PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE.
A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice
By Anita Diamant
“Mad cow disease.” “The curse.” “Aunt Flo.” “Little sister.” “The English have landed.” Across centuries and continents, the euphemisms for menstruation vary from descriptive stand-ins to metaphors that ascribe shame and mandate silence. Inspired by the Academy Award-winning short documentary of the same title, produced by the American nonprofit the Pad Project, Anita Diamant’s “Period. End of Sentence.” focuses on cultural and religious attitudes about menstruation, period poverty and humanitarian efforts to make menstrual products accessible to anyone who needs them.
Organized into five sections that arc toward making visible what has often been regarded as unspeakable, the book begins with an exploration of the stigmas that surround menstruation, showing how harmful euphemisms such as “the curse” have been encouraged by communities, codified into religious laws and legitimized by the medical establishment.
Throughout, Diamant — the author behind such novels as “The Red Tent” and “The Boston Girl” — draws on historical examples that are at once horrifying and ridiculous. Writing in first-century Rome, Pliny the Elder claimed that contact with menstrual blood would bring on an oddly specific series of catastrophes, from souring wine and killing crops to rusting metal and dulling ivory. “A horrible smell fills the air,” the scholar wrote. “To taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.” The imagery has persisted: Centuries later, in the 1920s, the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet agreed that, in Diamant’s words, “the touch of menstruating women caused cut flowers to wilt.” That the respected publication “doubled down” with yet another outlandish claim in 1974 (“a permanent wave would not ‘take’ in the hair of menstruating women”) is testament to how deeply rooted superstitions about menstruation can be.
“Period. End of Sentence.” is most impactful where it highlights how various forms of solidarity have evolved around an experience that had long been marked by shame. Diamant posits celebratory traditions among the Indigenous Maori people of New Zealand and others as proof that humiliation is not a universal, let alone necessary, part of menstruating. “Welcome, come forward,” a Maori poem reads, “The potential for life, / The menstrual blood; / Let life grow, / Life itself, it lives.” Diamant shows how such acts of defiance and kindness across disparate societies provide respite for people who have been confronted with situations and practices meant to shame them into silence about menstruation. Realizing that there was no blessing in Judaism for menstruation, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein created her own, removing the “not” from the following line in the daily morning liturgy: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God … who has not made me a woman.” When a South African taxi driver named Kamogelo Mampatla Betha discovered toilet paper and bloodstains in his back seat, “he realized that some of the girls couldn’t afford pads,” Diamant writes. “So he bought some and left them out on his dashboard, free to all.”