Capitalism and Tampons
Today we delve into the nebulous and exciting realm of the tampon! Or, more generally, the evolution of menstrual products. We can guarantee that this is just the tip of the iceberg, so stay tuned for more.
Image: Tony Futura
Elise: To My Period-Panty Sporting Queen,
I just learned that it hasn't been all men in the creation of the menstrual supply industry (valued at $15 billion worldwide, Misc). In fact, while the inventor of the modern Western tampon, Dr Earle Cleveland Haas, was a man, he sold his idea to an entrepreneurial Chica, Gertrude Tendrich. Tendrich continued on to found Tampax.
When Judy Chicago first hung Red Flag in 1971, most people had no idea that they were seeing a close shot of a woman removing a used tampon. This shows how hush-hush periods still were, even though it was estimated that more than 70% of American women used tampons by the early 70's. This is thanks to the business mind of Gertrude Tendrich, who started out making tampons in her home with a sewing machine and a compressor. I'm excited about discovering a woman this far back in the history of the commercial period space, and I want her to be a role model. Unfortunately, there is little information about her.
My modern role model today for tampons is Meika Hollender, who co-founded Sustain to provide organic tampons and non-toxic condoms. This is a major disruption to the sexual and reproductive wellness industry, which has gotten away with decades of filling the products, that intimately interact with our vaginas, full of chemicals. Thanks to Hollender, there are many more organic tampon companies populating the marketplace, most of which are led by women.
While I condemn tampons for their environmental impact, I'm happy to have these healthy options, and for the freedom that tampons have given us!
What's your favorite little tidbit of menstruation history?
Cassidy: To My DivaCup Diva,
I’m weirdly excited that we get to talk about this. The evolution of the so-called “feminine hygiene” industry is something I always want to talk about when I introduce Chica, but it can be a clunky and distracting tangent. This is unfortunate, because it feels so relevant: Chica would have already existed years ago if said industry wasn’t so resistant to change.
In terms of the period sphere not being solely occupied by men (PS Mag claims that ⅓ of menstrual product innovations were patented by women), all I’ve gotta say is “Well, duh!” I mean, I’m sorry, but we’re talking period products. Any innovation in this space was driven by necessity: people were bleeding out of their vaginas and literally couldn’t do anything about it, so they improvised. According to an article published by the Atlantic, there are even accounts of early intra-vaginal menstrual devices—made of everything from cotton to rolls of grass—being used by women in ancient Rome, Japan, Indonesia, Africa, and Hawaii. These inventions were just rarely brought to market, because they were mediated by cultural barriers and a male-dominated industry.
Consider the menstrual cup, which we’ll call my “favorite” tidbit of menstruation history. The cup might seem like a recent innovation, but it was actually invented before the tampon. By a woman named Leona Chalmers. Who, incidentally, was among many others who had already been stuffing wads of cloth up their vaginas for years. Homemade tampons, hello. Sounds nice (not). Dr. Haas beat her to the patent office with his cotton creation, but even if he hadn’t, it’s unlikely that the cup would have been commercially compelling. It was just too dirty. Even the tampon was crossing the purity boundary: normative Western notions about femininity and virginity were severely upset by the concept of women touching themselves down there and endangering their hymen. Cups, with no applicator and more mess, didn’t stand a chance.
The two inventions appeal to the same avatar: the “on-the-go-woman” that doesn’t want to be held back by a period. However, even now, with the DivaCup doing its damn best to take the world by storm, we meet the idea with revulsion. But where is it coming from? And why do we have such an unquestioning and “reflexive loyalty” to tampons, “a product that [we] never even liked”? Even the Toxic Shock scare wasn’t enough to push tampons out of the mainstream, although it did force manufacturers to regulate and re-engineer their product.
The mystery of the tampon was punctured, however, and this opened an environment for companies like Sustain to populate. Brands that are wedded to transparency, menstrual health, and a social mission are beginning to gain traction in the period industry, because the “hush-hush” nature of menstruation is finally falling out of style. Now all we need is a new product for period relief.