episode 19. On the Rag: A Deep Dive into Menstruation

“On the rag,” “lady business,” “the red wedding.” These are just a few names we call that time of the month when the uterus sheds its lining and starts the cycle anew. Menstruation has long been a topic of mystery, intrigue, confusion, and just generally associated with a negative connotation. We discuss ideas of menstruation through the ages, ranging from Ancient Mayans believing that menstrual blood of the moon goddess became today’s snakes, poisons and disease, to medieval Europeans believing that the blood could cure Leprosy. We also chat about menstrual products and how they have changed (and not really changed) over time. If nothing else, give this episode a lesson to hear some answers from males in our lives and what they know about periods, let’s have a learning moment together!

Feminist Corner:

What are current feelings that western society has about periods? Do you know of how other cultures view them?

In what ways can we de-stigmatize menstruation and what are some impacts you would hope that would have on the health of individuals who get periods?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

We wanted to start out by acknowledging that menstruation is not a universal experience and that not all who identify as women menstruate nor do those that menstruate have to identify as women. 

Listen to hear the results of the survey of males in our lives and their thoughts/previous ideas about menstruation. 

Ways we talk about periods: that time of the month, a visit from Aunt Flo, on the rag, lady business, the red badge of courage, crimson tide, the red wedding, mother nature’s gift, girl flu, Carrie and shark week.

Different snippets of what different groups of people thought about women and their periods:

  • In Mayan mythology, menstruation was thought to be a punishment for women after the moon goddess, who represented women, sexuality and fertility, disobeyed the rules of alliance and slept with the Sun god. It was believed that her menstrual blood was stored in 13 jars which were magically transformed into snakes, insects, poison and diseases. 
  • In Ancient Egypt, the Ebers Papyrus which was and is still a very important medical document hinted that vaginal blood was an ingredient in certain medicines.
  • In The Bible, ancient Hebrews upheld the “laws of Niddah”, where menstruating women went into seclusion and had to be separated from the rest of society for seven “clean” days. 
  • The Qu’ran defines menstruation as an evil that needs to be banished to reach purity. 
  • Pliny the Elder who was a prominent Roman philosopher and author wrote in a text of his called Naturalis Historia, that women menstruating could prevent hail storms and lightning, kill crops, turn wine into vinegar, break mirrors, ruin iron and leather, make fruit fall from trees, kill bees and make pregnant animals abort their babies.
  • Aristotle thought that it was during menstruation that when semen acted to bring on fertilization of the egg.
  • In Medieval Europe, women on their periods were thought to fog mirrors, make iron rust, etc. but they also thought that the food these women prepared would spoil, that the kitchen utensils they used to deteriorate, plants would wither and that a sick person would get WORSE if a menstruating woman was around. 
  • It was during the Middle Ages and early modern era that it was documented with certainty that women would use rags or other absorbent materials to soak up period blood which is the root of the phrase “on the rag.”

Menstrual products used over time: 

  •  Ancient Egyptians wore loincloths and made tampon type things from softened papyrus
  • Ancient Greeks made them from bits of wood and with lint wrapped around
  • Romans wore pads made of wool
  • 1800s: “hoosier sanitary belt” which were washable pads that women could attach to a belt and wear under their undergarments
  • 1888: the first commercially available disposable menstrual pads went on the market and they were known as Lister’s Towels made by Johnson and Johnson
  • 1929: the first official tampon was invented by Dr. Earle Haas


Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, & Norsigian, J. (2011). Our Bodies, Ourselves (Revised ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Atria Books.

Bushak, L. (2016, May 23). A Brief History Of The Menstrual Period: How Women Dealt With Their Cycles Throughout The Ages. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://www.medicaldaily.com/menstrual-period-time-month-history-387252

Caster, Y. (2019, December 11). Period detail: A history of menstruation in 15 fascinating facts. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://metro.co.uk/2015/05/20/history-period-a-look-at-menstruation-through-the-ages-in-15-fascinating-facts-5204085/

Gómez-Sánchez, P. I. (n.d.). Menstruation in history. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0120-53072012000300010

How Do I Use Tampons, Pads, Period Underwear & Menstrual Cups? | Facts & Info. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/health-and-wellness/menstruation/how-do-i-use-tampons-pads-and-menstrual-cups

McPherson, M. E., & Korfine, L. (2004). Menstruation across time: Menarche, menstrual attitudes, experiences, and behaviors. Women’s Health Issues, 14(6), 193–200. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.whi.2004.08.006

NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. (2015, August 11). Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/08/11/431605131/attention-trump-some-cultures-treat-menstruation-with-respect

Romano, A. A. S. A. V. L. (2018, August 21). 15 other words for periods that are funny any time of the month. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from https://mashable.com/article/words-for-periods/?europe=true

Like the episode? Send us your thoughts and questions!

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