Illustration by Roma Gavrilă

Menstruation: Social Inequality and Biopolitics in Socialist Romania

Anca Niță

Abstract

Why is menstruation considered to be something shameful? As a cis-woman I have experienced and seen how menstruation is depicted around me, either in whispered voices and jokes or perfectly concealed in the commercials. This question was the starting point of my research, only to find out that menstruation is a lens that reveals a range of social inequalities experienced by women. In my qualitative research, I have talked with ten women (ages 50 to 81) regarding their experiences of menstruations during the communist period in Romania in order to better understand the historical context of menstruation in Romania. In the biographical narratives they shared with me, menstruation is described as a private, natural process, an individual experience, which is to stay within the limits of their private lives, rarely shared with closest female friends or in romantic relationships. The political and economic context from 1966 to 1989 had an impact on their perception of their bodies, reproduction, and sexuality because of the ban on abortions instituted by Decree 770. The female bodies became an economic and biological tool that the Communist Party used to secure economic growth and sustain industrial development. Women’s narratives about menstruation introduced me to the privacy of their lives, which allowed me to see the negative effects of pronatalist policies, gender inequality present both within and outside the family, and the false class equality that led to the emergence of interconnected social networks of informal economic practices.

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Anca Niță

Author

Anca Niță is currently a PhD student at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, the University of Bucharest, continuing the research on menstruation, from a social perspective. Apart from critical menstruation studies, her interests are gender and social inequality in relation with the body as a social and politicised entity in the neoliberal society. She is working at the Museum of Abandonment, documenting the history of child institutionalisation during communism and in her spare time works at Reconectat, an independent project aiming to explore empathically and inclusively the body diversity around us.

Roma Gavrilă

Illustrator

Roma Gavrila is a freelance illustrator from Romania, living and working in Transylvania, in Cluj-Napoca, a town that is a mix of history and youthful energy. Her projects include editorial illustration (mainly dealing with social issues), children’s book illustrations, comics and textile patterns, as well as illustrations for coloring books.

 

“In general, I don’t know, it was a problem that was not discussed, every woman had it. What could I say? Hey, I got my period! I don’t see why you would have to say that, I don’t understand. It seems to me that it is a personal subject, especially for a woman. A private matter … I’m on my period. No, I couldn’t say that, this was not a topic to be discussed.” Alexandra is 77 years old and this was her answer to my question if menstruation is shameful.

Three years ago, we were sitting in her living room together with her two closest friends Mela (84) and Ioana (68) who shared with me their experiences regarding menstruation and reproductive matters during the communist years. It was the third interview out of eight that I had done in my research, which started in late 2019 and ended in early 2021 and included individual face-to-face interviews in 2019 and via phone or online in 2021. The meeting with Alexandra, Ioana, and Mela was the only group interview in my research. It was not my decision, it happened naturally because Alexandra invited her friends over to her house. I had opted for interviewing women born before 1970 as a way to control that the interviewees had grown up and worked in Romania before 1989.

Trying to understand why menstruation is considered a shameful topic in the present was hard without a social and cultural context. Most of the research is focused on western countries. As an ex-socialist country that used to have strict reproductive laws, Romania has a different history when it comes to women and their body autonomy. This is why, in order to understand the perception of menstruation today, I have started from understanding more about the past. One of the reasons is that, probably just like myself, most Romanian women in my generation received information about the menstrual cycle from female figures in our families (mothers, aunts, grandmothers) who were born before or during the communist period. The responsibility of introducing girls/AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) to this topic falls on the mothers, while the father has nothing to do with the topic in most of the cases.[1]

The conversation with Alexandra, Mela and Ioana showed me how menstruation is connected with the reproductive body, state policies, sexuality, education, and economy. In 1966, on the first day of October, the Communist Party adopted a new set of laws, Decree No. 770, regarding women’s access to abortion. With abortion permitted only in a very limited number of situations, the right to choose to have an abortion had been thus taken away. The pronatalist laws were used by the Party as a biopolitical tool to control the reproduction of the population for economic growth purposes, affecting women and their bodies. At the same time when in Europe a sexual revolution was happening and feminist movements were starting to emerge in the US, in Romania the woman’s body was turned into a political tool.[2] Even though the Communist Party gave women access to education and made available a large number of jobs in different industries for women, it was not interested in offering them rights, but in their uterus and child-bearing capacity. The new set of laws established the social roles of women in society: mother, wife, and worker.[3] A huge burden was put on women’s shoulders, namely to produce the next generation, the country’s future workforce. Decree 770 came after a period during which abortion had been the only contraceptive option available, apart from “the calendar” and coitus interruptus (both methods being not as safe as condoms or contraceptive pills).

Decree 770 penetrated deeply into the private lives of Romanians. As Gail Kligman said “the intrusion of the state into the privacy of family life has contributed to the erosion of private life.”[4] The post-1966 political decisions had a strong impact on motherhood, women’s bodies, sexuality, desire, and pleasure. The paternalist state’s vision was that women’s duty was to bear children for the state. Practically, a part of the female body became a political instrument, and their entire existence was reduced to an internal organ, their uterus. The prosperity of the country was no longer the duty of the state, but of its citizens. In the eyes of the state, people were accomplished only if they became parents.

To implement its vision, the state took intrusive and coercive action. One such measure was submitting women to unexpected medical examinations at work, where “Sometimes, a group of gynaecologists from the closest hospital was coming to work and they checked us like we were cows” (Irina, 83). Some of the women that I’ve talked with told me that they were constrained to make regular appointments with the doctor, or the doctors would come to their workplaces for check-ups. The main reason was to check if the women were menstruating, if they were pregnant, or if they had had abortion in the meantime.

Menstruation thus becomes nothing more than a biological and physical sign that the reproductive system is functioning. It takes on a duplicitous meaning depending on the space, private or public. It captures a whole universe of symbols and meanings—for the state, but also for the private lives of women. Bleeding monthly was just another responsibility that women had to deal with. It was not present in the public space as it is in the present, but it played nevertheless an important role in those times. In the absence of other methods to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancies, the menstrual cycle or “the calendar” was the only contraceptive method of which women had individual control. This was not however the case for every woman, as Ioana told me during our interview. Having an irregular period due to hormonal disorder made it very hard to manage her sexual life. Either way, having their monthly menstruation was a big relief for most of them, signalling that chances of being pregnant after sexual encounters were low.

Andreea, who used to work in a medical institution in Bucharest, remembers how in the late 1980s the head nurse would come monthly with a notebook and ask every woman in the department when she had her last period. While the other women told me this information understanding that all the medical check-ups were ordered by the Party, Cristina (63) told me she thought it was important to constantly monitor your health and have medical tests like the Pap smear test. Allegedly, in the 1980s, the doctors at Cantacuzino Institute’s Laboratory of Immunochemistry in Bucharest created a toolkit for screening women for uterus cancer, but the real purpose of this was to check for pregnancies and abortion history.[5]

People struggle for autonomy over their private lives in a state of control. Blood stains are one of the symbolic elements in menstrual bleeding management, standing for the relentless transgression of blood in public spaces such as the school, during physical exercise, or at work. Menstruation was supposed to be invisible in Romanian communist society so, in most of the interviews, the women spoke about the fear of staining their clothes with blood.

For Andreea, who had heavy blood flow, it was very difficult to manage her menstrual cycle because of the lack of hygiene products, as cotton wool did not provide enough protection. In the 1980s, when Romania experienced severe economic austerity, cotton wool was very hard to find, and its quality was very low. Ioana compared its texture and appearance with the dust balls you find under the fridge. Having no other options, Andreea (53) started to wear two pairs of underwear, pieces of cloth, and sometimes plastic bags attached to them with safety pins to make them leak-proof. Gabriela (52) was constantly worried during physical education back in school. She had a male teacher, and she found it very difficult to talk to him and sit on the bench—the place assigned to you for one reason only: having your period. She also pointed out the difficulty of going to the school bathroom to change carrying a pack of cotton wool, under the judgemental stares of her classmates.

Menstruation was kept in the private sphere of women via education and language. Mela, whose parents were doctors, had access in the 1950s to an educational book about the changes that occur during puberty. On hearing that, Alexandra emphasised that it was because Mela`s parents were working in the medical field. She and her sister did not have access to this kind of information. She remembered that her elder sister had told her about menarche, but when she had her first period she was scared. It happened in the backyard of their house, and she didn’t move until her mother came in from work to help her. The sources where all the women got their information on how to deal with blood, cramps, and hiding menstruation were their group of friends, elder sisters, mothers, and only very rarely, the biology classes at school. One of my questions focused on anatomy classes which would be the right occasion to learn about the reproductive system. Only two women said that teachers had talked to them about the changes and the transition to puberty, but in a secretive and unequal manner, dividing the students according to sex and teaching two separate classes. Andreea mentioned that what her biology teacher was doing was risky, in case the management reported her to the communist political police, Securitate.

The mysterious and secretive aura surrounding the topic was also due to the euphemisms used by girls to talk about their periods with their female friends, rarely with boys. Iris (71) pointed out that they would never say menstruation, the term used was Madame Popescu. In secondary school, if she was having painful menstrual cramps, her friends would tell the teacher that Iris was missing school because Madame Popescu was visiting her. In my research, this was a singular case, but all the women I interviewed used non-medical terms like pe stop (on red light) or la ciclu (at the cycle) to describe their monthly bleeding. The euphemisms and not sharing much information on this topic with male friends or their partners highlights and characterises menstruation as an element part of the private, intimate lives of women. 

“With the Decree, the Party climbed into couples’ beds,” Alexandra said angrily during our conversation. “Sexuality was intertwined with tension. Its manipulation by the state erodes trust within couples, often making sexual life a terrain of intense conflict.” During my conversations with women, I tried to talk with them about sex and its relation with menstruation. One of the many myths regarding the subject is that if you have intercourse during the menses phase, it is very unlikely to get pregnant. Considering the social and political context of those times, I figured there was a slight possibility that it might have been a current practice in their sexual lives. They all gave strong negative answers, sex during menstruation was not an option in their view. For most of them, answering questions about their sexual life was the most uncomfortable part of the interview. On the phone, it was even harder to find out more details on it. So I asked the ones who were more comfortable with the subject why was that? Because it was messy and dirty was the unanimous answer I received. Dirt is a cultural construct that shapes and classifies the elements around us according to a certain order,[6] and in this case, it seems like sharing a sexual moment with your partner should not be polluted by an exterior factor like blood. The cultural meanings of blood are quite confusing, as both the sign of illness and a symbol of fertility in the case of menstruation.[7] On the other hand, not having sex during your period could have been a practical decision at that time, because it was more difficult to wash the sheets due to limited access to technology and water.

When I began this research, I assumed that the main focus would be on the body, gender inequality, but the interviews revealed class and social inequalities regarding the management of menstruation during communism. Katherine Verdery explains how in RSR (Socialist Republic of Romania), the economy was centralised, meaning that all the people worked towards the same goal, their country’s productivity and prosperity. In fact, the centralised economy, which did not take into consideration individual needs, forced people to come up with informal economical practices.[8] The political doctrine and the Party’s propaganda spoke of class equality, but people’s jobs and the workplaces gave them access to different opportunities in society and on the informal market. Social networks were created with work colleagues, family members, neighbours, and so on. Menstruation made no exception to the rule.

Menstrual products as we know them now were not an option for most women because they were not locally produced or imported from other countries. Even though tampons and pads officially entered the market in the 1990s, some women had access to them during communism using their social networks. After hearing the stories of the women, I identified three scenarios of menstrual informal economic practices.

First, there were the women who did not use menstrual products before 1990. Only two of the women, Andreea being one of them, used exclusively the cotton wool available in the state-owned stores. Second, there were the women who had access to more cotton wool or sterile gauze from hospitals and other healthcare facilities. This was Gabriela’s case in her adolescence, when her mother, who worked as a nurse at a factory in Buzău, would bring home sterile gauze and bandages for her periods. For Mela, who worked as a radiologist, it was easier to come by enough products during her menstruation. The workplace of the women themselves, or of their mothers or close people, gave them access to the quantity of products they needed and couldn’t find in shops or pharmacies.

The last scenario is the most complex one, namely accessing and using menstrual products (pads and tampons) in those times. For some of them, like Alexandra and Ioana, it was a one-time thing. Alexandra’s Albanian friend sent her a package of tampons from Albania, along with instructions how to use them, and she remembered being very surprised to see them back then. Ioana experienced a similar moment of amazement when she received one pad from her best friend, whose father worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Beside the ones who were allowed to travel abroad, some of them had family who lived in other European countries. Cristina would buy pads from one friend at work, whose cousin was sending packages from Germany. Ștefania (53) mostly used pads that her manager would receive from Poland. However, you would use the foreign products to maintain your social networks and for various types of exchanges. Among these women, Iris was the most privileged when it came to managing her menstruation, starting from her menarche and all the years lived by her in RSR. Some of her relatives had fled the country and settled in Switzerland. In her adolescence, through her family who lived abroad, she had access to pads, and as an adult used tampons. She also received condoms from her family. Class equality was a desire of communist Romania’s political leaders, but the jobs and social connections in the country or outside of it reveal daily inequalities even in the management of menstruation. Iris pointed out that back in her college years, as an art student, she would often go to 2 Mai, a holidaying place on the Black Sea coast famous for its liberal attitude. She was disgusted to see nudist women using tampons on the beach. As Costache wrote, 2 Mai was one of the most popular spots for members of the nomenklatura or their children.[9]

Menstruation works as a lens showing the inequality experienced by women in society, at school, in romantic relationships, and in their families during the communist era in Romania. Talking with all these women about it was a way of entering their daily lives, their struggles, and coping mechanisms under the eyes of a paternalistic, authoritarian and totalitarian state. Starting from the need to understand the relation between menstruation and shame, I discovered that the relation is more complex in the Romanian context. Menstruation becomes a shameful topic when it enters the public space and it has to be managed in a patriarchal society, organised by and for pleasing the male gaze. In socialist period, the lack of menstrual hygiene products in stores, of advertising for them, and of sexual education can explain why menstruation was a private matter for these women. This research represents a starting point in exploring the gender and social inequalities experienced by menstruators.

We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.

 

[1] Fingerson, Laura. 2012. Girls in Power. State University of New York Press.

[2] Corbin, Alain, and Georges Vigarello. 2009. Istoria Corpului. Vol. III – Mutațiile privirii. Secolul XX. Bucharest: Grupul Editorial Art.

[3] Kideckel, David A. 2010. Review of Străini în propriul corp. Muncitorii și relațiile de gen. In  România postsocialistă. Munca, trupul și cultura clasei muncitoare, 167–94. Iași: Polirom.

[4] Kligman, Gail. 2000. Politica duplicității: controlul reproducerii în România lui Ceaușescu. Bucharest: Humanitas.

[5] Kligman, Gail. 2000. Politica duplicității: controlul reproducerii în România lui Ceaușescu. Bucharest: Humanitas.

[6] Douglas, Mary. 2013. Purity and Danger. Routledge.

[7] Kligman, Gail. 2000. Politica duplicității: controlul reproducerii în România lui Ceaușescu. Bucharest: Humanitas.

[8] Verdery, Katherine. 1996. “What Was Socialism and Why Did It Fall?.” In What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, 19–38. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[9] Costache, Irina. 2013. “From the Party to the Beach Party: Nudism and Artistic Expression in the People’s Republic of Romania.” In Socialist Escapes: Breaking Away from Ideology and Everyday Routine in Eastern Europe, 19451989, edited by Cathleen M. Giustino, Catherine J. Plum, and Alexander Vari. Berghahn Books.

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