Embracing Menstruation in ‘Uncommon Women and Others’

Wasserstein’s decision to create Rita Altabel allows us to question the complex relationship we have with menstruation.

Female Authors Non-Fiction Wellness

“If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood– if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby.” – Germaine Greer, 1970.

While discussions of menstruation typically aren’t about its tactility, Greer’s proposition implies a greater discomfort we have with menstruation, regardless of its use. On June 3rd, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced an initiative to provide free menstrual products to students across the country, providing to low-income communities first and then the entire nation. Reading this news may be surprising, as it’s baffling to think that a country has the time and resources to start a free service of this magnitude in the midst of a global health epidemic. To amplify this confusion, protesters in the United States are bringing days’ supplies of sanitary napkins in case their constitutionally- mandated defiance against police brutality puts them in jail. It is interesting– to say the least– to see how The Free World forces its citizens to stock up on these essential products yet is unable to provide them for free.

Reading about this diversity in the menstrual experience reminded me of dialogue from Uncommon Women and Others, a play written by Wendy Wasserstein detailing a female liberal arts experience. The plot is centered around five women searching for their identities in their senior year at Mount Holyoke College. Rita Altabel, described by Wasserstein as a woman who “refuses to live down to expectations,” brazenly enters a room of her peers in Act One and asserts, “I’ve tasted my menstrual blood.” Immediate to retort was Kate who says, “Uch, Rita, gross-me-out.” “Gross-me-out” is a common reaction to even the vaguest mentioning of menstruation in schools, which furthers the stigmatization about periods and makes people who have them feel unwelcome and uncomfortable in their own spaces. A recent study reveals that one in five female-sexed students miss all or part of their school day due to menstruation in the United States. This data is astronomically higher in regions colonized by Western countries like the United States. In India, 40% of cis-gendered girls are absent from school due to their periods.

 

 

The inequity of access does not end in the schooling days. In a 2019 study of low-income female-sexed persons in the United States, 2/3 revealed not having menstrual products at some point in the past year, and 1/5 reported struggling to obtain products on a monthly basis. The inequities are made institutionally evident by the fact that one cannot use food stamps, Medicaid, or other health insurance accounts to buy period products. Rita Altable’s mentioning of this brave taste test reveals a privilege she has. She has the ability to garner curiosity about what it feels like to taste her period as opposed to what it feels like to be prepared for it.

In Act Two, Rita goes out on an interview at an editorial company, hoping to be hired as a “beauty hints” editor. She tells her friends of how “delightful” it was and how her interviewer was “delightful” and how she thought Rita was “delightful” and how it was all, again, “delightful.” At the end of their meeting, the delightful interviewer asks Rita, “Tell me dear, do you have experience with a Xerox machine?” And Rita’s response? “Yes. And I’ve tasted my menstrual blood.” Kate, quick to retort again, responds with “Rita, you didn’t really do that, did you?” While Wasserstein’s tale of menstrual defiance in the workplace serves a comical purpose, as juxtaposing low workplace standards for women with wild feminine feats is a feminine and hilarious comparison, her inclusion of this punchline has a greater implication. Rita expresses that she doesn’t want to work somewhere where she has to “live down to expectations,” where what’s valued isn’t her proficiency with a self-capable machine but rather her willingness to take intellectual (and menstrual) risks.

 

 

Though Uncommon Women and Others was written in the 1970s, discussions of menstruation in the workplace are still taboo. A study conducted in The Netherlands determined that despite 13.8% of participants missing work from period strife, only 20% told their employer it was due to menstrual pain. 67% of these participants also wished they had greater flexibility in their work schedules while on their periods. This data reveals menstruation to be a barrier to female success, despite its regularity and universality in the workplace.

Wasserstein’s decision to create Rita Altabel allows us to question the complex relationship we have with menstruation. Rita is typified as a hussy by some, as a threateningly assertive wench who can’t read the room. However, by excluding characters like Rita that speaks to menstrual experiences from literature, we disregard the importance of amplifying conversations about menstruation instead of further empowering the institutions that demand silence. We already compromise in our workplaces, in our schools, and in our own families to hide our pain and shame ourselves for the sake of protecting others’ discomfort. The cramps, the migraines, the anxiety, the stains on our favorite undies will always win. While menstruation itself causes discomfort, the greater pain is the embarrassment made intrinsic to period culture. Literature that embraces our real experiences and curiosities and that aims to challenge our gendered notions of hormonal behavior is critical for progress. While we know Goldfish is the snack that smiles back, perhaps periods are snacks that slime back. Or perhaps we just should give people the products they need.

feature image via Uncommon on Broadway