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Menstruation through the ages

The John Rylands Library’s six month exhibition ‘Women Who Shaped Manchester’ showcases the exceptional stories of the women that have characterised our city. It includes pioneers in the fields of politics, science and culture. Tying in with the themes of this exhibition is a small display of medical materials. They highlight some shocking, enlightening and often laughable attitudes towards menstruation through the ages.

The display follows the myth of menstruation from its roots in early physiological theory. It journeys through the supernatural and misogynistic, to the completely absurd. Firstly, the exhibition celebrates the work of Catherine Chisholm – a British physician and the first female medical graduate of the University of Manchester.

She was an early 20th Century pioneer for women’s healthcare in the city. Later, she went on to found the Manchester Babies Hospital. Chisholm radicalised attitudes towards menstruation in medicine, in a turn from male speculation towards the study of women’s experience.  The exhibition includes Chisholm’s 1912 thesis: a survey of over 500 schoolgirls in Manchester regarding menstrual pain. In it, she works to disprove existing medical definitions informed by male practitioners. Furthermore, Chisholm weighs in on the hotly contested topic of co-education. The thesis boldly concludes that menstruation does not have an impact on girls’ capacity for knowledge.

However, an insight into the preceding discourse on menstruation is needed to appreciate the significance of her work. Hence, the introductory talk to this display began with a discussion of its 19thCentury materials.

Firstly, it looks at Harvard Professor of Medicine Edward Clarke’s thesis ‘Sex in Education’. The thesis is a collection of staggering arguments that was popular in the (uncomfortably recent) 1870s. Clarke claimed that young girls were experiencing “physiological disasters”, as they were “beyond their biological capacity”. He claimed that higher education was impeding the growth of their “peculiar and marvellous apparatus”, and inhibiting menstruation. At least, people argued this audacious claim on a scientific basis, unlike Nicholas Cooke’s ‘Satan in Society’. Cooke decided that menstruation represented the consecration (declaration as sacred) of young women, and therefore the parting of ways between men and women.

Both of these texts appear embarrassingly late in the medical timeline. They represent regressive attitudes to physiology, equality, and education. Whilst neither theorist stopped the education of women, their work exemplifies some of the beliefs that early female students such as Chisholm had to contend with.

The display looks back again to the 17thCentury. In the 1600s, menstruation was seen as a general barometer for women’s health. Healthcare was based around the theory of the four humors — black bile, yellow bile, blood, phlegm — the imbalance of which was supposedly cause for any illness. People believed menstruation was the body’s natural balancing of the humors. However, blood-letting was the treatment for ‘too little’ or ‘too much’ blood as many believed it to be an illness. ‘Too little’ menstrual blood was not only associated with physical illnesses, but also with mental health issues. One of the volumes on display lists its causes as “too little exercise, indigestion, upset stomach, sadness, grief, frights and the like”.

Although the medical theories displayed here are wildly inaccurate, they emphasise the shift in attitudes to menstruation between the 17th and 19th  centuries. Attitudes move from scientific enquiry to the Victorians’ misogynistic fear of women’s bodies.

There is an ironic absence of female voices in the discussion of menstruation. The display addresses this and Chisholm transforms the dominant male narrative. Chisholm challenges the exclusionary, othering attitudes to the female body that shaped pre-existing medical discourse. She ultimately uses menstruation as an empowering means for entering the medical field.

Not only was Catherine Chisholm a Woman Who Shaped Manchester, she was a woman who transformed women’s healthcare, radicalised women’s education, and took a pioneering step in unravelling the myth of menstruation.

Tags: exhibition, history, inspirational women, John Rylands University Library, menstruation, stigma, The Women Who Shaped Manchester

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