The Museum of the
“sometimes a little lighter, sometimes a little heavier”
Holomenses and Holocaust:
A Comparison of the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
by Geneva Kachman
InStyle magazine cover, found in emloyee lunch room
Super Tampon cartoon by Victoria Howe, in Insane Action ‘zine, 1999
This paper was presented at the June 2001 Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference in Connecticut. The information contained in this paper was current as of June 2001. The idea for MOLT: The Museum of the Menovulatory Lifetime grew out of this paper. Although this paper is a bit heavy with the statistics at the start, it gets more interesting as it goes along!
For a less idiosyncratic analysis of MUM, please visit http://www.capitalizingonthecurse.com/, to learn more about the recently published book, “Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation,” by Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, Ph.D., professor of Communication and Women's Studies at Eastern Washington University.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), located just off the Washington Mall in Washington DC, opened in 1993. In 1994, and about 12 miles away in New Carrolton, Maryland, the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health (MUM) opened. The two museums, although proximate in physical location and date of opening, have followed two completely different trajectories of creation.
At USHMM, the original commission and advisory board, comprising 48 total members and appointed by President Carter in 1978, gave way to a 100-member Executive Council headed by Elie Wiesel, which in turn spun off various committees: Fundraising, Museum, Design Concept, Content and Building. USHMM's first director was Jeshajahu (Shaike) Weinberg (1998-1994), followed by Dr. Stephen Katz (1994), Dr. Walter Reich (1994-1998), and finally Sara Jane Bloomfield, director from 1999 to present (USHMM email communication).
We find a reference to Bloomfield at the MUM website, wherein Harry Finley, "founder and director," argues for his own qualifications to run a museum, despite having "only a B.A. in an unrelated field (philosophy)":
"...I have had the vision to create a small version of the future museum and this Web site, and to make myself the target on the public firing range, where I have been absorbing bullets [sic] since 1994...Consider Sara Jane Bloomfield, the new (1999) director of the "perpetually packed" (Washington Post) U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum...Her highest degree is a B.A. (in English literature). She is not a Holocaust scholar and has no academic background in Holocaust studies, although she has read widely in the field..." (MUM website "Purpose" page)
At present, Bloomfield directs a museum whose staff numbers "nearly 450, including 125 contractors...; more than 300 volunteers, including 64 Holocaust survivors, donating more than 57,000 hours of service annually; and nearly 50 interns annually, providing over 17,000 hours of service" (USHMM email communication).
In contrast, at MUM, all museum responsibilities are fulfilled by one individual, Finley, variously described as "founder and director," "creator of the museum and site," "...he [who] created, writes and maintains this website," and most crucially, "...the "I" of the narrative" (MUM website, various pages).
Although financial, time and health constraints account in large part for the absence of staffing at MUM (Finley works full-time as a graphic designer at the National Defense University, Washington DC, and suffers from heart disease), we must also consider Finley's statement during the taping of a TV show in October 2000. When asked if he "...consults anyone...consults any experts" regarding the museum and website, Finley responded: "There are no experts!" (Moral Court taping October 2000).
In terms of visitors, USHMM, housed in a building specifically designed for the purpose, received its 16 millionth visitor in May 2001. In addition, the USHMM website receives over 300,000 visitors per month. Lawrence Swiader, Director of Web Projects, explains "[website] visitation has been ahead of the physical Museum steadily for over a year now...visitation figures ebb and flow along with the school year which makes sense since it is such an important resource for many teachers."
The situation is different at MUM: Housed in Finley's basement, the physical museum closed to the public (except for an occasional visitor) in 1998. It is MUM's website which receives the overwhelming number of visitors - "four million" so far, according to Finley in October 2000 - although it is not clear if this number refers to total page hits or total user sessions.
Lastly, the two museums' collections were built in very different ways. At the Holocaust Museum, the focus of the collection shifted "abruptly" from one based on "documents, letters, diaries, original works of art, articles of clothing, photographs and other objects that were crafted in the camps, in ghettos or in hiding..." to "large artifacts," as Edward T. Linenthal describes:
"Smith and Appelbaum were convinced that film, photographs, and small artifacts alone could not carry the story line...[They] had to convince Weinberg that large artifacts were crucial to the story...[Weinberg] was willing, recalled Smith, to change the museum's collection process abruptly, giving the design team authority to begin searching for the large artifacts that would dramatically alter the nature of the exhibition" (Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory, pp. 146-147).
An example of a "large artifact" would be the open railcar exhibited on the third floor of the Holocaust Museum, "...a railcar of the type used to transport victims to death camps" (Edward Linenthal, p. 158). Confronting visitors as they walk through the railcar is a large "photomural of a selection at Auschwitz-Birkenau" on the wall directly ahead of them. It is instructive to note that "just before shipment," "the Polish government had painted the [rail]car" (Edward Linenthal, p. 159). Emily Dyer, who directed a museum storage facility in Maryland, had commented: "When [the railcar] arrived, the paint was still wet...They wanted to hide its past, and we wanted to reveal it" (Edward Linenthal, p. 159).
At MUM, however, the collection process was relatively straightforward, focused on the "small artifacts" of menstrual product advertising and menstrual products themselves:
"[Finley] started the museum in 1995 [sic], an outgrowth of a collection he started years earlier in Europe. While posted in Germany as a graphic designer for the US government, [Finley] researched print ad layouts. Among the thousands he accumulated, he became keenly interested in Kotex and menstrual product ads...As word spread, individuals and even product manufacturers sent [Finley] unique items" (Road Trip America Interview, 1996, Doug Kirby, Ken Smith, Mike Wilkins).
A MUM brochure explains that "A particular weight is put on the history and philosophy of menstrual hygiene advertising; the museum owns over 1,000 ads from many countries, as well as patents, booklets, and other printed and visual material" (The Medical Reporter, Interview with Joel R. Cooper, copyright 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999).
However, there is one "large artifact" the museum has expressed an interest in acquiring, and that is "one actual menstrual hut" - "And let's let people actually sit in [it]!" writes Finley (MUM website). At present this would be ethically problematic, given there are cultures in which menstrual huts are still being used. For example, Beverly Strassmann reports that Dogon women in Mali, West Africa, "extremely dislike" using menstrual huts (Beverly Strassmann, email communication). Further, Strassmann reports that if a Dogon woman marries a man who does not practice the animist religion (which segregates menstruating women into menstrual huts), she will stop using the menstrual hut (Beverly Strassmann, The reproductive ecology of the Dogon of Mali, 1990). One could hardly imagine a holocaust museum allowing visitors to walk through a railcar, if railcars were still being used to transport victims to concentration camps.
Regardless of the sharp divergence of creation trajectories and resultant museums, a deep symmetry exists between MUM and USHMM. To highlight this symmetry, I have coined the term 'holomenses,' defined simply as the total number of menstrual events (Society for Menstrual Cycle Research flyer) to take place on the planet, past, present and future. This allows us to make further comparisons between MUM and USHMM, if we further define Holocaust, for our purposes, as the total number of genocidal events to take place between 1933 and 1945.
In the USHMM mission statement, we read:
"Jews were the primary victims -- six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny" (USHMM mission statement).
In MUM's [Statement of] Purpose, we read no similarly precise definition of menstruation, or menstrual event, let alone any organizing concept like holomenses; merely that the "...menstruation section [of the museum]..." "...is intended to be the world's repository for information about, and "showcase" for menstruation, including as many cultures as possible."
Indeed, one can find a confusing array of statements about menstruation at the museum and website. For example:
"The [museum] tour starts at a display of art, text, and a partly filled plastic cup glued onto matte board. "What is Menstruation?" This explains the rough physiology; here is a cup showing roughly the average amount of blood lost by a woman during menstruation" (Road Trip America Interview, 1996).
"...menstruation has little to do with medicine, being largely a cultural subject...It's as if a museum of hair styles should be in a medical school; both hair and menstruation have physical origins, but both are largely nonmedical topics" (MUM website, "Purpose" page).
"[Finley] find[s] the subject interesting because of its greath breadth and depth, touching medicine, anthropology, sociology, history and even art...It also has relevance to women's health of today" (MUM website, "Frequently Asked Questions" page).
The closest the [Statement of] Purpose gets to an organizing concept is in the fourth paragraph:
"The museum as a whole will show the historical development of the relationship between medicine and women [sic] for as many of the cultures of the world as possible, in addition to a history of menstruation."
I would suggest that by borrowing some of the meanings of the term Holocaust for holomenses, we can begin to clarify what we mean by phrases like "relationship between medicine and women," "history of menstruation," and "as many cultures of the world as possible." Four of these meanings would be: Spatiotemporal spread; taboo; suffering; and transformation. I will discuss each briefly in turn.
1. Spatiotemporal spread. The Holocaust occured in 22 countries over a 13-year period, and consisted of millions of genocidal events (Simon Wiesenthal Multimedia Learning Center website), i.e., "murder, destruction, decimation, grievous oppression and death" (USHMM Mission Statement). Holomenses, by comparison, has even greater spatiotemporal spread, dating back perhaps as far as "...the divergence of modern humans 250,000-300,000 years ago" (Elsimar Coutinho, Is Menstruation Obsolete?, p. 64). It is also important to point out that although the Holocaust has definite begin and end dates (January 30, 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, to May 8, 1945, V-E Day, the end of the war in Europe) (Simon Wiesenthal Multimedia Learning Center website), holomenses has neither a definite begin nor end date.
2. Taboo. Relatively little attention (mass media or otherwise) is currently paid to the Holocaust taboo, which existed after World War II and on into the early 1960s, both in Israel as well as the rest of the world. There were many reasons for this taboo: Shame on the part of survivors; others not believing stories when they were told; the desire in Israel to direct energies into nation-building; and so on (Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust).
It was with the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem that the taboo broke, as trial testimony was broadcast in Israel and throughout the rest of the world:
“The [Eichmann] trial created a climate of opinions in which the Holocaust - which had been relatively little discussed in Israeli society - became the central topic of conversation. After 1961 the Holocaust ceased to be taboo, and instead assumed an increasingly central - if contested - position in Israeli society and politics" (Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust).
Israel's 1967 victory in the Six-Day war was also a taboo-breaking event. The historian Deborah Lipstadt "...point[ed] to the importance of the 'redemptive victories of the Jewish state' in shattering 'the silence of the previous decades' over the Holocaust within American Jewry. Like Neusner, she suggests that 'now that the Holocaust was "history" and not "probability," it could be confronted'" (Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust, p. 10).
Things are bit more complicated when it comes to the notion of a holomenses taboo. The first difficulty lies with the between-culture and within-culture variation in menstrual practice and menstrual discourse. The word taboo is rendered almost meaningless if it is used to describe not only the rationale for menstruating women being segregated to menstrual huts in Mali, West Africa, but also the Director of Resident Life at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, refusing to allow female students to hang posters containing the word "menstruation" in residence halls (Jennifer Kinser, email communication).
In the first instance, as long as a woman is married to a man who practices animism (thereby tending an altar which would be defiled by the presence of a menstruating woman), the woman is obligated to use a menstrual hut. In the second instance, however, the Director of Residence Life ended up apologizing to the female students, who had construed the Director's actions as an infringement of their right to free speech (Jennier Kinser, email communication). This right to free speech has two aspects to it: First as members of a university community, and secondly, as citizens of the United States. It is therefore important that taboo be defined narrowly rather than widely, so as not to obscure culture-specific legal and political realities.
Further, I would suggest that menstrual behavior (i.e., practices and discourse) is merely a subcategory of sexual behavior, at least when it comes to the notion of consent. Ideally (and legally), sexual behavior is consensual; when consent is not given, because someone is too young and/or physically and/or mentally incapable of giving it, or someone capable of giving consent withholds it, this is considered rape or sexual abuse.
As well, sexual discourse, at least in the United States workplace since the early 1970s, is understood to be consensual; when it is not, at least in the workplace, this is considered sexual harassment. As menstruation is one outcome of having achieved sexual maturity, and is thus a signifier of sexual maturity, it seems reasonable to argue that menstrual behavior does involve this notion of consent, regardless of how "menopositive" (Jackie Brookman, Hot Flash Cards) a culture may be. Again, taboo needs to be defined narrowly rather than widely, so that the notion of consent not be obscured.
3. Suffering. In borrowing this meaning of the term Holocaust for holomenses, I am not in any way equating menstrual suffering with that of the Holocaust. As Edward T. Linenthal points out, regarding "equating AIDS with the Holocaust":
"Regarding AIDS, [Muller] underscored what he perceived as the "crucial differences between the inaction and hostility of American society and politics toward people with AIDS and the intentional sytematic Nazi killing machine. From a gay European perspective, [Muller] find[s] it startling that anyone would be interested in comparing the two. By doing so it diminishes the power of each event" (Dr. Klaus Muller, University of Amsterdam, interviewed by Edward T. Linenthal, Preserving Memory, p. 188).
With that caveat, I believe it is still important to articulate the scope of menstrual suffering, because in doing so, we will discover to what degree our museum ought to be commemorative and confrontational, rather than merely informative and entertaining. In the category of menstrual suffering, do we include, for example, the deaths of women as a result of illegal abortions, and the murder of abortion providers in the United States?
Currently at the MUM website, "Abortion" is the first item listed in the museum website directory. However, the abortion exhibit consists solely of an excerpt from a text written in 1882, entitled "The Sexual System and Its Derangements." Further, a site search for "abortion" turns up 30 matches, fully 18 of which refer to this 1882 excerpt. In the short description which accompanies these 18 matches, the word "abortion" is second in a list which reads as follows: "sterility, abortion, nymphomania, leucorrhea ("the whites"), sex (gender)." And although abortion does appear in an article on contraception, this article addresses it from a religious standpoint, rather than a political one.
Or as another example, vaginal intercourse is presently the primary means of AIDS transmission in Africa (Evening News broadcast). As the political battle to make AIDS drugs available in sufficient quantities and cheaply enough for African countries begins, what responsibility does a museum of menstruation have to be "commemorative and confrontational" on this issue? Is the transmission of AIDS via vaginal intercourse a "menstrual event," an example of "menstrual suffering?"
A further benefit to articulating menstrual suffering is that it will lead to a museum more attractive to an elected official. Presently Finley is seeking an elected official to sit on the MUM board of directors, to help the MUM gain nonprofit status. However, it is doubtful a candidate (either prolife or prochoice) would view the abortion exhibit, as it is currently constructed, as anything but a liability in a political campaign. By creating an abortion exhibit that is commemorative and confrontational (although not necessarily explicitly prochoice), and a museum in its entirety with those qualities, a politician with a keen interest in women's health issues might view it as an asset to a political campaign, and be eager to come on board.
4. Transformation. This was one of the most difficult aspects of the Holocaust to express within a permanent exhibition:
"We knew early on," said Appelbaum, "that one of the extraordinary parts of the event was that Europe was in flux and the victims were in flux because the perpetrators were moving rapidly throughout the countries. We realized that if we followed those people under all that pressure as they moved from their normal lives into ghettos, out of ghettos onto trains, from trains to camps, within the pathways of the camps, until finally to the end...if visitors could take that same journey, they would understand the story because they will have experienced the story" (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 170).
We can thus conceptualize the history of the Holocaust as one of "tragic transformation" - Citizen transformed into noncitizen; noncitizen into ghetto resident and/or resistor; ghetto resident into murder victim or camp inmate; camp inmate into murder victim or survivor; survivor into emigre.
Again, as with menstrual suffering, I am not borrowing the specifics of Holocaust transformation for that of holomenses; but rather, just the notion that there are transformations unique to the menstrual experience. For example, premenarchist transformed into menarchist; menstruant into menopauser; menopauser into postmenopauser; the transformation of the monthly cycle itself; societies from noncontracepting to contracepting, high-fertility to low; pregnancy, birth, miscarriage, abortion; the mother-daughter relationship over time and over generations; and so on.
At USHMM, several attempts to conceptualize the permanent exhibition failed, in part because this sense of "flux," or transformation as I am calling it, was not prominent enough in the proposed permanent exhibition. It was only with the arrival of Shaike Weinberg, responsible for designing the Beth Hatefutsoth and Tower of David museums in Israel, that a permanent exhibition began to gel (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 143).
The crucial need, Weinberg explained, was to create a "story-telling" rather than "collection-based" museum (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 143). That is, first the story to be told is determined, and then artifacts are chosen and arranged to tell that story; rather than starting with a collection of artifacts, from which a story is then derived, its scope limited to that of the artifacts themselves.
I would argue similarly for a museum of menstruation, that first determining exactly what is meant by "history of menstruation," "menstrual event," and so on, that is, "the story" of menstruation, is a prerequisite to the selection of artifacts and their display. Conceptualization of the museum narrative precedes collection of artifacts, rather than accompanies or follows after it.
However, care must be taken that in conceptualizing a narrative, we are not creating a "preferred narrative," one which is more "palatable," but that obscures or falsifies important historical truth (Professor Lawrence Langer, Holocaust literary analyst, in Preserving Memory, p. 101). For instance, at USHMM, the "...suggestion that an inscription from Anne Frank would be appropriate..." on a wall in the Hall of Remembrance "...was vigorous[ly] resist[ed]" (Edward T. Linenthal, p 96.). As well:
"Appelbaum and Smith worried about ending with an overemphasis on resistance and rescue, or making it appear that the Holocaust was a necessary precursor to the birth of Israel. Smith wanted an ending that would intentionally not bring closure to the narrative. Ending with resistance and rescue would, he said, "come dangerously close to a falsehood" (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 252).
Is there a preferred narrative at work at MUM? I would suggest there are a number of preferred narratives at work, but in this paper I will focus on one: That women's own negative perceptions of menstruation are the ultimate source of women's disempowerment throughout the world.
At the MUM website, on the "Odor" page, we read the following:
"Surely this is a great, but awful truth for most women, these words of Simone de Beauvior, in The Second Sex:
Menstrual blood...represents the essence of femininity.
To have something most women at least dislike, and sometimes hate, represent their sex, certainly puts them in their place almost everywhere in the world."
It is doubtful that "for most women," "menstrual blood...represents the essence of feminity" is a "truth" ("great," "awful," or otherwise). Common stereotypes of femininity include nonagressiveness; concern with relationships, personal appearance and the domestic sphere; sensitivity to others' feelings - in short, behavioral and psychosocial traits - rather than physical properties, such as a body fluid would be.
Secondly, does this quote from 'The Second Sex' accurately portray Beauvior's own thought on this matter? Margaret A. Simons, in 'Is The Second Sex Beauvior's Application of Sartrean Existensialism?,' describes one of the "central theses" of 'The Second Sex' as Beauvior's assertion that "one is not born a woman, but becomes one." Simon quotes from 'The Second Sex' as follows:
"...no biological, psychological, economic destiny defines the face that the human female assumes in the heart of society. It is civilization as a whole that elaborates this product, half-way between the male and the eunuch, that one qualifies as feminine."
Thirdly, a survey of current sex difference research abstracts reveals that concepts like "femininity" and "masculinity" are generally understood to be "multi-dimensional" - and when researchers do limit these terms to a single meaning, these meanings still refer to behavioral and psychosocial traits - for example, "relational" versus "instrumental" - rather than physical properties like menstrual blood and semen (PubMed Medline database search results).
And even if we were to accept the proposition that menstruation represents the essence of both "femininity" and "sex" in women, and that "most women dislike and sometimes hate" menstruation, are these indeed the "facts" which "certainly [put women] in their place almost everywhere in the world?"
We find a pertinent analogy in Alice Walker’s discussion of “colorism” in black communities, which she defines as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on color.” (In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker, p. 290). Just as it would be absurd to suggest that this “colorism” within black communities is actually the cause of white racism (rather than one result), so it is absurd to suggest that women’s own “menstruism,” if you will, is the cause of male sexism, i.e., “[women being put] in their place almost everywhere in the world.”
This reasoning from race to gender is nothing new: In writing “The Second Sex,” Beauvior herself “rel[lied] on an analogy with racism, which provided a model for oppression.” Simons suggests “Richard Wright, the African-American novelist, guided Beauvior’s understanding of racism.” Simons “[identified] four areas of Wright’s philosophical influence.” Two of these are:
“...the concept of the political other (Wright, acting here as the intellectual heir to W.E.B. DuBois, in introducing Beauvior to the concept of the “double consciousness” of Blacks under racism, which serves as a model for Beauvior’s concept of woman as the Other in The Second Sex);”
“...a rejection of white-defined essentialist views of racial difference allied with an affirmation of the salience of race in the lived experience of blacks under oppression, and its strategic usefulness when defined by blacks in the interests of liberation.”
The foregoing demonstrates that in conceptualizing the “story of menstruation and women’s health, for as many of the world’s cultures as possible,” we must be very careful not to assume that “the world’s cultures” are a set of distinct entities, rather than entities which interact with and affect each other in complex and unpredictable ways.
We can see a similarly essentializing narrative at work in the MUM “Shame” exhibit, where we read:
“Many women are ashamed of the fact that they menstruate - the female director of a menstrual disorders clinic who visited the museum said that every patient who walked through the door felt that way - and many advertisers exploit this fact to sell their products.”
However, we read in the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Newsletter, Winter 2001:
“Golden and Taylor evaluated the prevalence and correlates of sexual abuse history among women seeking treatment for severe PMS. The findings suggest that a history of sexual abuse, particularly in childhood and adolescence, may be extremely common [in] women seeking treatment for PMS, and that substantial undiagnosed PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] may also be present in this population.”
So it is simply misleading to offer the “[feelings]” of “every patient who walked through the door [of a menstrual disorders clinic]” as proof that “many women” are ashamed of the fact that they menstruate.
But it becomes more complicated. Beginning with the very next paragraph of the MUM “Shame” exhibit, the narrative switches abruptly from discussing “women” to discussing “girls,” “teens,” “young people,” “boys,” and “guys.” Certainly in their youth, people of either sex are more prone to feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment than at any other time in their lives. Again, just as women who avail themselves of menstrual disorders clinics are not representative of women in general, neither are women at the beginning of their menovulatory lifetimes representative of women throughout the menovulatory lifetime.
This kind of essentializing has resulted in a museum narrative which contains only perpetrators (“exploit[ative]” advertisers) and victims (women with feelings of shame, which are exploited by advertising). This leaves out “resisters,” those who resist menstrual taboo, menstrual censorship, shame-based advertising, and so on, and may even be actively engaged in transforming the menstrual experience for themselves and others.
At USHMM, resistance and how to conceptualize it was also a difficult issue:
“...the design team took a stance with regard to the sensitive issue of expressions of “resistance” other than armed revolts in the ghettos or camps. Many of the survivors involved with the shaping of the exhibition insisted that less recognizable but significant forms of resistance were an important part of this story” (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 190).
“Yaffa Eliach felt strongly that spiritual resistance deserved recognition in the museum, [museum designer] Martin Smith, on the other hand, was unhappy with much emphasis on resistance of any kind, fearing this could easily lead to an “epic” Holocaust narrative in which heroic resistance gained “equal time” with the narrative of destruction” (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 192).
It is important to point out, though, that however menstrual narrative is ultimately shaped, it is certainly not going to be a narrative of destruction as with the Holocaust. As well, the Holocaust has a definite end date (May 8, 1945, V-E Day), and so there is nothing that a Holocaust Museum can do at this point to change the unfolding of the story. Holomenses, however, has no definite end date, and is ongoing; thus a museum of menstruation is in a powerful position to alter the unfolding of the story.
As a simple but crucial example of menstrual resistance, one that appears nowhere in MUM, is this defaced (or refaced)ad [NOTE: This is actually a magazine cover the author received, along with four or five pages of ads; the author points out that a magazine cover functions as an “ad” for the magazine itself.]:
What is so crucial about this, and why it deserves a prominent place in the museum, is that it suggests the same possibility for every instance of menstrual advertising in the museum. Although in the museum we view one instance of each ad, in reality these are mass-produced images, and one might imagine that perhaps at least one out of the thousands, hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions of copies of any given ad, it had been defaced (or refaced) in the same manner.
Using this ad as a starting point, we can even create a hierarchy of resistance: Perhaps the next step up would be the “Insane Action/Menstruation Issue” created by Victoria Howe and Arn Poe in 1999. In this issue we find a number of cartoons, including one with a character by the name of “Super Tampon,” who uses her “tampon power” to fix a tampon manufacturer’s broken tampon machine:
Although this cartoon does appear at the MUM website, it is not even mentioned in the “Shame” exhibit, even though the “Shame” exhibit presents two ads “directed at teens” which are “both cartoons.” Further, we find in the Insane Action/Menstruation issue a piece by Arn Poe, a teen boy, entitled “Why Boys Are Stupider Than Girls,” describing his “first encounter with menstruation.”? Again, although the “Shame” exhibit ends with the following statement:
“By the way, [Finley has] a feeling that guys are not nearly as interested in knowing that a girl is menstruating as girls think. The whole attitude seems to feed off itself.”
No reference (or link) is made to Arn Poe’s essay, an actual teen “guy.” Further, within the “Insane Action/Menstruation Issue” exhibit, we read the following:
“By the way, a zine is a small magazine-like publication produced by amateurs and usually in very small quantities. It often deals with popular culture.
Two of the stories tell as well as [Finley has] ever heard or read the awful solitude and secrecy surrounding menstruation, one from a boy’s and the other from a girl’s life. Multiply that by x times a million and you have a sorry failure of education, at home and in school, in the U.S.A. and elsewhere.” [Italics MUM website]
What we see here is a focus on victimhood (“awful solitude and secrecy surrounding menstruation...Multiply that by x times a million and you have a sorry failure of education,”), rather than on the very real (and humorous) menstrual resistance both the Victoria Howe cartoon and Arn Poe essay represent. Rather than a narrative telling us to “multiply...x times a million and you have a sorry failure...,” why aren’t we told how many copies of the Insane Action/Menstruation Issue were actually distributed? Why isn’t there a general discussion of the grrlzine/riotgrrl movement itself, and how it functions (worldwide) as menstrual resistance?
Why aren’t we specifically asked to consider how well the Victoria Howe cartoon would function as menstrual advertising, or the Arn Poe essay as advertising copy? Why aren’t we given any statistics as to the gender balance in the advertising industry itself, and how it has changed (we hope) over the decades?
And finally, in creating a museum narrative that an elected official might find attractive, why was there no attempt made to contact menstrual product manufacturers, to see if they might sponsor a menstrual ad design contest through the museum, the prizes being scholarships to art and design schools?
As a final point, I will discuss core versus peripheral aspects of the menstrual experience, and how they play themselves out regarding Egyptian women in the MUM website. This was also an issue for the USHMM design team, as Edward T. Linenthal relates:
“Martin Smith once cautioned Raye Farr to be “wary against all attempts to turn the exhibit into an encyclopedia?” indeed, a permanent exhibition is not [italics his] an encyclopedia, cannot be all things to all people. Members of the design team have had, and knowledgeable visitors will each have, their own criticisms regarding what could have been taken out, what could have been put in, and what could have received more or less emphasis.”
A search for “Egypt” at the MUM website brings up four matches; three of them having to do with ancient Egypt, and the other a bibliographic reference to a 1983 World Health Organization study looking at patterns and perceptions of menstruation in 10 countries, including Egypt.
The paper by Petra Habiger entitled “Menstruation in Ancient Egypt” is lengthy, printing out as six single-spaced pages. Drawing upon several sources, it gives a thorough description of menstrual practices in ancient Egypt. However, this discussion of ancient Egyptian menstrual practices leads up to a discussion of how these practices were portrayed in two Western ads, a discussion of approximately six paragraphs. We then have a further paragraph about the “Isis cult,” which tells us:
“The Isis cult, which could be almost regarded as a monotheistic religion, was spread over the whole Mediterranean and was even practiced in the German Rhine region! Isis was thought to have magical powers. She was considered to be the giver of health and she personified femininity, teaching women to grind corn, weave clothes and tame men enough to be able to live together with them. [!] ([!] Mum website)
Thus the flow of the paper is from ancient Egyptian menstrual practices, to how Western advertisers have portrayed those practices, and then on to how Western feminists (building on the work of Marija Gimbutas) have interpreted the evolution of ancient Egyptian religion.
Although this may be informative and entertaining (yet speculative, when it comes to “the Isis cult almost [being regarded] as a monotheistic religion”), we must ask, are the strategies of Western advertisers, as well as the interpretations of Western ancient matriarchalists, core or peripheral aspects of the menstrual experience for Egyptian women?
I think it is telling that Habiger, toward the end of her paper, switches abruptly from referring to “Egyptian women” to “today’s Muslim women,” as if somehow modern Egyptian women aren’t really Egyptian anymore, simply by virtue of practicing a different religion:
“One thing is for certain: Egyptian women and men had been equals with regard to the laws of contract, capital and divorce. Because of his economic superiority, however, men could claim more rights. And for sure today’s Muslim women have by far fewer rights and social protection than women in antiquity.”
The Habiger paper ends as follows:
“But there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Today about 70 percent of all Egyptology students here in Germany are female and they will probably with time hold a similar number of professorships. And this should be the same in other countries.
So it rests with women, if they can or are willing, to change this picture of menstruation (and not only this) in the future.”
Again, we must ask whether the proportion of female Egyptology students in Germany is pertinent to the history of the relationship between medicine and Egyptian woman, as well as the history of menstruation in Egypt.
If for example, we take “transformation” to be a core aspect of the menstrual experience, we can look to see what kinds of transformation, if any, have occurred within the history of menstruation in Egypt. One clue pointing to such a transformation is to be found in the Habiger paper:
“In Roman Egypt circumcision of men and women was widespread.Even the total removal of a woman’s clitoris was common, as a Greek text of Aetius tells us.”
As it is generally believed that in ancient Egypt female circumcision (or female genital mutilation, FGM) was not practiced, apparently a fundamental transformation took place in perimenarchal ritual (which FGM is one form of), as well as in the overall status of women, perhaps around the time of Roman Egypt as Habiger suggests (although others conjecture earlier and later time periods).
Further, at the present time, efforts are being made to transform the practice of FGM into rituals which do not involve cutting, in Egypt and various other countries throughout Africa.? So we see a second transformation occurring at the present time:
“Two recent world conferences have also marked a critical development in the UN’s role on FGM. In 1994 the International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo [Egypt]. One of the achievements of the Conference was to highlight the intimate interconnections between women’s health and women’s human rights’. The World Health Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund and United Nations Population Fund unveiled a Joint Plan to bring about a major decline in FGM within ten years and to completely eradicate the practice within three generations.” (UN website)
am not suggesting that an exhibit on female genital mutilation in any way
encompasses the totality of Egyptian women’s health issues. But surely there
are compelling reasons to consider FGM a “core” aspect of the “history of
menstruation” in Egypt.
Further, if we consider the simplest definition of the word “mutilation,” “to deprive of an important part or parts,” this allows us to link the experience of Western and (in this case) African women. That is, rather than characterizing many women being “shamed” by certain kinds of menstrual advertising, perhaps we could be more specific, and characterize women as being “mutilated” by it - that is, in viewing menstrual advertising and accepting what it tries to tell women about themselves, they are being “deprived of important parts” - that is, a healthy body image, healthy self-esteem, the ability to see one’s body as “instrumental,” i.e., able to do things, rather than as “objectified,” and so on. Perhaps we would want to create exhibits addressing ALL advertising targeting perimenarchal women, rather than just specifically menstrual advertising.
Which brings us back, again, to the role of menstrual (or perhaps more specifically, perimenarchal) resisters, both in African and Western countries. At USHMM, there is a central “tower” containing 1,032 photos of the inhabitants of Ejszyski, taken before the Holocaust:
“For Appelbaum, the very “ordinariness” of the photographs makes them extraordinary in the context of the museum’s narrative. “Weddings, picnics, family portraits, it’s grandma this, it’s grandchild that; so rich, so ordinary, it’s the thing that you and I would open in our photograph album to cherish.” (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 185)
These photos had been collected by Yaffa Eliach:
“...it was during our trip in 1979, that I decided to document the history of the shtetl. It was clear to me that I had to bring the town back to life [90% of the inhabitants were murdered in the Holocaust]. I wanted to rescue this one town from oblivion. I decided to write its history, to remember the people through this act. I was determined that these Jews not be remembered only as victims. (Edward T. Linenthal, p. 178)
It is hoped that eventually at the Museum of Menstruation, some version of these 1,032 photos will appear, “so rich, so ordinary, the thing that you and I would open in our photograph album to cherish,” alongside the tremendous number of images of Western women in advertisements. “Odd, funny and quirky” though these ads may be, they certainly are not an image of womanhood that anyone (or at least this writer) would cherish.
April 2006 – Of course, now MOLT exists, with its central “menovulography” MOLTXIBIT. It is hoped that eventually, this will be a revolving exhibit, featuring work by professional curators and, borrowing a term from the bloggers, “citizen curators” as well. Could be some really groundbreaking work produced!