(Please note: the views, experiences and positions expressed within this blog post are those of the author(s) alone and do not necessarily represent the views of everyone involved in the LaDIYfest collective.)
Our recent invitation to get involved in the University of Sheffield Student Union’s ‘Red Tent’ week led to some important discussion within the LaDIYfest collective regarding how we felt about the concept of the tent and the politics behind it. As many of us had work and study commitments, we didn’t think we could do justice to the ideas we had by planning a workshop so instead of a physical presence we’ve written a summary of some of our thoughts on the topic in the hope that people attending The Red Tent will read, think and discuss our input over the course of the week.
Before this we’d like to note that the rise in feminist action at the two Sheffield Universities over the last few years has been an amazing improvement. We’ve really enjoyed working with the Women’s Committee and look forward to participating in future collaborative projects. The following reflection on The Red Tent is intended to provide a route into further conversation and exploration regarding the discussion of bodies, biology and a physical notion of womanhood within feminist spaces. We hope this won’t sound like an attack by other feminists (us!) who – for the most part – want to provide solidarity and support to your projects, or a discouragement to the totally admirable feminists at the University from continuing their activism (we’re sure it won’t!).
For the unaware, the Women’s Committee describe The Red Tent as a week of activities and discussion groups providing ‘a safe space for women (& non-male identifying people) to celebrate their bodies, menstrual cycle, and discover/re-discover their power in society’. This is the University of Sheffield’s (UoS) offshoot of an international project with the same name and is (as far as we know) the second year this week-long celebration has been held in Sheffield.
Why Bother Talking About Periods At All?
Due to the shame that many people – mostly women – who have periods are made to feel about their bodies it is clear that the culture, experience and social regulation of menstruation has a relevance to feminist thinking. The medicalization of women’s bodies and behaviour, as well as the stigma of having a body that ‘leaks’ and the importance of finding ways to ‘control’ your body in a way that others find socially acceptable has had a massive impact on women’s freedom and status historically, and continues to intrude on their lives today. Capitalism, too, has a lot to answer for when it comes to the generic pain-killing drugs sold as menstrual cures, the marketing, advertising and culture of brand loyalty and precedence of expensive sanitary products.
However, the discussion of gendered bodies, biology and nature in feminist/women-oriented spaces is not without problems. The UoS’s Red Tent’s celebratory slogan of ‘accepting your body, accepting your period – it’s beautiful! it’s womanhood!’ ties menstruation to womanhood, erasing the existence of all the women-identifying people who cannot or choose not to have periods and the non-binary and men-identifying people who do have them. We think statements like this make the SU’s inclusion of ‘non-male identifying people’ feel tokenistic and not fully considered. The politics underlying this slogan also feed into strands of feminism (such as trans exclusive/eradicatory feminism or TERF*) which essentialise gender identities and experiences and exclude important (but marginalised) members of our movement such as trans women, intersex people and non-binary individuals. We were pleased to see that this year the SU’s Red Tent includes an event open to all genders on ‘Sex, Gender and Periods: Women who do not menstruate and menstruators who are not women’, which shows the SU/Women’s Committee is making a positive attempt to address the problematic assumption that periods and gender go hand in hand.
When Periods Aren’t Always a Cause for Celebration
The celebration of periods can be an effective way of redressing the shame women are usually encouraged to feel about their bodies, but what happens if this is done in a way which excludes non-women with periods or invalidates the gender identities of women who don’t have them? Periods are not always something that are/should be celebrated. For some intersex, non-binary people or trans men the presence of their periods can be a really unpleasant reminder that their bodies do not function or look the way they wished they did from birth.
What about the many women-identifying people who also don’t feel celebratory about their periods? There is often an assumption that ‘working with your body’ is necessarily a preferable option. For example, the implication that accepting/embracing your periods is important, and that ‘natural’ remedies are better than other kinds. But for some people periods can be debilitatingly painful and cause bouts of depression among other things. If your body is affected by discomfort or pain then, as with illness, wouldn’t it be a relief to be able to medicate to allay these unwanted experiences? Why should periods be any different for those who experience unpleasant symptoms?
For some people who identify as women and some who don’t, stopping their periods or having more control over their periods’ intensity or timing is hugely liberating. It mustn’t be shameful to say ‘I hate my periods’ or discuss the difficulties some people have with them. Sometimes in an attempt to redress the shaming of people who have periods, menstrual-advocates come dangerously close to shaming those who cannot/choose not to have them, often prioritising what is deemed to be ‘natural’ and therefore best. In the process, they may also (often without intending to) renounce the identities of people who use medication and surgery to match their bodies to their identities because this, too, isn’t ‘natural’ by these standards.
The (un)Revolutionary Potential of Periods
LaDIYfest do not use binary male/female symbols or any womb/ovary/body part iconography and we encourage other feminists who want to be part of a trans, intersex and non-binary inclusive movement to join us**. Biology tells us nothing about gender. Being a woman has nothing to do with owning a womb or having a period. What’s more, The Red Tent’s claim to find ‘power in society’ through the body is misleading and mystifies the importance and material economic realities for women. We believe that power in society is found primarily in class and in money, not in penises, gonads or wombs. The international Red Tent website uses the rhetoric of social change, transformation and revolution and yet their narrative which centres on the individual’s experience of her/their blood shed tells us nothing about collective unity and social mobilisation.
There is definitely space in feminism to talk about our personal needs (including mooncups and other menstrual stuff), but we also need to recognise the limitations of these discussions and not overstate their revolutionary potential. To fight gender oppression we also need to look to our wider shared goals – not just as individuals or as bodies – but as a collective of people who are oppressed because of our identities as women, non-binary people, queers, and as trans people.
Finding the Power to Fight Patriarchy!
In ‘re-discovering our power’ in society, unfortunately we’ve got a lot to change beyond the womb-shaming and period politics that the Red Tent addresses. To ensure we can make our fight as powerful as possible, we need to make it one which addresses issues of inclusion and defies gender essentialist notions of womanhood. Our question would be: is The Red Tent the place to do this?
The Red Tent is happening between 31st March – 4th April and there is a full schedule of events here.
*More info on TERF here.
**We’re far from perfect and we’ve made mistakes in the past which have (without our intention) left some people feeling excluded from our political action. Like everyone, we’re still learning.
A BRIEF UPDATE (02/04/14): We would like to thank the Women’s Committee for their engagement and supportive responses to our post, this has been incredibly encouraging and we look forward to participating in further discussions with them. We would also like to clarify that the slogan ‘accepting your body, accepting your period – it’s beautiful! it’s womanhood!’ was used to describe the Red Tent in our invitation to get involved, but we have since been informed that it does not appear in any of the Red Tent publicity material. Kat Chapman, the Women’s Officer at the Union, has also responded to our post here.
A discussion on intersex and menstruation
(Trans) Mangina Monologues
A trans man’s experience of menstruation
A non-binary trans person’s experience of stopping their periods
A discussion about periods between cis and trans people
More info on absent periods/amenorrhoea