Rachel Harris explores the history of menstrual hygiene products, including their availability, variety, and use, in Australia during World War II.
Historians have examined many of the privations experienced by Australian women during World War II. Something that has received less attention, however, is the relationship between menstrual history and the significant change in everyday life brought about by the war, especially for working aged women. These developments permanently changed how women managed their periods.*
With the rapidly growing employment of women in war industries and the services, World War II marked the first time that employers and the government had to consider the provision of menstrual hygiene products on a mass scale. Women themselves, now more active in the public sphere, also sought greater comfort and security from menstrual products; some, through their war service, were introduced to the convenience of disposable items for the first time.
Accordingly, historian Carla Pascoe finds that World War II launched a pivotal moment in the Australian history of menstruation, which makes it an interesting case study for this often-overlooked part of women’s historical experience.
A Brief History of Menstrual Hygiene Products
Modern menstrual hygiene products are literally intertwined with world wars. The disposable pad or napkin emerged as a by-product of a new type of highly absorbent bandage made from cellucotton, first used on soldiers in World War I hospitals.
Before this, women had relied solely on home-made rags, made with whatever absorbent material on hand. Washable sanitary towels, attached to a clunky belt or waistband, had been available since the 1880s but were more often used by middle- and upper-class women.
Kotex, a brand name under the American company Kimberley-Clark, sold the first disposable pads in 1918. These innovations took a while to reach Australian shores but by the mid 1920s, there were several well-established brands on the local market. Disposable tampons arrived in 1936, although initial uptake was limited. Tampax, the American company that patented the first disposable tampon in 1933, launched a large advertising campaign to garner women’s interest. It allegedly worked, as by 1944 a survey revealed one quarter of women in the United States used tampons.
Nevertheless, it was common for the average woman in Australia to use homemade products well into the 1950s until mass-market production made disposable items much cheaper.
Menstruation and War Work
World War II occurs at an interesting point in Australian menstrual history: after the creation of disposable menstrual products, but before their widespread uptake. As such, it exacerbated the divide about how women experienced their periods.
Once a month, the Department of Defence provided servicewomen, Australian Red Cross personnel, and Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) members with disposable Modess brand menstrual products. Living away from home, often in barrack-style accommodation in rural areas, limited recreational time, and a long way from chemists or other shops necessitated this move.
But predictably, supply was not straightforward. The taboo surrounding menstruation meant that male bureaucrats of the Department of Defence were seemingly ignorant and oblivious to women’s needs. They initially decided, without input from any women, that servicewomen should receive 12 pads per calendar month. After much confusion and further debate with Australian Women’s Army Service Controller Sybil Irving and her deputy, May Douglas, the Department of Defence conceded, once being informed that menstruation did not run to specific dates and not all women were the same, that 15 pads or one and a half boxes of Modess per lunar month was a more suitable amount.
What happened if women required more pads than this is unknown. For example, AWLA members were entitled to “1 box of Modess per month or the like” (lunar or calendar not specified). However, a first-aid inventory of AWLA hostel sick bays shows none were “officially” stocked with emergency menstrual products, despite concern among members. According to oral histories, working in fields in the heavy rain caused women great anxiety because the rain often soaked through their sanitary pads.
Understanding was also largely absent in munitions factories with their vast, impersonal landscape and all-male management. Women in munitions worked long hours and overtime, sometimes amounting to 10 hours at a stretch, with very short breaks. Many factories also lacked adequate restroom facilities. Absenteeism and medical records from Islington Railway Workshops, another Adelaide factory, shows employers were overly suspicious of women who “wasted time” in factory restrooms or took an unusual number of toilet breaks.
One employee, diagnosed with menorrhagia – heavy menstrual bleeding but described in notes as a complaint of “female weakness” – was supposedly unable to work for three months, so it was decided she be let go altogether. Another woman resigned from Islington after two years’ service after suffering with “severe dysmenorrhea” due to “standing on the job”; not a problem in her previous job as a typist. The doctor of another worker likewise blamed Islington for her dysmenorrhea and deemed her unfit to work.
These examples clearly demonstrate how World War II sits within a transitionary time in menstrual history. These experiences reveal the residual nineteenth-century medical ideology of women as incapacitated while menstruating. With limited understanding from employers and medical professionals and with no access to our modern medications that can alleviate painful period symptoms, women had little choice to suffer with these symptoms.
Women in munitions, unlike those in the services, Australian Red Cross and AWLA, were also not provided with a monthly ration of disposable sanitary pads. Alongside other workers and housewives, they had to make do with what they could find or make.
At home solutions, like this one, likely proliferated, as by 1942 there was a shortage of disposable pads. A Modess notice from October 1942, for example, informed women that delays in shipping meant material for pads was unobtainable and their arrival in Australia “cannot be given preference over war equipment … the shortage must continue”. Fundamentally, this demonstrates that disposable menstrual items were not seen as a necessity; women should make a sacrifice in comfort for the purpose of the war effort.
Not surprisingly, this reality of wartime menstrual hygiene was entirely obscured by most wartime advertisements. Comparing wartime advertisements for menstrual items to other women’s health and beauty products is very interesting. Nearly every other type of item was marketed within the context of women’s war work; Revlon lipstick for servicewomen, Pond’s face cream for the AWLA.
Advertisements for menstrual items, however, most often drew on a non-sensical 1930s glamour world of expensive evening dresses and plenty of leisure time, although references were made to increasing protection and economy. These advertisements were inherently gendered; they reinforced that women were to be discreet, impossibly glamourous, and to keep their menstruating bodies private.
Interestingly, this was not the case for menstrual hygiene products in the United States and Britain, where images of servicewomen and munitions workers appeared in Kotex advertisements. In Australia, this traditional feminine discourse and visual did not abate after the war; in fact, it became more pronounced.
The Taboo Remains
Even today, a general squeamishness remains around periods; it was just in 2020 that Kotex – the manufacturer of the original cellucotton pad – launched an advertising campaign for pads featuring red liquid rather than blue. More people who menstruate, including those recounting memories in oral history interviews, now talk about their memories of menstruation, however a “shroud of silence” still covers the topic.
Indeed, there were scant references to menstruation in the wartime oral histories I consulted for my PhD research. However, ones I did find provided interesting insights, like that of AWAS servicewoman Millie Cameron, who recalled her fellow servicewomen once used their leftover sanitary napkins as shoulder pads during rifle practice.
Cameron’s experiences offer a suitable way to end a discussion on how the history of menstruation and war is intertwined. Examples such as this highlight the ingenuity of women, offering an interesting, gendered juxtaposition between the masculine and feminine.
If the archival record is gleaned enough, numerous references to the history of menstruation can be found. Once found, these examples offer a fascinating insight into women’s everyday lives and the gendered dimensions of their wartime experiences.
* A note on terminology: “woman” in used in this blog post is a reflection of the historical context of the time discussed, whereas “people who menstruate” is the term used for contemporary reflection on this topic.
Rachel Harris graduated with a PhD in History from the University of Adelaide in 2020. Her research specialises in women’s experiences of the World War II home front in Australia, and particularly South Australia. She has been published in numerous scholarly outlets and received many prizes for her research. She is now working in the information management profession.
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