The History of Menstrual Activism


First-Ever Tampons:  


Women in ancient Rome made their tampons out of wool. Women from Indonesian made their tampons out of vegetable fibres. Women from parts of Africa made their tampons out of rolls of grass. Women from Hawaii made their tampons out of the furry part of a native fern. Women from Japan made their tampons out of paper and secured them with bandages, which had to be changed 10-12 times a day. Women from Asia, made their tampons out of grasses, mosses and other plants, which is still used by some Asian women today. 

The oldest printed medical document refers to the use of these types of DIY tampons by Egyptian women as early as the 15th century. However, some of the earliest tampons - recognizable as we know them today (intra-vaginal devices made from a string and a wad of something absorbent) were first documented in Europe in the 18th and 19th century. 


History of Menstrual Activism:  


Phase 1


By 1969: A small group of Boston women connected at a women’s health seminar and began discussing their experiences with doctors (mostly negative) and their knowledge of their bodies (mostly inadequate). Thereafter, the Boston Women Health Book Collective (BWHBC) was founded. 


By 1970s: An increasing number of women began to question the safety of menstrual products as well as society's suppression and belief of menstruation as a shameful process. 


By 1970s: These Boston women went on to form The Doctor’s Group, to research various topics related to women’s health. They combined their discoveries and created Women & Their Bodies (138-page).  


By 1973: The newly formed BWHBC, consisting of 12 women, decided to expand the content of their current book and to explore additional topics and therefore, they published the book Our Bodies, Ourselves (276-page). This book discussed unmentionable topics - orgasms, the clitoris, the pill, abortion, and more - openly and honestly. Now in its eighth edition, the book has sold four million copies and has been translated into 19 languages including Braille and has reached an estimated 20 million readers worldwide.  


By 1900s: Most women were using commercial menstrual products (pads and tampons). Pads were available since 1896 and tampons since 1934. In the Boston women's previous and smaller book, Women & Their Bodies, there is no evidence of resistance to these products nor to the menstrual taboo in general. 


By 1972: Menstruation-positive feminist, Emily Culpepper, grew fascinated with menstruation while studying ancient religions. Her research inspired her to “help to create more positive health-promoting attitudes". She teamed up with members of the BWHBC to offer workshops locally and nationally, which began to facilitate the rise of menstrual consciousness. 


By 1973: In the Boston women's newer and bigger book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, menstruation is given its four-and- a-half-page subsection in Chapter Two: The Anatomy and Physiology of Reproduction and Sexuality. Tampons were positioned as the most obvious and sensible choice of menstrual product. Two alternatives are introduced: the absorbent polymer Tassaway (a disposable menstrual cup) and "period extraction" (a type of manual vacuum aspiration technique, developed by feminist activists, which removes uterine contents through the cervix and therefore passes the entire menses out at once). Period extraction allowed access to early abortion without needing medical assistance or legal approval.  


By 1974: A small, woman-owned business introduced natural sea sponges, to be used as tampons, which expanded the number of alternative menstrual options available, suggesting that at least some women were looking for alternatives to conventional femcare. 


By 1976: A group of three women, published The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, which addressed taboos, myths, rituals, and the symbolism of menstruation from a feminist perspective. This book devoted a full chapter to the menstrual products industry, titled, Rags to Riches. They explained that menstrual fluid is odourless until exposed to air – highlighting the uselessness of scented tampons and critiqued sanitary napkins as “a breeding ground for bacteria”. They asked why superior products were not available and complained that no company has “made a tampon that a woman with a heavy flow can wear with complete security”.  


By 1975: Procter & Gamble (P & G), begun test marketing Rely, a super-absorbent tampon. One Rely tampon could absorb an entire woman’s menses. Women reported vomiting and diarrhoea after using a free sample of Rely. Due to tampons being highly unregulated for their safety, a lethal outbreak of Toxic Shock Syndrome occurred, which P & G’s Rely tampon was implicated in, resulting in the illness and death of many women. This caused consumers and the government to take a second, more scrutinizing look at the femcare industry.  


By 1976: the "Medical Device Amendments" was passed to ensure the safety and efficacy of medical devices. Since tampons are considered a medical device, the FDA could now actively investigate the safety and efficacy of tampons.


In 1978: An informational sheet circulated which accused tampon manufacturers of their use of various chemicals and cotton-rayon blends and accused manufacturers of “ignoring requests for a list of all the substances contained in each brand of tampon”. It also raised issues such as shredded fibres that get left behind in the vagina as well as the prevention of draining and discharge, and overdrying. 


Phase 2 


By 1980s: The greatest menstruation-related topic was Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal infection, caused by toxins released by bacteria (most commonly streptococci and staphylococci). TSS was extremely rare before 1979 but cases increased after P & G introduced Rely, a super-absorbent synthetic tampon.   


By 1983: More than 2,200 cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome had been reported, due to the sudden rise in cases and under extreme pressure from the FDA, P & G voluntarily withdrew Rely from the market. The FDA responded to this rise in TSS and subsequent product recall by upgrading tampons to a class II medical device, meaning that tampons now required “special controls” such as performance standards and postmarket surveillance. Due to new regulations, tampon manufacturers stoped using polyester foam in their products - which is what makes it so super absorbent. 


By 1981: Journalist Nancy Friedman published Everything You Must Know About Tampons, which discusses the tampon–TSS link and alternative products. 


By 1982: Women activists, insisted that the FDA should force manufacturers to label tampons with TSS warnings. The FDA denied this but instead enforced that all tampon boxes should advise consumers to use the lowest absorbency tampons to meet their needs. In response, women activists started a 10-year campaign to standardize absorbency ratings against which all brands can be accurately compared. 


By 1984: In an updated version of the book Our Bodies Ourselves, for the first time, women with disabilities were included in the discussion of femcare options, with the following acknowledgement: Those of us who have limited sensation in the lower part of our bodies or are confined to wheelchairs often find all of these methods either irritating or difficult to use. There is no satisfactory solution to this yet. 


By 1987: Tampons began losing their popularity due to their association with Toxic Shock Syndrome. As an alternative option, Lou Crawford began manufacturing the Keeper, a reusable menstrual cup made from natural gum rubber. 


Phase 3


By 1989: The latest research was published on the dangers of super-absorbent tampons, which instilled fear of tampons and helped to create and maintain a market for alternative products in the United Kingdom. 


By 1989: Feminist activists, published the Sanitary Protection Scandal, which highlighted the dangers of dioxin, a toxic byproduct produced due to the chlorine-bleaching process used in the manufacture of both pads and tampons. Dioxin is a carcinogen and is associated with causing damage to the liver, skin and reproductive organs. Within 6 weeks, all the major British sanitary producers had pledged to eliminate the use of the chlorine-bleaching process.  


By 1989: Natracare, a manufacturer of nonchlorine-bleached pads and tampons opened for business. 


By 1989: In the United States, Lou Crawford, began manufacturing the "Version B Keeper", a smaller pre childbirth version of the menstrual cup. 


Between 1992 and 1999: 15 alternative femcare businesses were founded - marking a wave of alternative product development. 


By March 1990: The FDA formally implemented two criteria for tampon manufacturers: They must (1) advise consumers to use the lowest possible effective absorbency, and they must (2) standardize their ranges of absorbency.


The FDA released a study that showed no cancer risk from dioxin in tampons, with data supplied by the femcare industry. This study did not include testing tampons with the intent to discover how vaginal contact might differ from other types of skin contact. 


Are Tampons Toxic? 


A woman may use approximately 11,000 tampons in her lifetime (if she uses tampons only). Therefore, it is important and empowering to know how tampons are manufactured and their potential negative impact upon your health and wellbeing, especially since the vagina is the most absorbent part of the female anatomy.  


Most tampons are either made from cotton or a mix of cotton and rayon. 


Rayon is made of cellulose fibres derived from wood pulp. Rayon is used because it is highly absorbent and cost-effective.  

Since rayon is made from wood pulp, it needs to be purified to remove any pesticides and other harmful chemicals used in its creation. To purify rayon, its cellulose fibres are bleached using chlorine.  


Using chlorine to bleach rayon creates dioxins – which is a type of persistent environmental pollutant (one of the most dangerous chemicals on the planet).  


Due to the toxic effects of dioxins, the FDA has approved two new bleaching methods for purifying rayon. These methods include; the “elemental chlorine-free" process – which uses chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine gas however, this process still produces dioxin-like compounds. The “totally chlorine-free” process uses hydrogen peroxide and is, therefore, totally dioxin free.  

Cotton is grown, cultivated and sent to factories for processing. Cotton is not perfectly white (as tampons are) and therefore, can also go through this same fibre purification process as rayon, to look “cleaner” and more “sanitary”. Further issues arise when the cotton used is non-organic, resulting in tampons containing chemical pesticides.  


Other chemicals detected in tampons include; odour neutralizers, dyes, pesticides, and fragrances. 

To avoid chemical exposure, the best option would be organic, chlorine-free, fragrance-free, non-applicator tampons.  


Environmental Impact of Tampons:  


Tampons are not reusable nor are they recyclable and therefore, they create an enormous amount of waste. The average woman throws away up to 140 kg of feminine hygiene-related products in her lifetime. A single tampon takes up to six months to decompose and the plastic applicators can take centuries longer to decompose than the lifespan of the woman who used it. The absorbent core itself is made of cotton fibres and cotton requires a large amount of water, pesticides and fertilizer to farm. When tampons are flushed down the toilet, they end up in our oceans, releasing chemical dioxins into the water. Tampons may also cause suffocation or the death of marine animals if ingested. 


Tampons and Toxic Shock Syndrome:  


Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but potentially fatal condition caused by bacteria (streptococci and staphylococci), which enter the body and release harmful toxins. The infection causes rapid deterioration, organ failure or eventually death, if not treated immediately. 




Fever and high temperature 

Flu-like symptoms: headache, chills, muscle ache, sore throat, cough etc 

Feeling and/or being sick 


A widespread, sunburn-like rash 

Redness in the whites of your eyes, lips and tongue 

Dizziness and/or fainting 

Difficulty breathing 


How To Reduce Your Risk: 


Always use a tampon with the lowest absorbency suitable for your level of menstrual flow. 

Switch tampons with sanitary pads and panty liners during your period. 

Wash your hands before and after inserting a tampon. 

Change tampons regularly every 4-8 hours.  

Do not use tampons when you are not menstruating.