In the 4th installment of her illustrated series, “A Woman’s Work,” Carolita Johnson examines some of the inner workings of a woman’s body from puberty to menopause.
A Woman’s Work: The Inside Story
A Woman’s Work: The Inside Story
Carolita Johnson | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,178 words)
The subject of my pre-doctoral studies was medieval nuns and their relationship to their menstrual cycles. Long story short: my theory was that this relationship was determined by the very real divide between the early Christians who favored either the Old Testament or the New Testament on the inherent “sinfulness” or absence thereof of the human body. The traditional, Old Testament attitude that menstruation made women “unclean” somehow prevailed. Fancy that. Call me crazy, but I had to believe that the way the Church, the Patriarchy, and all of society saw women’s bodily functions had an effect on women’s relationships with their bodies.
Stories of menstruating women ruining mirrors they looked into, or causing soufflés to fall, causing farm animals to miscarry, mayonnaise to “not take,” etc., and menstrual blood used as an ingredient in cures for leprosy or magic potions, were common. But even if they were all but forgotten by modern times, they merge easily into my being taught, in the 1980s, to call my period “The Curse.”
I’d noticed, in many hagiographies, that one of the first signs a woman might be a saint, besides experiencing ecstatic “visions,” was that she’d barely, if at all, need to eat or drink anymore, and her various bodily secretions would cease. I wondered if nuns might be using herbs, self-starvation, and/or physical exertion to put an end to their secretions, amongst which, their periods.
Compare this to how, in modern times, many women, including myself, would use The Pill without the classic 7-day pause in dosage to skip an inconveniently timed period. This pause was designed to give women on the Pill a “period” that was more symbolic than functional, almost more of a superstition, and totally unnecessary, medically speaking. Recent years have even seen the introduction of contraceptive pills actually designed to limit a woman to 0-4 periods a year — hormonally inducing amenorrhea, or absence of menstruation. There are times when women want to avoid having their periods, for example, during vacations, sports events (with the notable exception of Kiran Ganhi), honeymoons; in other words, times when we want to be at our best and free of physical impairments or, let’s be frank: free from the anxiety of being discovered menstruating. Some of us opt to be free from that anxiety year-round now. I think medieval nuns would have loved to have that option.
The possession of a female reproductive system therefore involves a certain amount of effort and planning, in both practical and social/emotional terms; in other words, work. I’d always wished I could find the story of one woman’s life and at least one key bodily function in one place, maybe one for each century. No such luck for my medieval research. I had to glean a bit here, a bit there, in letters, anecdotes, superstitions, confession manuals.Continue reading “A Woman’s Work: The Inside Story”