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 
thinnest."

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 
aspect of 
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 
practitioners.

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 
room.

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 
deep level."

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 
conversation."

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 
vitality.

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 
month."

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 
adulthood.

"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 
says.

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; 
(707) 829-3154.




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