5 Women Who Changed The Way You Have Your Period

It's Rag Week and we're taking on possibly the world's strangest taboo – the tradition of not talking about periods, a near-universal female experience. Rag Week is a time for all of us to bring period talk out in the open and celebrate how far we've come. All these conversations lead back to one question, though: Why have we kept quiet about it for so long?
We want to shine a light on those women who were brave enough to combat the silence around periods, when most of society didn't want to hear it. These women changed the world, and changed the way that most women today experience their periods. They are only a few of many, most of whom have been lost to history. We need to take care that the impact of these women on our monthly bleed – from how doctors treat menstruation to how we insert our tampons – is never forgotten.
Click through to see the women who pioneered the way we experience our periods.
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Lydia Pinkham
The woman who let women talk about periods

It's hard to overstate the silence there was around periods before Lydia Pinkham. Today in the UK, doctors still need to be encouraged to listen to female patients about difficult periods. In the 1800s, the typical treatment by male doctors for vaginal cramps was to surgically remove the ovaries, a procedure that killed four in 10 women.

Lydia Pinkham was one of America's most successful businesswomen, but also created a safe space for women to take charge of their menstrual health. Born to abolitionist parents in 1819, it wasn't until 1875, after her family lost their fortune, that Lydia started selling her homemade remedy Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound.

Made from crushed herbs and a not inconsiderable amount of alcohol, Lydia had already shared it with her neighbours to treat menstrual cramps and other "women's issues". There is little medical evidence today to suggest those ingredients would work, though we have to imagine the alcohol might have given some relief. The greater benefit of her business was that women finally had a solution which came from another woman, rather than from male doctors.

Lydia marketed her compound by saying “only a woman can understand a woman’s ills”, but she did more than just sell her product. She ran a 'Department of Advice' where women could write in with any questions they had around female health. She even handed out a free book she wrote herself, covering everything from menstruation to childbirth. These both recommended exercise and good diet rather than cutting out reproductive organs.

Lydia built a network for women to speak to women about periods, sharing advice and help at a time when the silence around periods was deadly.
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Mary Putnam Jacobi
The woman who proved periods don't hold girls back

Today, we take it for granted that most women on their periods can live their lives totally normally while menstruating. Some women with PMS may choose to take time off work, like with any medical condition. But the battle to ensure that women aren't excluded just for menstruating, especially from education, has gone global. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi was at the forefront of this fight, making sure that even in the 1800s, girls weren't left behind.

Born in London in 1842, Mary moved to the USA and was one of the very first women to attain a medical degree there. She worked at one of the first female-founded hospitals and then moved to Paris, where she campaigned for co-education between men and women.

Holding her back was the accepted idea that women on their periods literally could not think. In 1873, Dr. Edward H Clarke wrote an entire paper arguing against educating women since "the muscles" used in menstruation "and the brain cannot functionate in their best way at the same moment". Yes, a doctor said that menstruating women were incapable of thought while on their periods. What was worse, people believed him and denied women the right to education based on his 'scientific' opinion.

Mary was, obviously, not going to take this nonsense. In 1876 she published her own essay, filled with serious scientific evidence, including statistics, studies and tables, that proved menstruation didn't impair women's ability to learn. This won the Boylston Prize at Harvard University, and since she could also show that she had become a doctor, a medical lecturer and a professor all while menstruating, we could call this the greatest clapback in history.

Women and girls all over the world are denied their basic right to education just for having their period. Mary Putnam Jacobi was expertly fighting this, and saving lives, over 140 years ago – showing us exactly how it's done.
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Katharine McCormick
The woman who gave us the pill

The boom in safe, reliable birth control in the 1960s did more than just revolutionise women's sex lives; it changed the way they had their periods. For the first time, women with irregular or difficult periods had a way to control them. Today the NHS still recommends certain types of birth control for period pain.

Birth control didn't begin in the '60s, though; it came to be in part because of Katharine McCormick, who was born in 1875. She was, frankly, a badass, studying biology at MIT as one of the first few female students and campaigning for female students' rights.

After a meeting with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, Katharine decided that women couldn't be in charge of their own lives without being in charge of their reproductive system. She started by smuggling diaphragms from Europe into the US, bringing over more than 1,000. She did this while campaigning for women's rights and caring for her husband, who had been permanently hospitalised for schizophrenia just a few years after their marriage.

When her husband died in 1947, Katharine was left his entire fortune and immediately looked for a way to put it to good use. After meeting the scientists formulating the contraceptive pill, she found out that the drug company wouldn't fund them as they weren't making a profit. Katharine ultimately funded almost all the research herself and the contraceptive pill was approved in 1960, seven years before Katharine died.

Today, the contraceptive pill gives women control over their reproductive rights, including how they manage their periods, and it would never have been possible without Katharine.
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Leona Chalmers
The woman who brought menstrual cups to the mass market

Menstrual cups – a soft, rubber, reusable bell-shaped cup that collects your flow instead of absorbing it – can be controversial. Some women have fallen in love with this little piece of plastic while others don't even want to give it a go. Almost everyone can agree, though, that the more choices women have during their period, the better – and we can thank Leona Chalmers for this particular option.

In 1937, Leona Chalmers patented the very first mass-market menstrual cup design and began distributing them all over the USA. The history of menstrual cups is not exactly clear; Leona herself admitted there were different versions in Europe before hers but she was the first person to make them commercially, and let women easily make the choice to use a cup while menstruating.

Leona, who had previously been an actress, devoted herself to letting women know about this new option for managing their periods. Even during WWII, when rubber was in short supply, she didn't let it end her campaign, restarting her business after the war was over.

Considering the limited options of most women throughout history when on their period, Leona's example of a female businesswoman marketing a brand new sanitary product to women was truly groundbreaking.
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Lee Miller
The woman who first posed for a period advert

A century after Lydia Pinkham had begun to establish a community where women could discuss menstruation, there was still a long way to go. In 1928, 21-year-old Lee Miller became the very first real woman to be shown in an advert for sanitary products. Considering that almost 100 years later, a period advert that actually features blood causes headlines, it shouldn't be surprising that this was an extremely bold move.

Lee Miller, who was working as a model in New York, might not even have been aware her picture was going to be used in the advert but she quickly made waves. Women in the '20s were taught not to tell anyone when they were menstruating, so many feared using new disposable sanitary pads as they thought they would show under their clothes.

The sight of the incredibly elegant Lee, declaring in an advert that she not only menstruated but used sanitary pads was revolutionary, showing that menstruation was normal and shouldn't be hidden away. Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time and a scandal erupted around Lee at the idea she would publicly have anything to do with menstruation.

At first Lee was embarrassed by the advert, but later was reportedly happy to have been a trailblazer. Due to the scandal she moved to Paris, where she met Man Ray, her future mentor and lover. Lee went on to become a world-famous photographer and photojournalist, creating some of the most iconic images of WWII.

Lee Miller is rightly praised for her bravery as a war photographer, but she also showed her courage in leading the way for periods to be represented by actual women and spoken about openly. Ms Miller, we salute you.

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