Even if the hot summer has passed, the heat is currently underway in September now. In this season of high temperature and humidity, women’s discomfort index will be especially high because they inevitably use feminine hygiene products like sanitary pads for their menstrual cycles.
For a long time, society has considered menstruation as an experience about which caution is needed. Most women have discretely taken a sanitary pad out of a bag because of a fear that someone was going see them do so. However, as women’s rights have improved, views of menstruation and sanitary pads are also changing. The Argus will look deep into how views of menstruation or sanitary pad change, from the past, when sanitary pads were in negative territory, to recent times when they have gotten hot attention following the change in women’s rights, backgrounds for that progress, and also future prospects.
Before the 1880s: Women who used cloth as sanitary pads risked their discomfort
1. The situations of that time
Early use of sanitary pads: Most women used cloth sanitary pads, even replacing sanitary pads with glue. But those cloths could not absorb enough of the menstrual blood, so it leaked out.
The first appearance of sanitary pads in Western history: According to the encyclopedia of Byzantine “The Suda,” Hypatia who was a philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt possibly in 370 C.E. threw a sanitary cloth at men who persistently asked for her hand in marriage.
The appearance of sanitary pads in Korean history: Women used cotton cloth called “Gaejim.”
2. Background: The societies dominated by ideas that suppressed women’s human rights
The reason for the lack of a proper sanitary pad in the past was the tendency to consider women to be something negative was prevalent in many societies, which made menstruation perceived as being impure. Before Western society modernized, the low social status of women was related to early Christianity. In the writings of the church fathers at that time, phrases that suppressed women could be found. For example, according to the writing of Tertullianus, a prolific early Christian author from Carthage, it could be identified that all women were negatively referred to as “the way to demons.”
The Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 C.E. to 1897 C.E., was also a society dominated by Confucianism under which women were suppressed. For example, the women were forced to hide their faces with clothes when going out in public. In the “Gyuhapchongseo,” the lifestyle guidebook for Joseon, it is confirmed that women had to secretly wash and hang out their sanitary pad, “Gaejim” at night and bring it in before sunrise, because they did not want anyone to see it. As such, in a society where women’s faces and voices were not even allowed to be revealed, our ancestors felt ashamed of menstruating and were busy hiding it.
1880s~1920s: The invention of disposable sanitary pads received acclaim from women
1. The situation of that time
The Beginning of the Commercialization of the disposable sanitary pad: Benjamin Franklin, who was a famous American polymath born in 1785, invented a disposable pad to stanch bleeding during a war. Starting with this case, commercial manufacturers borrowed this idea, and the first disposable pad called the “Southball pad” was available for purchase as early as 1888 in England.
The first successfully marketed sanitary pads: During World War I, Kimberly-Clark Corporation repackaged one of its wartime products-cellucotton, which was a new bandage used as a surgical dressing for wounded soldiers. An unintended consequence of the bandages was that battlefield nurses used them as sanitary pads during their periods. The Kimberly-Clark Corporation began product development based upon their response. Subsequently, the corporation marketed the sanitary pad, “Kotex.”
2. Background: First-wave feminism
After the launch of the disposable sanitary pad, women had the opportunity to use more comfortable and safer sanitary products than ever before. This event was affected by First-wave feminism, which was a period of feminist activity that occurred during the late 18th century and early 20th century throughout the Western world. The goal of this wave was to open up a channel from inequality to equality for women, leading to a guarantee of the franchise for women. With this movement, England finally granted stronger rights to women in 1918, the United States in 1920, and under a global movement, Korea granted more rights to women in 1948.
Thus, as women were given suffrage by the movement, the number of women entering society increased, making women pay more attention to disposable sanitary pads. It had been burdensome to deal with the period blood on the cotton because the women had to stay out of public view for a long time. So, disposable sanitary pads, which could be used once and thrown away, brought innovation to women’s lives.
In the book “Periods Gone Public: Taking a stand for Menstrual Equality” written by Jennifer Weiss-wolf, a female activist and the vice president for development at the Brennan Center, stated, “We have to focus on the 1920s when the release of Kotex coincided with getting the vote. Not only did the suffrage allow the women to speak out on an equal basis, but supplies were required to help them participate in social life as having the opportunity to get work and education. One of them is a disposable sanitary pad.”
1970s~1990s: Continuing development of sanitary pads made the women lives more convenient
1. The situation of that time
The appearance of adhesive sanitary pads: Traditionally, women would fix the sanitary pad with a string or belt worn beneath undergarments. But, the launch of the adhesive sanitary pad made it so that the belted or string pad was no longer available. The adhesive pad was made to include an adhesive underside that stuck to the underwear securing its position.
The appearance of a sanitary pad for preventing the blood from leaking: In the 1980s, pads were made of cotton wool mixed with special polymer crystals designed to absorb liquid like blood. Additionally, a sanitary pad with wings was developed. These wings prevented the pad from sliding back, thus leading to greater comfort and stability.
2. Background: Starting for women to stand alone in society
Since capitalist growth and technology advanced after industrialization, the sanitary pad was technically more advanced. However, the development background of sanitary pads could not be talked about without mentioning the women who tried to stand alone as they entered society.
Dr Roh Ji-eun, a chief manager of the Korea Foundation for Women in Women’s Studies, said, “The process of commercializing the sanitary pad was affected by the trend of increasing women’s education, women’s participation upon entering the labor market, and the demand for self-determination of their own body.”
During that time, the rates of women who entered into society through the labor market and in education fields increased sharply around the world. Since the 1970s, Korea also achieved rapid economic growth under the government, which required that women should enter the labor market. Also, the rates of women’s education and levels increased following the flow, which meant that women increased their entry into society.
Dr. Roh further remarked, “Sanitary pad manufacturers had caught the flow and emphasized performances that improved outdoor activity and convenience. So, it spurred women to increase consumption of these sanitary pads.”
The spread of sexual self-determination about women’s bodies also indirectly affected the development of sanitary pads. In the process of rapid growth, female workers faced situations where androcentrism was dominant and this old custom controlled the women, which forced them to be placed in a relatively poor situation compared to men.
Dr. Roh observed that “The women’s movement, which has been active since the 1990s, resisted the ‘otherized’ body of women which was treated with only instrumental value and reclaimed sexual self-determination. So, the consciousness became such that women tried to reconsider menstruation and the sanitary pad in a women-centered way spread and gradually indirectly affected the release of sanitary pads that are suitable for women’s convenience.”
2000s~Now: The women speak out for women’s right to safety and confidence
1. The situation of that time
Moves to reduce the cost of sanitary pad: In 2002, the Korean Womenlink, one Korean women’s organization, pointed out the high price of sanitary pads due to a value-added tax (VAT). The government accepted the criticism and implemented a revised VAT duty-free policy on sanitary pads in 2004. However, women still have argued against the continuous rise of the sanitary pad.
Move to require safe sanitary pads: In 2017, Korean Women’s Environmental Network (KWEN), another Korean women’s organization, denounced that fact that harmful substances and carcinogens were detected in sanitary pads of the Lillian, a Korean sanitary pad brands. Women and KWEN argued for the introduction of ingredient labeling which refers to ingredients contained in sanitary pads, and the government introduced the system in October, 2018.
Inducing change in perceptions of sanitary pads: Unlike previous sanitary pad’s ads that emphasized purity and cleanness, Natracare, a cosmetics company, released other images of advertisement directly using the word “menstruation” instead of “the day,” a slang phrase for menstruation.
2. Background: Raising attention toward feminism
These days, it seems that a hot topic in our society is feminism, which allowed women to raise their voice to improve women’s rights.
The paper [Survey results and analyzing of characteristic component about feminism], using big data analysis and written by the Department of Packaging, Yonsei University, contained an analyzed number of articles about feminism in the domestic social news from 2016 to 2018. The number has increased, starting with about 180,000 in January 2016, to more than 1.2 million articles in February 2018. This means the feminism has been steadily paid attention to; in other words, women’s rights have emerged as an important social issue in society.
Professor Lee Sook-hwa said, “These situations show a reality that a sense of sovereignty toward the bodies of women is strongly presented. Until now, the nation and society have controlled the perception of the woman’s body and otherized it. For example, menstruation education has focused on that of a ‘good wife and wise mother’ which was the ideal women’s figure for a while because menstruation was related to fertility. But now, women have freely reveal femininity which was formerly suppressed by society. I think it will be an important turning point in women’s rights and free action.”
Aftertime: Outlooks for sanitary pads and consciousness about menstruation
1. Supplying free sanitary pads: Expansion of movements which put out a perception that “Sanitary pads are public goods” into practice.
Unlike in the past when sanitary pads were only treated as selective welfare supplies, several organizations like the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Gangwon Province Office of Education are actively supplying sanitary pads for free. The goal of this business is to spread the recognition that sanitary pads should be recognized as public goods.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government launched a pilot project for the installation of emergency sanitary pad dispensers in 10 public restrooms in October 2018. Citizens were in favor of this idea, and there was no problem of abuse that was feared.
An officer in charge of this policy idea in the Women and Family Policy Affairs Office, Seoul commented on it, saying, “After the pilot project, many public offices, local government, and organizations inquired about the project. Therefore, now the number of organizations where emergency sanitary pads are offered has be drastically expanded from 11 in the past to its current 172. It is expected that the project will be expanded to about 200 public institution this year as it is currently recruiting additional agencies that plan to do this project.”
Gangwon Povince Office of Education is providing sanitary pads for free to all schools in its province. It is the first Education Office to implement such a policy since July.
Starting from the Gangwon Province Office of Education, some of the Education Offices, for example, Seoul, Gwangju, and Daegu, will plan to enact an ordinance to supply sanitary pads for free in school.
Through this universal welfare, it is likely to further spread the perception that sanitary pads are a necessity for women, and that menstruation is no longer a disgrace or a has to be an embarrassment for women to hide. It will also increase the convenience for women, which will ultimately further contribute to the development of women’s rights.
2. Stances needed for acceptance in society
Professor Lee said, “First, the government and businesses will have to find a fundamentally adequate sanitary pad cost. Menstruation is not a woman’s option, so universal welfare toward sanitary pads should be further activated. Also, the public accepts an attitude that the body should not be controlled or suppressed by others or society. Sanitary pad ads have emphasized ‘purity’ and ‘fresh’ for a long time. It means society has ignored the discomfort of the actual menstrual pain because society has otherized women. In line with the growing trend of self-consciousness toward women’s bodies, this perception will have to be reflected not only in advertising but also in all of society.”
In light of this welfare, Dr. Roh said, “In consideration of women’s rights, menstruation may be linked to the right to be free from gender discrimination and violence, the right for women to be central decision-makers and the right to easily access to safe information. Therefore, women’s labor rights and health rights should be readjusted, focusing on safe and healthy menstruation. And society should develop and provide women-friendly sanitary pads, and conduct menstruation education which respects the period experience and gender equality.”
The history of menstruation and the sanitary pad has been around since the existence of women. Only in contemporary times has society begun to take interest in the sanitary pad, and there is still a constant stream of controversy. What does this mean? Perhaps the aftermath of a patriarchal society maintained from the past pushed the sanitary pad into the dark. Then, which direction will the sanitary pad move towards in the future? With the extension of women’s rights, the sanitary pad will increasingly emerge as a subject of thought. The Argus expects that the sanitary pad, as the bodyguards of women, will be respected, understood and fully established for their existence.
By Oh Ju-yeong
Associate Editor of Global & National Section