Menstruation on Mercy Street

image_883.jpg.resize.800x450Now that season 2 of the PBS drama Mercy Street has wrapped up, I’m going to comment on an incident that has been bugging me for several weeks. In this season, young Alice Green  turns into a “She Rebel” by spying  for the Confederates.  In one scene, she fends off a Union soldier who wants to inspect her handbag by saying she is carrying supplies for her “monthlies” and doesn’t want to be embarrassed by having a man see them.

After this episode aired, my friend Lara Friedenfelds wrote a great piece on menstruation in the Victorian era for the National Museum of Civil War medicine blog.  She observes that most women carried on with their lives during their periods rather than swooning on chaise lounges.  So, it’s not hard to imagine that Alice was in fact menstruating while she was galloping around the countryside for the Rebs.

What I have trouble believing is that Alice would discuss her period in front of men  (including her own father).  Historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has shown that during the nineteenth century, doctors complained about mothers did not prepare their daughters for menstruation.  In other words, young girls couldn’t talk with their mothers about this delicate topic, much less their fathers, and certainly not men outside their families.

Otherwise, this season’s treatment of medical history has once again been top notch.  Can’t wait for season 3.

[added later — my friend Penny Richards observes below that this was the era before sanitary napkins and tampons.  So, Miss Alice would be using a piece of cloth, which her slave would be in charge of carrying and laundering for her].

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Sorry, Generation X was not a bunch of lazy Slackers

slackervia Timeline, where Stephanie Buck trots out the tired stereotype of Generation X as a bunch of lazy slackers “who who skateboarded through high school with flannel shirts and angry music during a period of economic stability.”

I could just say “whatever,” but since I’m a historian, and by some measures, belong to Generation X (I’m younger than Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X).  I can assure you that the late 1980s and early 1990s were not times of economic stability.  This was the Bush 41 recession that helped pave the way for the election of President Bill “the economy stupid” Clinton.  The title of chapter 2 of Generation X, “Our Parents Had More,” sums up the climate  of diminished opportunities for those of us graduating from college and graduate school.  Richard Linklater’s film “Slacker” also depicts the lives of overeducated/underemployed “misfits” in a college town (Ithaca, NY had many real-life counterparts).

I was one of the few people in my graduate school cohort to get a tenure-track job (or a job at all).

So, let’s dispense with these generational stereotypes, m’okay?

This is what a New Wave feminist looks like

Over the weekend, I saw a discussion of “new wave feminists” on Twitter.

I immediately thought of these awesome group of women New Wave musicians:


[Image courtesy of BBC.  Can you name them all?}

Turns out I was mistaken:  the reference was to a group of pro-life feminists who had originally been included as partners for the Women’s March on Washington.  After complaints from pro-choice groups, the march organizers cancelled the partnership with New Wave Feminists.

The concept of pro-life feminism is not new:  Feminists for Life has been around for decades.  Even Margaret Sanger was opposed to abortion.

I believe that the tent of feminism should include pro-life feminists.  However, New Wave Feminists are hardly inclusive.  Here’s a quote from their website:

“New Wave Feminists are here to take feminism back from those who have corrupted it.

 Sometime before we were born

our womanhood was traded for a handful

of birth control pills,

the “privilege” to degrade ourselves in playboy,

and the “right” to abort our children.

It’s time for the return of common sense feminism which refuses to exploit women in the name of liberation and create victims while settling for equality. Instead, we will live up to our full potential and demand others rise up to that level as we embrace how strong and bad ass women truly are.”

Sorry, so-called New Wave Feminists.  If you want respect from other feminists, you need to take the beam out of your own eye.  Supporting reproductive rights does not “corrupt” feminism.  I’m pretty badass myself. Here’s what an old-school, New Wave feminist looks like (Knitting Clio in 1986)


Protest Day Playlist


I’ve heard that the 1980s are back (including bad fashion choices), so I’ve decided to put together a playlist of protest songs that got us through the Reagan/Bush 41 era:

REM, “Exhuming McCarthy”  — because of POTUS attacks on free press

Dead Kennedys, “Jock-o-rama” — because the “beef patrol” is in charge (for now)

The Replacements, “Bastards of Young”  — because of everyone’s favorite soccer dad, Senator Tim Kaine

Fishbone, “Party at Ground Zero” — because the Donald now has the nuclear codes

Public Image Ltd/Africa Bambaata — “World Destruction” – see above

Men at Work, “It’s a Mistake” — because we’re headed for a new Cold War

Billy Bragg, “Help Save the Youth of America” — because they need it

X — “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” — because we need support for Violence Against Women Act

The Police, “Invisible Sun” — because we need to keep hoping things will get better

Neil Young, “Rockin’ in the Free World” — because it’s a free country (for now)

Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” — let’s do it!

Readers feel free to add to the list (blog is moderated so comments won’t appear right away)

Signal Boost: My article on the IUD for Technology’s Stories


[image courtesy of Virginia Smith, Sharlen Creations]

Dear readers,

Here’s a signal boost for my latest article, “This is Not a Dalkon Shield”  for the Society for the History of Technology publication Technology’s Stories.  Make sure to check out the other stories while you’re there!

If you want your very own pair of IUD earrings, you can order them here.