not a sign of inferiority, which I believe menstruation has been historically, it's been seen in, in many, many, many, many cultures around the world throughout history.
Nahanni: Yeah. Your book really brought it into very sharp focus for me. I mean, it's hard to imagine true gender equality while this stigma about periods is so pervasive.
Anita: Exactly, exactly.
Nahanni: Do you think that the stigma and this fear of menstruation or fear of women's bodies in general is at the root of misogyny?
Anita: I think it's right there, right up there. I can't say it's the cause, but you can't deny the fact that the way women have been treated historically as less than, treated like children or chattel or, just the owned by those who do not menstruate—men—um... The happy gloss that gets put on this is that because women can reproduce, that because women give birth, give life, that men are intimidated and afraid of that power and they have therefore, um, exercised power over females, over women, made them into children, treated them as children or chattel, or just less than human. But I think it's menstruation. I think it's this appearance of blood on a regular schedule. And the fact that blood is a source of life and blood is also a source of death-- when, when the body bleeds, it's usually a problem. Uh, I think that is at the core of misogyny and, and of whole systems of seeing women as other.
Nahanni: That's a very, that's a deep answer. I mean, it's a powerful force and it's, you know, it's, um, regular reminder of this powerful force. And I, I, you know, I was thinking about the way that I personally relate to this, which is it's like, there's a complicated, very deep relationship around this, and then when you layer the stigma on, it's really hard to actually have your own relationship with that power.
Anita: Really. I totally agree. I think that the fact that we don't have... that we don't use, um, the real words that we, we use all kinds of strange, uh, code words, you know, um, “it's that time of the month” is probably the most, um, the clearest, but it has been called the curse throughout history, by all kinds of people, I think that's part of it, but also, “Aunt Flo” and you know, “my friend” and there are actually according to many sources on the internet, 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation. Um, and some of them are very funny and some of them are very ugly. And I think that speaks if you can't name something, if it's, uh, if it, it has to be whispered that tells you that we have a very complicated and not a very clear or happy relationship with this very normal function of human bodies.
Nahanni: Right. The fact that we need a euphemism at all reinforces that it's, you know, taboo.
Anita: There's no better example of this than a relatively recent Saturday Night Live skit, which I'm sure was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who starred in it, who leans over in a classroom to her friend and says, do you have a tampon.
[SNL clip] Psst. Do you have a you know, a tampon? Oh heck yeah. Not here! Someone will see! Relax, no one’s gonna know.
Anita: And her friend pulls a dead mouse out of her purse…
[SNL clip] Is that a dead mouse? I don’t know, open it! Ok.
Anita: There’s a tampon inside.
[SNL clip] Wow, so discreet. Thanks, girl! Ah huh! Tampax Secrets does all the hiding for you, with our wide variety of less embarrassing than a tampon designs, like “brick of cocaine," “baby doll," “tuna melt from Subway," “Naked picture of your mom," “respectfully folded confederate flag”...
Anita: And she keeps pulling things out like that, including a copy of Mein Kampf, right.
Nahanni: All things you’d rather be seen with.
Anita: Rather be seen with than a tampon.
[SNL clip] So you can feel confident, no matter who’s watching. Well, Aunt Flo is here, better take this piece of dog poop to the bathroom! Yes, queen!
Anita: I love period humor. I'm a huge fan, but I think it pokes a hole right through to the fact that this is considered shameful, dirty, ugly, this is, this is cultural landscape that, um, that we've inherited and that's being challenged.
Nahanni: This is making me think of, um, uh, an essay by Gloria Steinem, a humorous essay by Gloria Steinem. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Anita: Yes, I cite it in the book!
Nahanni: She writes if men could menstruate…
Nahanni: And she speculates about how menstruation would be seen as sort of manly and vital and superior if men did it. And women would be seen as the weaker sex because they didn't.
Anita: Exactly. So women couldn't be in the army because they didn't know about blood. Right? So men and they couldn't be physicians because they didn't, they would be too squeamish to deal with blood and on and on. And it's, it's a real, um, it's a real tongue in cheek, tongue lashing of, of notions of what menstruation is and does and how, and how it is linked to. Um, sexism and misogyny.
Nahanni: And such a great example of how humor can really expose truth.
Anita: Right. Exactly. Exactly.
Nahanni: So some of the stigma around menstruation is so subtle that we might not have even thought about it. And then some of the examples that you write about in the book, like exclusions from society exclusions, from work opportunities, from education that happen around the world are really shocking. Can you give some examples of some of those?
Anita: The most shocking and the most headline grabbing ones are the examples of young girls who have been shamed in school because they had had an accident, right, because there was a bloodstain. And, uh, in both, both instances that I wrote about they, the teachers called them out and sort of you know, made it a public shaming. And in those, in two cases, one in India and one in Kenya, um, those girls committed suicide in the aftermath of this. Now, of course, it's always tricky to attribute suicide to one particular thing, but these were very closely related to what had happened to them. So those are the most extreme examples of, of what, uh, what having a period can do to you. The subtle examples, which happen everywhere, including your zip code, wherever you live in the United States or wherever you live, is if you can't afford period products, if you can't afford to take care of this bodily function, then going to school, for example, going to middle school is a constant balancing act of worry. Can I get through the day with two pads? Um, should I even go to school if I don't have enough pads? Uh, and what that means.. and some girls stay home, of course, some menstruators stay home. And even if you go, you're, you're constantly worried. You're distracted. How do you pay attention in math class? How do you try out for the softball team? How do you hang out with your friends if you're, if this nagging worry behind you and I think it undermines, undermines confidence, self-esteem, all of that. And it's a nagging doubt. And if you don't understand what's going on with you, which is true for many, many girls, when they start their periods, they have no idea. No, one's told them about menstruation. It's not taught well in most places. And in many places it's not taught at all. Um, there's panic and fear. So, and then there's all the stories that you were told that. Um, that it will, if you take a shower while you're menstruating, you'll never have a baby. Um, or I heard this recently from a woman whose grandmother told her that. So this is not so far away. This is not a problem of countries, uh, of poorer countries and of people we don't know. This is, this is next door.
Nahanni: Right, you cite some statistics in the book—in 2019, 50 percent of girls in Afghanistan knew nothing about menstruation until they had their first period, and a similar 47 percent of women surveyed in the UK reported having been completely unprepared, having had no idea what’s coming.
Anita: Right. And are, you know, afraid they're dying or they have cancer or, or any number of things. And, and actually in the film, um, Period. End of Sentence. It's all shot in India in a small village and the boys in particular, they did a scene with boys and men and they had no idea what a period was, zero. Uh, and if they did, they certainly weren't going to talk about it on camera, but it was pretty clear that a lot of them had no answer to the question. Do you know what a period is? And I think, and I argue in the book too, that everybody needs to know about this, that we all need a common language, that education about the body should be in a non in all gender classrooms because we need to be able to talk to each other about something as basic as menstruation.
Anita: You know, when I was working on the book, whenever I would, I would talk to people of all ages and I would say one sentence, which was period products should be as ubiquitous and available as toilet paper. And the number of people who smack their foreheads and went, duh, of course, including me when I first started this, it's like, if you, if you say that out loud, I think it exposes, um, the way that menstruators are discriminated against actually, um, that you're not supposed to have a period, you know, or if you do, it's your problem, it's not a, it's not part of the human experience, or you should stay home. Or, you know, take care of it yourself. And you still hear that from people, including some women. I have to say that, you know, why can't they just pay for it themselves? Why can't they just take care of it themselves? Well, there's a long list of reasons why.
Nahanni: And you mention an example in the book, which was actually a Jewish Women’s Archive Rising Voices Fellow named Sarah Groustra, who as a high school student wrote an op-ed about period product availability in her school newspaper in Brookline Massachusetts, and Brookline ended up being the first city in the country to require free period products to be available in all public buildings.
Anita: Yes! So, so these stories are becoming more and more common and they are being shared. And, and people on television, uh, are talking about menstruation, about period products, about tampons, which, you know, ten years ago? No.
Nahanni: You, you have a chapter in the book called "Seeing Red," um, which I think is important to talk about because it's both about the anger and frustration at some of the ways that the world and particularly the male world relates to periods, but it also points to the importance of making periods visible and accepted, maybe even celebrated.
Nahanni: I mean, you've just mentioned some of the ways that periods are being talked about more openly. There are some traditions being created to celebrate periods as well.
Anita: Sometimes moms who, uh, who feel, who you feel that they really want to celebrate their, their daughters coming of age, who feel empowered to do that and comfortable enough to do that will suggest to their thirteen-year-old daughters, I want to have a party and I want to bring my friends, and their daughters just roll their eyes and say, no, thank you. Um, so it's for the mom rather than for the new menstruant, really.
Anita: But there's also this kind of outrageous period party phenomenon where, um, I think I first heard about this. There was a comedian on late night talk show talking about his daughters’ periods.
[Conan O'Brien Clip] How old are your daughters? Fourteen and twelve. They both have their periods if that’s what you’re asking.
Nahanni: Bert Kreischer on Conan O’Brien.
[Conan O'Brien Clip] Oh, we can’t talk about this! No, no, no. Can I just make it really clear, that’s not what I was asking.
Anita: His younger daughter started her period and she said, "well, I want a period party." Just like my older sister had.
[Conan O'Brien Clip] You never heard of this? A period party? I’ve never heard of that, no. Dude, this is real, this is real. She goes Dad, I want a period party. I’m like you, I’m like, what’s that?!
Anita: So she made him go out and buy a red velvet cake and she decorated it and she invited friends over—boys, as well as girls—and they ate chocolate and they had cake and they goofed around and that was her period party.
[Conan O'Brien Clip] I go yeah we’re having a period party. And it was awesome. I hope to God you hear it in a positive manner and you fathers get to throw your daughter a period party. It was awesome. These two boys the whole time have red cake all over their faces like they’re cage fighters and they’re like “who’s Jason?” What? She named it Jason?! Cause she got her period on Friday the 13th. Oh!!
Anita: I really think humor is the, is one of the most potent tools for smashing stigma. If you can laugh at something, it ceases to be a secret um, and it becomes, uh, something that you can share actually, if you can laugh at something together.
Anita: There are also personal family traditions, which are lovely. A friend of mine grew up in a Sephardic family, Jewish family, and, uh, when she got her period, her grandmother invited her over for afternoon coffee, tea, and baked her favorite baked goods. No one talked about her period, but after that, she was allowed in the kitchen. With our older cousins to do the dishes. And as she says, you'd think that would be a punishment, but no, that's where the real conversations happen. That's where gossip was shared. That's where true stories were told. So she, she had crossed over into the world of, you know, semi-adult womanhood because she had her period. And then there are other stories about moms and people remembering their mothers, taking them out of school for the day out for lunch. Um, out know just them or just them and their sisters and making it, um, a family celebration, a quiet, small, but potent message that this was, uh, this was something to celebrate, that this was something to share, and this was not bad news. And that your father could know too.
Nahanni: Um. So traditional Judaism also has, you know, its own practices, again, known by a euphemism, the laws of family purity.
Anita: Yes. Taharat Hamishpacha, the laws of family purity. And I think the purity term is kind of the tip-off that this is, um, this is about protecting people against impurity about pollution. And so, uh, to be tahor to be pure, um, after you menstruate, you have to, you have to go through a ritual that has been mandated and for the most part administered by men. Um, so, and that’s counting days that you're, that you're clean, that you haven't bled. And then you go to a mikveh, um, and immerse in water and come out and then you are sexually available again. And, um, people have interpreted it and tried very hard to interpret these laws as a pro-female, even feminist. But I think that's a stretch. What's happened lately though, of course, is that Jewish women have sort of taken the mikveh back or taken over the mikveh and rather than having it be administered by men, which has led to some pretty horrific experiences, it's been transformed from something that was imposed from without, from a system that one might or might not have accepted and believed in, to something that comes from within. So you are in charge of your own and you are responsible for your own immersion. And that's, that's a radical shift from it being imposed upon an, a communal responsibility requirement to an elective. It's become, it's become elective for Jews who would never in a million years think that mikveh was for them or that monthly immersion was for them. Feminism!
Nahanni: [laughs] Yes.
Anita: One of the great gifts of feminism to everybody, to the whole community of people, of all genders.
Nahanni: Right. And it's important to say also that there are trans men who menstruate.
Nahanni: Um, and I wonder how that might change our conception of what menstruating means?
Anita: Well, the challenge to the binary system, this is part of that. Um, to think about, um, trans men who menstruate sort of shakes up, um, the binary and it challenges a lot of people, it threatens people. And it's part of, this is part of a profound shift in the way we understand what it means to be a human being.
Nahanni: Umhm. So in the book you've named dozens of menstrual justice initiatives around the world. Can you talk about some of the different kinds of things that are happening?
Anita: Yes. Um, And they, and they range from United nations panels and, and academics studying this to middle school students discovering menstrual injustice and deciding to collect period products and donate them to shelters. So that's the range. Um, and in between there, you have, um, uh, black women gynecologists, um, being very out front in their communities and talking to women and girls about issues that are rarely discussed in black community and where women of color rarely see, uh, physicians who look like them, uh, that gynecologist in particular, who looked like them... to, uh, efforts by people who've been incarcerated to expose the kind of horrifying injustices that are perpetrated on menstruators in prisons, by guards, and by just by the whole system.
Anita: If anybody wants to understand what intersectional means, this is one of them, um, access to water, access to, uh, safe bathrooms, access to medical care, access to products, access to education, all of these inequalities um, intersect here in, in menstrual injustice because it's not just about school girls having enough period products. It's about health and safety, in some places it's life and death and, um, the inequalities are staggering there. Some of them are very subtle. Some of them are egregious.
Nahanni Can you talk about young people’s activism on this issue?
Anita: Well, I mean, Sarah Groustra writing an op-ed about periods. Um, in her school newspaper, first of all, it took a certain amount of chutzpah because people are still not comfortable with this. My favorite story is, um, about a group of junior high school students. Uh, who went to their school principal and said, we should have period products in the bathroom. And he turned down the request. He said that the privilege would be abused.
Nahanni: Abused... people are going to take them for fun.
Anita: Right, for fun. So they, they went home and they baked tampon cookies and they were very correct. I mean, they had strings on them and they had splashes of red food coloring and, and they posted it on Twitter and it was shared by a lot of people. Uh, and it embarrassed the principal enough that he changed his mind.
Anita: I just read a, um, a bat mitzvah drash that a friend of mine sent me from her congregation, which included a whole passage about menstrual and justice. And she said, I know you might not want to hear this now, but I'm going to talk about period poverty. So these are thirteen year old kids. Um, the leadership of, um, and on college campuses also, women, mostly, and menstruators in general, who have advocated and argued for period products in all the bathrooms, not those designated for female identified people. Um, and for the most part they're getting, they're having success. It is, it is part of the justice language. And this is true in India and in Nepal and all around the world. It's not just a North American phenomenon. The leadership torch shines brightest in Scotland, which just recently mandated free menstrual products in all municipal buildings everywhere in the country. Ireland has mandated free products in all schools. And this is happening in, um, also in New Zealand. It's an interesting, these countries have women at the head of all three of those...
Nahanni: What a coincidence.
Anita: What a coincidence.
Nahanni: I want to go back to something that you were saying about how deeply we internalize the stigma. Because I often feel gross and uncomfortable during my period. And that's actually a very separate thing though, from all of the messages that we receive about it. So, I mean, you're not trying to say that it should always be a joy and a beautiful life affirming experience to be on your period.
Anita: No, but for example, there are many women who really suffer, um, migraines and uh, severe pain for a day, two days, even three days during every menstrual cycle. And they are required to ignore it. There is this notion of period leave that it should be an option for people who have menstrual periods to be able to either work at home or use time off and not sick time necessarily. And, uh, it's a very, it's a very controversial, um, notion because so many women are very afraid of losing what rights we have achieved in the last few years, and this becomes an excuse to discriminate against women and to trivialize them again and say, see, you are the weaker, the weaker vessels.
Anita: You know, for me, what needs to happen is there needs to be generous leave time and that you shouldn't have to tell anybody why you're taking. Taking a day off or two days off, there should be enough time in your schedule to wherever you're working to say, this is a day I have to have to stay home. But it's, um, it's tricky. I mean, we, we are different. This menstruation is a fact of life... for some of it, it's no big deal, for some of it it's painful. There's a lack of medical support and information too.
Nahanni: Maybe we should talk for a minute about menopause because there's a stigma around that too. Right? It's like, you can't win.
Anita: No, you can't win. I mean, there are a lot of myths, myths, and, um, insults and assumptions about what menopause is or isn't. And we don't even have that own knowledge about our own bodies, um, about menstruation, about before, during, after... So it's all of a part, it's all of a piece. Um, That the, that the bow, the womb, the body that bleeds the body, that reproduces is a problem that has to be managed as opposed to a miracle that should be celebrated.
Nahanni: So there’s a lot of fundamental change that still needs to happen, but as you’ve said and written, there’s a lot of work happening around the world, and there seems to really be momentum.
Anita: I think it's inspiring. I think it's a real moment of change. People have been having this conversation since the seventies and it has yet this it only now does it really gained this kind of traction. It's an intergenerational multi-generational international change.
Nahanni: Thank you, Anita.
Anita: Thank you.
Nahanni: Anita Diamant’s new book is called Period. End of Sentence. A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Visit jwa.org/canwetalk to find all of our previous episodes, including our 2018 live panel discussion about the Red Tent featuring Anita Diamant and others. You can also join the Jewish Women’s Archive on June 27th and 28th for a global day of learning in celebration of the updated Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Sign up at jwa.org/events! This episode concludes the spring 2021 season of Can We Talk?. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Have a wonderful summer, we’ll be back in the fall.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 64: Anita Diamant Talks Menstrual Justice (Transcript)." (Viewed on October 1, 2022) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-64-anita-diamant-talks-menstrual-justice/transcript>.