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First blood: a cultural study of menarche

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posted on 03.02.2017, 04:03 by Dammery, Susan Mary (Sally)
This study is built around the key argument that although menarche is a shared physiological experience in the lives of pubescent girls, the meanings associated with it have been constructed from antiquity through the continuing influences of medicine and religion. These influences, generated in patriarchal societies, have dominated and reinforced cultural ideas of control of women’s bodies, symbolised through the control of menstruation beginning at menarche, the signal moment for commencement. Further investigation indicates how traditional thought and practice relating to menarche and menstruation are being displaced by a widening science-based knowledge resulting in different perceptions of what cyclical bleeding means in women’s lives today. My interest in the subject arose from the contrast between an Apache girl’s puberty ceremony, held among a supportive family and community, witnessed on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, US, and the alarming and lonely experience of early menarche for a granddaughter in a new state and new school in Australia. The different meanings attributed to the same biological process raised questions about how girls in other cultural groups had traditionally perceived this transitional marker of their life passage, what might be learnt from it, and how the findings could benefit today’s pre-adolescent girls from non-English speaking backgrounds whose cultural practices could enhance feelings of social isolation. The method of investigation was through informal interviews with fifty-four immigrant women over fifty years of age. Their stories were interpreted through scholarship from disciplines including history, anthropology, religious studies, medicine, psychology and nursing. The result was a multi-disciplinary work drawing on many different kinds of literature to explore the construction of meaning and the understanding of menarche across a number of different cultures. Several major themes emerged from the interviews. These were the individual immediate response to menarche; the concept of being ‘dirty’; menstrual lore, commonly known as ‘old wives’ tales’, and told to girls at the time of menarche; the menarche ceremony; the fear of revealing menstrual blood and the methods of achieving concealment; and the almost total ignorance of what menarche and menstruation were. Following up on these themes made clear the ways in which predominantly male practitioners of medicine and religion have constructed essentially repressive ideas about women’s blood and bleeding from ancient times and how these constructions have remained influential. But also shown are examples of how women have maintained agency to enable benefit from aspects of menstrual oppression. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, debates in England and America over further education for girls coincided with the rise of scientific technology and manufacture, and the introduction of commercially made disposable menstrual absorbents. Menarche became a symbol of transition to cyclical consumerism and, through diversification, the so-called sanitary hygiene manufacturers appropriated the role of educators, constructing new ways of influencing pre-adolescent and post-menarcheal thought about menstruation and the female body that have continued to influence Western ideas. The final chapter studies the significant developments in Western medical and scientific research post-1950s which have resulted in young women having greater options in how they wish to live their menstrual lives. Will this be replicated in developing countries? The possibility is examined through recent educational programmes at community level providing girls and women with the knowledge and infrastructure to support good menstrual hygiene practices against a background of ecological awareness. The appendices include the first chapter of a proposed text for pre-adolescent girls based on the thesis findings and written in a conversational style with the protagonists from diverse cultural and family backgrounds.


Principal supervisor

Barbara Caine

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Philosophical, Historical and International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts