Blood Sisters: By honoring the fertility cycle, the menstrual-health movement seeks to reclaim an ancient source of female power.
Magazine: New Age Journal
Issue: May/June 1994
Title: Blood Sisters
Author: Susan Roberts
Blood Sisters: By honoring the fertility cycle, the menstrual-health
movement seeks to reclaim an ancient source of female power.
By Susan Roberts
On a quiet cove beach in Northern California, several women in their
forties and a dozen adolescent girls are digging energetically in the sand.
Soon, through their efforts, a monumental figure begins rising up on the
beach--a twenty-foot-long recumbent woman with large, full breasts and a
huge pregnant belly. Shouting excitedly to each other, the girls adorn her
body with a necklace made of seashells and bedeck her head with a
tangled seaweed mane. They have caught the spirit of this emergent
fertility goddess and soon are reveling in her awesome power--lying down
between her legs to receive her birth blessing and honoring her immutable
laws by arranging around her, like spokes of a halo, twenty-eight pieces of
driftwood, one for each day of the menstrual cycle.
The creation of the sand sculpture is a tribute to an aspect of female life
that, even today, remains a subject rarely discussed, let alone celebrated.
As the opening activity in a "coming-of-age" retreat for girls on the
threshold of womanhood, it is meant to generate a welcoming attitude
toward the strange and startling experience awaiting these girls--that of
beginning to bleed monthly. The retreat is the brainchild of Tamara
Slayton, director of the Menstrual Health Foundation, in Sebastopol,
California, and one of a small but influential group of activists, authors,
and psychologists working to radically alter the conventional--and
overwhelmingly negative--view of menstruation.
Women who pay attention to their fertility cycles, Slayton tells her young
charges, are in touch with nothing less than the creative principle of the
universe. After all, she explains, each month a woman recapitulates the
phases of creation, nourishment, death, and regeneration. In its creative or
"light" phase-- ovulation--this power can be used to conceive artistic or
intellectual offspring as well as actual biological children. In its dark or
"death" phase--menstruation-- it can become a source of autonomy and
authority in an era when women are too often expected to devote
themselves entirely to the needs of others.
Such a view, of course, is not new. Throughout history many cultures have
recognized and even sanctified the mystery of the female fertility cycle.
Yet in our scientifically "enlightened" age, this process has been reduced
to a set of biological functions whose subtler spiritual dimensions have
been all but forgotten. Instead of being revered as a source of power and
identity, menstruation is now dismissed as an embarrassing inconvenience.
Ironically, mainstream feminism, in its quest to minimize the differences
between the sexes, has only added to this prejudice. Slayton and others in
the emerging menstrual-awareness movement are offering a new type of
feminism, one based unabashedly on the body. As Brooke Medicine
Eagle, a pioneer in the menstrual-revival movement, explains: "There is a
spiritual power and beauty that builds in women who honor that part of
themselves. That's how women in native cultures got to be so wise--they
vision-quested every month at their menses."
Such sentiments have apparently struck a chord. In recent years, menstrual
awareness has been the topic of workshops, books, and ceremonies.
Adolescent girls are being f ted at coming-of-age parties, while
menopausal women are holding croning ceremonies. Those in between are
setting aside space in their homes or communities as "moon lodges,"
where they can go to tune in to the insights that come when--as
psychotherapist Teresa Rousseau says--"the veil between worlds is
The more intrepid menstrual advocates have made their campaign an
ecological as well as a psychological one, abandoning tampons and other
disposable products in favor of cloth menstrual pads. To add a ritual
element to their monthly "moontime," they soak the pads in jars of water,
which are then emptied out onto rosebushes and perennials. ("It's better
than bonemeal," claims one menstrual gardener.) Some, even more daring,
use their collected blood ceremonially: According to Rousseau, "Moon
blood, moon juice, is absolutely the most direct connection to the Earth
and the Goddess that there is."
But the menstrual revival movement is not simply a fetishistic celebration
of blood. Instead, its advocates stress, it is an effort to reclaim an
the feminine psyche disowned by our culture-- the dark goddess, the
crone, Kali, she who not only nurtures life but also destroys it so that
something truly new might be born. For many women, the discovery that
their body actually invites them to exercise this kind of authority has been
a psychological boon. Others say the insights have helped improve their
physical health, a claim backed up by a number of alternative health
According to herbalist Susun Weed, the vast majority of women who have
simple menstrual cramps and PMS "reduce or eliminate those discomforts
when they honor their moontime." Christiane Northrup, a gynecologist in
Yarmouth, Maine, confirms this assessment and expands on it, tracing a
host of female troubles, from ovarian cysts to uterine fibroids, back to
shame at menarche--the time of a young woman's first menses. "The seeds
of menstrual distress, which 60 to 70 percent of women suffer, are sown in
that whole introduction to the menstrual cycle." Or as one menstrual health
educator puts it, "What we've been given is a wrong of passage."
Having borne a child at the age of fifteen, whom she gave up for adoption,
Tamara Slayton knows well the tragedy that may result when girls don't
understand the power of their emergent fertility. Watching her students as
they complete their sand goddess, she describes how menarche is a crucial
moment in the shaping of a woman's identity, affecting her future ability
to pursue her dreams, or even to envision them. "At this point in her life, a
girl's individual mission is coming toward her in an in-tense way--the task
is for her to incarnate it," explains Slayton. "When the girl is traumatized
at menarche, the birthing of her destiny is thwarted." This spiritual attitude
makes Slayton's coming-of-age weekends far more than simple "sex
education." As she likes to put it, "We're midwifing souls."
For all its importance, menarche receives only perfunctory
acknowledgement in our culture. Perhaps it's in the form of an animated
film shown to all the fifth-grade girls, or a euphemistic pamphlet provided
courtesy of Tambrands. All in all, the message about menstruation is
delivered with clinical blandness. Rarely are girls prepared for that first
primal encounter with their blood--a sometimes traumatic event signaling
the end of their carefree childhood.
Susan Gravelle, for example, who works for a natural flooring company in
Sebastopol, California, was thirteen at the time of her first period. A
straight-A student who tried to do everything right, she had been sitting at
her desk doing her homework when she felt a warm fluid seeping between
her legs. When she looked down, she saw that her underpants were stained
red. Flushed with humiliation, she sat there paralyzed as the minutes
ticked by. Finally she found the courage to knock on her parents' bedroom
door and awkwardly ask for her mother's help. A few minutes later, her
mother appeared in Susan's room, laid a sanitary napkin on the desk, and
remarked absently, "Here, put this on." Then she abruptly returned to her
The wave of shame Gravelle felt was so strong it silenced her. "I was
literally cringing, I was so embarrassed," she recalls. "I couldn't reach out
and ask, What's going on?"
Menarche has not always been greeted with such ignorance. The passage
from child to she-who-bleeds-but-does-not-die, in fact, has been ritually
honored for centuries by traditional cultures around the world. Among the
Navajo, for example, menarche is celebrated in a ceremony that is one of
the most important in tribal life: The girl becomes Changing Woman, the
creation goddess associated with the cycling seasons. As her sponsor for
this initiation she chooses an older woman, who ritually washes her hair
and then her jewelry while singing traditional sacred chants. The sponsor
also massages her, to soften and dissolve her child's body so that it may be
reshaped into that of a woman. Over the next four days-- during which the
girl wears ceremonial clothing and runs in special races--she is believed to
bless everyone and everything with which she comes into contact, thereby
renewing the creative power of her community.
That most women today cannot share such a story reflects a general
breakdown in the transmission of what ancient cultures called the "female
mysteries." "The shaming of girls at adolescence is part of how our society
puts girls in their place," asserts Tamara Slayton. "This is the girl's entry
point into a patrifocal culture that trains them to identify authority outside
themselves and to believe that something is 'wrong' with them at a very
Building a sand goddess is just one exercise Slayton uses to help girls see
their cycle in a more positive light. At her "Camp Fertility" weekends,
Slayton also gives the girls pastel crayons and engages their imaginations
in the drawing of "rainbow wombs" while she explains the complex
process a woman's body goes through every month. During the first half,
she tells them, estrogen circulates through the system, leading to ovulation
around day fourteen. At this point, a girl may be at her most extroverted
and open to others. "I show them how the little fingers on the ends of the
fallopian tubes are waving to the ovaries, beckoning the egg to come in,"
she says. "And then I tell them, that's what we're like when we're in this
phase--we're waving to our friends to come play with us."
As progesterone is released, building up the uterine lining in the second
half of the cycle, a woman's energy turns inward, she continues. At this
phase, many women find themselves wearing darker colors or
spontaneously cleaning house to prepare a place in which to settle for their
menses. The tension builds as menstruation approaches, as does the ability
to cut to the heart of things and tell the truth. "I tend to pull apart and
question everything in my life during this phase," says Slayton, who
cautions that such doubts should not be acted on rashly, but posed as
questions, in hopes of "conceiving" answers at ovulation. Many women
find that at this time and once they start bleeding, their intuitive wisdom is
strongest and their dreams most revealing. A woman needs privacy during
this phase, Slayton says, so she can slough off old ideas and self-concepts
and await the birth of new ones.
"We women want to hold it all together all the time, to take care of
everything," Slayton says. "But it's a lie. We need to know when it's time
to let something go. We need to be open to a sense that 'this is not where I
need to be anymore,' so that we do not spend another two years in an
abusive relationship, for example. I think of this sensitivity that comes to
us during the menstrual phase as a kind of safeguard for humanity. It can
keep us from going to sleep and living our lives mindlessly."
Our culture has always celebrated women in their "light" or fertile phase,
Slayton believes. But the "dark" or menstrual phase has been seen as
dangerous, and the woman who embraces it as selfish, witchy, or evil.
"Women in America are trained to act like we're fertile all the time--
always available to and going along with others," she says. They do not
feel entitled to take the time they need for themselves at menstruation.
Thus, she says, they forfeit much of their power. Premenstrual rages and
depressions are expressions of this thwarted power, Slayton believes, an
inverted plea for time alone.
After her talk, Slayton has the girls form a circle and dance their way
through the cycle--ascending to ovulation and descending to menstruation,
coming out to be with others and going in to be alone. Then she brings out
gold paper, lace and ribbons, glitter and feathers and lets the girls make
crowns. The weekends end with a party--complete with red cranberry juice
and a cake covered with flowers--at which the girls' parents give their
daughters their blessings and crown them queens of fertility.
Slayton notes that most of the girls are understandably reticent going into
the workshops. They pretend not to notice their changing bodies and hope
that no one else will either. Thirteen-year-old Rachel, for example, wasn't
too keen on going to a daylong workshop with Slayton last year in
Baltimore, but her mother insisted. By the end of the afternoon, however,
Slayton's enthusiasm had rubbed off on her. Now the seventh-grader charts
her cycle religiously. "I'm still learning what's going on with me," she
says. "Mostly I'm social and bright and butterflylike when I'm fertile, then
after the full moon I start feeling depressed and bad about myself."
Rachel's biggest problem now seems to be her disappointment at the
world's lack of receptivity toward her new feminine power. "If
menstruation is a time for wisdom to come to women, I feel frustrated that
I'm not being listened to," she says. "Boys especially don't expect me to be
the way I am when I'm menstruating. I'm just totally focused in and not
thinking about them at all."
For nearly a decade now, members of the men's movement have decried
what they see as a howling void in American culture: the lack of an
initiation rite for adolescent males. But up till now, feminists have
disregarded the equivalent need for girls. In their 1992 book, Meeting at
the Crossroads, psychologists Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown show
how girls lose their "voices," or their authentic selves, at puberty. At ten or
eleven, the authors report, girls are confident truth-tellers, but by thirteen
they begin to hedge, pretending not to know what they know and
repressing their own needs and perceptions for the sake of being liked. The
findings have set off alarm bells in the educational community, provoking
heated debate about the causes of such psychic damage.
Still, hardly anyone in mainstream psychology has considered the impact
of a major event occurring at precisely this age--namely, a girl's first
menses. The words menstruation and menarche do not even appear in the
index to Gilligan's and Brown's book. According to Brown, it wasn't that
the authors weren't interested in the subject. Having spent years studying
adolescent girls, they were well aware of what Brown calls the "roar of
silence" regarding girls' changing bodies. It's a silence that even the
researchers could not break. The private girls' school where Brown and
Gilligan conducted their research frowned on explicit mention of such
subjects, and, as Brown says, the typical adolescent girl is already
beginning to be split off from her physical self, so "if you don't ask about
her body, she sure is not going to bring it up herself."
It wasn't just the school authorities who held their curiosity in check,
however. Brown says that she and Gilligan have taken enormous flak for
supposedly implying that women are "essentially" different from men.
Were they to begin emphasizing menarche, they would be accused of
joining the backlash against feminism, cloaking the old sexist argument
that "anatomy is destiny" in up-to-date garb. "For feminists right now, the
threat of being called an 'essentialist' is everywhere," Brown says. "To say
biology is destiny is to say we're trapped. Feminists want to say we can do
something about the situation, but it really comes down to a question of,
How are we defining the differences between men and women? Do we see
them as liabilities or strengths? I believe we can create new interpretations
of what is going on, but very few people are willing to enter that
Few in academia, perhaps. But among those in the feminist-spirituality
movement, the conversation is already in full swing. Among the more
intriguing theories now being discussed: that the menstrual cycle is the
missing link between women and empowerment. "Some people say the
anatomical differences between men and women are not significant," says
Virginia Beane Rutter, a Jungian analyst who has written about the
initiation of menarche in her book, Woman Changing Woman. "I believe
they are the source of our deepest strength. Women who deny this are
often caught up in a pseudo male-identification. Their life breath is
coming from a very shallow place."
Kisma Stepanich, author of Sister Moon Lodge and a Wiccan priestess
from Southern California, agrees. "As long as a woman is disconnected
from her menstrual cycle, she's always going to be under the thumb of the
patriarchy," she says. "It's a base power, and the average feminist is just
giving it away."
The idea of menstruation as a source of female power has a long and
persuasive history. As astrologer Demetra George points out, what modern
women call "the curse" was originally seen as a blessing-- literally. The
word blessing, she says, comes from the Old English bloedsen or
"bleeding." And author Judy Grahn, in Blood, Bread, and Roses: How
Menstruation Created the World, notes that the first calendars grew from
women's recognition that their cycles followed the moon's.
Barbara Walker's Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets gives an
exhaustive inventory of this little-known history. According to Walker,
many ancient cultures held that human beings were made from congealed
menstrual blood--a notion taught in European medical schools up until the
eighteenth century. Mideast creation stories trace the origin of humankind
to a great goddess who infused clay with menstrual blood. The name of
Adam--which comes from the Hebrew word adamah, meaning "bloody
clay"--indicates that such a story may have been the source of the Genesis
account as well. Menstrual blood was thought to be a magical fluid, and as
such was used in religious ceremonies throughout the world. Kings and
heroes were said to become immortal by drinking the Goddess's menstrual
blood, and the Hindu gods were said to bathe in it to maintain their
But, according to Walker, things had clearly changed by the time of the
Old Testament. The Book of Leviticus contains long passages condemning
the uncleanness of menstruating women. Indeed, Walker writes, "To this
day, [male] Orthodox Jews refuse to shake hands with a woman because
she might be menstruating." Similar prejudices were spread through
Europe via Christianity, with women in their "fluxes" denied entry into
certain churches until late in the seventeenth century.
Vestiges of these attitudes remain today, where the societal ideal of
menstruation is modeled by the girl in the Tampax ad who water-skis
sportingly in a white bikini, smiling all the while. "Our culture demands
we ignore the fact that we're having our menses," says Teresa Rousseau.
"The better you can ignore it, the stronger you are thought to be." Or, as
Brooke Medicine Eagle says, "Stick a plug in and pretend you're a guy--
that's what this society wants us to do."
Christiane Northrup was looking forward with excitement to hosting a
coming-of-age celebration for her twelve-year-old daughter. Only one
thing stood in the way: Her daughter was having no part of it.
"You're not going to have a bunch of your friends come over and bless me,
are you?" she complained. Northrup finally gave up, admitting that "the
culture is much bigger than me." Since then, she has decided that her real
work lies with the grown women who are her gynecological patients.
"There is no way the girls can come into harmony with their lunar cycles
until a critical mass of us older women do our own healing work."
A similar belief informs the workshops of Terry Mahoney, one of thirty-
five menstrual-health educators trained by Tamara Slayton. Mahoney, a
quiet, maternal woman who recently opened By the Light of the Moon, a
menstrual resources store in Waukesha,Wisconsin, has structured her
retreats around inner-child processes she learned in her own recovery
work. Some of the most poignant moments, she says, come when
participants look at photographs of themselves at around the age of their
first menses and tell the girls they see there what they would have liked to
hear, but didn't. "Look into the void; see the hurt, the abandonment, and
the young woman who was not celebrated," she urges them.
Some of the trauma is obvious, Mahoney says--like the woman she met
whose parents beat her for bleeding on her pink taffeta Sunday school
dress. "But for most, it's a simple lack of acknowledgement--the very thing
that makes them a woman is ignored."
Mahoney's own "recovery" involves honoring her bleeding time each
month. "I remove myself from the day-to-day tasks--even if only for a
couple of hours. I ask my husband to take the kids out of the house. I put
on a clean nightie, wrap up in a quilt, and put on some women's spirit
music. Then I just sit in that quiet hollow space," she says. "The visioning
I do during these times is what carries me over through the rest of the
Kisma Stepanich, the Wiccan priestess, created her "Women Who Bleed
for Life" gatherings to "reeducate women about their bodies." Stepanich
starts the day with an anatomy lesson, then one on how to make cloth
menstrual pads. She then guides the participants in a visualization of their
menarche experiences and in releasing whatever leftover trauma they can.
In the stillness, Stepanich suggests that the women open to receive a
"blood name" to honor their identity as she-who-cycles. "These tend to be
very lyrical and feminine--names like Taramiandra, Solandra, Jorna, or
Songja," she says. "They're never goddess names or even Native American
names. They're from a different space altogether."
In the ceremony that follows, the women are called forth by their new
names and anointed with a deep red oil. The ceremony ends with ecstatic
dancing. "After the ceremony, many of the women say they have felt
power for the first time in their lives, in the sense of knowing they had a
life," Stepanich says. "At the beginning, all you saw were fragments of
human beings. This begins to bring the light back into women's bodies."
Susan Gravelle's life--along with her daughter's--has been changed by
workshops like the ones described above. It all began seven years ago
when, as a single mother of three children, Gravelle felt herself starting to
come apart. She describes her state of mind at the time as "overwhelmed,
out of control, chronically depressed and fatigued, and craving coffee and
sugar more all the time." Even worse, she was finding it painful to mother
her children, as if she were trying to draw money from a deficit account.
While Gravelle had no better ideas about where to look for a solution to
her problems, she certainly did not expect to find it in her menstrual cycle.
But then she attended a seminar given by Tamara Slayton on pms, and
later workshops on "Reclaiming the Menstrual Matrix." In the latter,
Gravelle revisited her menarche experience and the shame she had felt as
her mother coldly laid that Kotex on her desk. Today, she regards that
incident as "a really brilliant moment, in that it captured my total
disconnectedness from my mother." She also sees in it the beginnings of a
habit of splitting off from her body, which undermined her power well into
"My problem has been my inability to care for myself. I could always
walk through that fog of depression to take care of my children, but not
myself," she says now. "I never even knew how I was feeling. I was
overriding my body sensations all the time."
Gravelle now believes that taking time out for reflection each month is a
biological and spiritual imperative for women. Since she has begun to
honor her cycle, she has been amazed by the balance she has found. "As I
learn to support my body, I can more clearly translate the messages it's
giving to me." This newfound strength and clarity have made her a more
creative participant in the lives of her children and her community, she
Perhaps most important, Gravelle says the work she has done allowed her
to be more sensitive when her daughter, Allie, reached menarche last year.
Gravelle gathered an impromptu circle of women to bless Allie and later
arranged for her to spend a weekend at Slayton's Camp Fertility. And in
the moment itself--that potent threshold time--Gravelle was fully present
and able to celebrate. "I bought her a dozen roses and gave them to her,"
she says, recalling the moment with obvious pleasure. "Then I hugged her
and said, 'Welcome to womanhood. I'm so excited for you!'"
Menstrual Health Foundation, 104 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol CA 95472;
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