The Politics and History of Menstruation: Contextualising the Scottish campaign to End Period Poverty

A research project (2020-2022) funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published as an open access Special Collection by the Open Library of Humanities

In 2021, Scotland became the first country in the world to make universal access to free period products a legal right. This has attracted extraordinary attention internationally, positioning Scotland as a leader on menstrual policy. Yet, little is known about why Scotland has been able to take on this role, and why at this historical moment of watershed change in many practices and policies surrounding menstruation, including sustainable period products, transgender menstruation, workplace menopause, tracking apps, menstrual disorders.

This special collection tracks the roots of the current developments through the history of politics, activism, medicine, public health, the arts and education around menstruation in Scotland and transnationally. It is the first collection to analyse and contextualise Scottish menstrual policy. Using archives, interviews, and case studies from other countries and historical periods, our collection poses the question: Why Scotland? Why menstrual rights? Why now?

Special Collection details

Collection Editors:
Bettina Bildhauer: University of St Andrews
Camilla Mørk Røstvik: University of Leeds
Sharra L. Vostral: Purdue University, USA

Project Coordinators:
Lara Owen: Administration and copy-editing
Jessica Campbell: Research assistance, administrative support
Bee Hughes: Initial set-up

Use the red links below to download items from the collection or visit the Open Library of Humanities page here.

Introduction: The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 in the Context of Menstrual Politics and History

Authors: Bettina Bildhauer, Camilla Mørk Røstvik and Sharra L. Vostral

In January 2021, Scotland became the first country in the world to make universal access to free period products a legal right, an initiative which attracted extraordinary international attention. This introduction outlines what is indeed new and ground-breaking about this law from the perspective of the history of menstruation, and what merely continues traditional and widespread conceptions, policies and practices surrounding menstruation. On the basis of an analysis of the parliamentary debates of the Act, we show that it gained broad political support by satisfying a combination of ten different political agendas: (1) promoting gender equality for women, while also (2) acknowledging broader gender diversity; (3) taking practical steps to alleviate one high-profile aspect of poverty at a relatively low overall cost to the state, while also (4) stimulating the production of menstrual products; (5) tackling menstrual stigma; (6) improving access to education; (7) working with grassroots campaigners; (8) improving public health; and (9) accommodating sustainability concerns; as well as (10) the desire to pass world-leading legislation in itself. In each case, we explore the extent to which the political aim is typical of, or departs from, wider trajectories in the history and politics of menstruation, and, where pertinent, trajectories in Scottish political history. The ten agendas in their international context provide kaleidoscopic insight into the current state of menstrual politics and history in Scotland and beyond. This introduction also situates this Special Collection as a whole in relation to the field of Critical Menstruation Studies and provides background information about the legislative process and key terminology in Scottish politics and in the history of menstruation.

Uniting the Nation through Transcending Menstrual Blood: The Period Products Act in Historical Perspective

Author: Bettina Bildhauer

This article situates the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 in the context of historical imaginations both of menstruation and of the nation. It shows that despite the law- makers’ stated intentions, traditional menstrual stigma still underlies the Act and its parliamentary debates. This allows politicians speaking about menstruation to distance themselves from those who menstruate, claiming a position as part of a privileged, authoritative community, and further associating menstruation with being underprivileged. The article shows how deep and pervasive the roots of this stigmatising pattern are, tracing it back to premodern and early modern humoral medicine, specifically to Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ Secreta mulierum (The Secrets of Women), and to modern fiction directly discussed in the Scottish parliament: the film I, Daniel Blake and Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things. The parliamentarians, moreover, imagine that the bonds created by speaking about menstrual blood extend to the whole nation. They implicitly understand the nation to be united by a shared blood and at the same time as transcending blood, in this case menstrual blood. This tacit conception is part of a historical pattern of similar imaginations of the Scottish nation in relation to blood, as this article will show in a sample of Scottish historical, fictional and political writing and thought from the Middle Ages to today. Menstruation in this way turns out to be central to historical and contemporary understandings of citizenship.

Researching the Researchers: The Impact of Menstrual Stigma on the Study of Menstruation

Author: Lara Owen

Menstruation has been stigmatised through a variety of strategies cross-culturally, including silencing and marginalisation. The purpose of this paper is to gain a deeper understanding of the perceived nature and impact of such stigmatisation on the professional experience of menstrual researchers. The research cohort was a group of nine scholars from humanities and social science disciplines working together on a research project on menstruation in politics. I was a member of the group and this paper is structured through an autoethnographic enquiry. My qualitative research was interview-based using online video meetings. The data shows that the perceived impact of menstrual stigma on academic research has altered, with older researchers experiencing more barriers in the early stages of their careers than younger ones do now. However, menstrual researchers still experience challenges they consider to be stigma-related in publishing menstrual research, obtaining permanent positions centred on their specialisation, and attracting long-term and large-scale funding. This research details the impact of multiple effects of stigma upon the careers of menstrual researchers and demonstrates the relationship between stigma and capitals. When exacerbated by contemporary precarity, undertaking menstrual research can lead to a feedback loop from which it is difficult to escape, suggesting that academics working on stigmatised topics may need specific types of institutional support in order to progress, publish and flourish. This article contributes to critical menstrual studies, stigma studies, and autoethnographic methods.

The Red Gown: Reflections on the In/Visibility of Menstruation in Scotland

Authors: Camilla Mørk Røstvik, Bee Hughes and Catherine Spencer

During the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, menstruation became more present in public discourse in Scotland. Despite this, little attention has been paid to the complex interplay of visibility and invisibility that characterises menstruation’s place in the nation’s wider cultural landscape. In this article, we explore the context of menstruation in the town of St Andrews specifically and Scotland more broadly, during the late 20th and early 21st century, and ask what this reveals about menstrual absence and presence in public debates. The University of St Andrews lies at the centre of this case study because it has been one of the Scottish institutions that has initiated a rollout of free menstrual products as a result of the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act of 2021. The University’s Centre for Contemporary Art also hosted Bee Hughes as artist-in-residence, whose practice focuses on the visible and invisible aspects of menstruation. Although impacted by a university strike and the Covid-19 pandemic, our collaboration has explored collections of menstrual culture in Scotland and broader questions of menstrual representation, reflecting on how established symbols with other connotations (notably the ceremonial red gown at the University of St Andrews) might provide a way of thinking about menstrual in/visibility. In this article, we discuss how these histories might be both present (institutionalised) and absent (when not on display). This paper presents our findings, in which the artist documents their first visit to St Andrews prior to the strike and pandemic, in relation to historical and contextual materials we located together.

‘A Crisis of Transition’: Menstruation and the Psychiatrisation of the Female Lifecycle in 19th-Century Edinburgh

Authors: Jessica Campbell and Gayle Davis

Examining how the female body and lifecycle were constructed within 19th-century Scottish psychiatry, and the wider significance of such portrayals, this article situates the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act within a much longer history that presents menstruation as a problem. We highlight the historical resonance of two prominent features of the Act and the debates leading to it: the enduring tension between views of menstruation as a normal versus a pathological process, and the perceived deleterious impact of menstruation upon female education and, by extension, women’s status. By 1900, Scottish psychiatry had achieved professional status. Asylums were recognised as the officially approved response to madness, and mass institutionalisation allowed the medical profession unparalleled opportunities to observe, classify and treat those deemed insane. Madness as a ‘female malady’, with doctors portraying the female sex as more vulnerable to insanity in publications and clinical documentation, largely due to their reproductive system, has become a popular theme in historical scholarship. This article examines how 19th-century psychiatry depicted the biological ‘crises’ of the female lifecycle and the extent to which menstruation was conceptualised as a pathological process. The widely cited and prolific medical writer, Thomas Clouston—physician-superintendent of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum (1873–1908), Scotland’s largest and most prestigious asylum—offers a particularly illuminating case study. An advocate of managing mental health holistically, Clouston advised society on healthy living through adherence to respectable Victorian standards. In his policing of social norms, he became a prominent spokesperson for limiting female education to protect women during the ‘dangerous’ transition from childhood to womanhood.

Responsible Body’: Menstrual Education Films and Sex Education in the United States and Scotland, 1970s–1980s

Author: Saniya Lee Ghanoui

The provision of menstrual products for free has become one part of the larger push by menstrual activists to make menstrual equity a global priority. Menstrual equity includes addressing and solving concerns that connect menstruation to public health issues, gender equality, and access to complete and comprehensive health and menstrual education. This last point is the focus of this paper. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill in Scotland did not emerge out of nowhere; neither did legislation across the US that addresses period poverty. Rather, these legal advances are the latest in a complicated and complex fight for menstrual education and healthcare. The Period Products Act’s emphasis on ‘access’—access to education and to menstrual products—is rooted in Scottish sex and menstrual education. This seemingly subtle difference from American menstrual education reveals how access has historically been integrated into Scottish menstrual education, a comparison particularly visible in the American and Scottish films studied here, Naturally … a Girl (1973) and Having a Period: Menstruation (1980), respectively.

Access to Menstrual Resources as a Public Health Issue in the US and Scotland

Author: Noelle Elizabeth Spencer

The objective of this paper is to answer the research question: in what ways is access to resources related to menstruation a public health issue in the United States (US) and Scotland? Resources will be understood to mean, for example, menstrual products, education, safe restroom facilities, and appropriate and accessible healthcare. The Social Ecological Model (SEM), a conceptual model consisting of four levels of consideration (individual, interpersonal, institutional/community, and societal), was used to structure a narrative review of the factors related to access to menstrual resources. The SEM offers a novel approach within Critical Menstruation Studies that leads to a better understanding of how access to resources affects menstrual health and the menstrual experience in the US and Scotland. This review is intended as an initial step towards collecting data about access to menstrual resources that can inform policy and legislation. It calls for advocates, activists, policymakers, and other interested stakeholders to explore opportunities for change at each of the levels of the SEM: individual, interpersonal, institutional/community, and societal.

Periods and the Menstrualscape: Menstrual Products and Menstrual Manifestations in Scotland, 1870–2020

Author: Sharra L Vostral

The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 is the first national legislation of its kind and makes provision for menstrual products at no cost to menstruators throughout Scotland. While the act is welcome, and ensconced public conversation about menstruation, it also simultaneously nationalized the practice of physical concealment through use of menstrual products. This article explores the historical debut of manufactured menstrual products in Scotland during the 20th century, and the junctures at which they rose to national significance. It does so through the concept of the menstrualscape. This term serves as shorthand to refer to the ephemera, material artefacts, and visual representations of menstrual products in relation to social and cultural beliefs. The menstrualsape sheds light on the historically relevant ideas and factors that undergird Scotland’s Free Provision Act.

Briefing Paper: Assessing the Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act 2021 as Model Menstruation Legislation

Author: Bettina Bildhauer, Camilla Mork Røstvik and Sharra L Vostral

This briefing paper discusses how to include historical perspectives to assess the potential success for current and future menstruation legislation. The case of Scotland provides an instructive example of law-making about free period products and period poverty. While commercial products are perceived as a solution, historical research suggests that cultural attitudes, lingering stigma, and regional differences affect opportunities for passing laws. To predict the likelihood that proposed menstrual product legislation might be adopted in other locations, historical factors related to attitudes about menstruation, including stigma, must be considered and understood to effect lasting change.