Humbled and Hopeful: The Final Installation of PERIOD’s August Book of the Month Club
New Blood by Chris Bobel
Today, I finished this month’s PERIOD Book of the Month, Chris Bobel’s New Blood, and my head was left swirling with questions which will surely consume my thoughts beyond the last day of August.
These are reflections mostly about PERIOD’s work and the work of others in the menstrual sphere, but more than this, I was left with bigger questions about movements beyond the menstrual movement—how they form, whose voices are heard, whose are left out, and the fate of these movements in the mass-mediated cyberspaces of the future. Just small, mid-week ponderings. The usual.
One of Bobel’s greatest strengths lies in her ability to write as though she is the platform, rather than the director. The movements, activists, and scholars of the past, present, and future seem to speak through Bobel. The author thoughtfully pastes the disparate pieces together, revealing a complex yet wholly recognizable figure: The Menstrual Activist. Bobel seamlessly weaves her analysis with the chants, songs, and rallying cries from the different sectors of feminism. These voices intertwine to reveal the matrix of modern-day menstrual activists. Bobel rightly acknowledges that she is both privileged and constrained as a member of the dominant class of white female influencers in the menstrual sphere, and remains intensely aware of her place outside of the often less visible spheres of black and queer menstruators.
I borrow the term menstruators from Bobel herself, who introduces the radical potential of gender queering as a hallmark of the Third-Wave. New Blood is a study in battles between feminisms, movements, and disparate agendas. Even the title, a pun on menstruation as well as an endearing nod to the new generation of third-wave feminists, encapsulates Bobel’s far-reaching analysis of overlapping movements and histories. Bobel magically illuminates these muddled debates to reveal what the underlying similarities and differences say about the nature of feminism itself. Just as Bobel recognizes that the menstrual movement must make room for a variety of voices, she exemplifies this call to action.
New Blood has left me feeling both inspired and frustrated. Bobel blurs the boundaries of the binaristic debates that have driven major chasms into the menstrual movement and feminism more broadly. Yet, New Blood still leaves the reader wondering, whose side am I on? Am I a Judith Butler cult follower, advocating for complete gender instability and a rejection of categorical thinking? Or do I insist on sexual affirmation in order to draw upon my inherent mystical power as a distinctly female-bodied activist? Am I more political, or am I more personal?
To be clear, I believe Bobel fully intends to leave the reader swimming in an existential crisis (breathe, it’s only Wednesday). Bobel scrutinizes as much as she illuminates, drawing more questions than clear-cut conclusions. As the author asserts, “If race is an imperfect yet still necessary category, can we say the same for gender in the context of feminist activism? This question is much easier to entertain in the abstract, and that is precisely why I choose to pose it in the context of a social movement centered on the material body.” Bobel employs the menstrual movement as a lens rather than an ends. In an effort to view the greater spheres of feminism and activism, Bobel draws upon concrete examples from this real-time movement.
The Menstrual Activist, in all of his, hers, and their contradictions, stands as a symbol of these battles—the ahistoric, generational, sexualized, racialized, radical, and feminist-spiritual conflicts that rage within one movement, within one person. For example, the feminist-spirituals, who account for a little less than half of the menstrual activists, define their work as “a prayerful state, a time of inner activism.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, the radical menstrual activists focus on more outward systemic issues, deeming the feminist-spiritual’s “inner activism” a privileged and frivolous ideal.
And so we stand divided. Yet despite these seemingly endless battles, I am still left with a spark of inspiration. In fact, I am left feeling hopeful.
There was a point in Bobel’s book when I couldn’t take the tension any longer; as a menstrual activist and feminist, I felt the grip of frustration and helplessness tightening as Bobel dipped in and out of the endless challenges, contradictions, and conflicts in the menstrual sphere. But just as quickly as I fell into this abyss, Bobel lifted me to my feet with one simple revelation.
As a brutally honest and refreshingly self-reflexive scholar, Bobel unveils the elephant in the room: the overwhelming whiteness of the Menstrual Movement. Bobel goes further to complicate this picture by asking how and why the movement came to look so white. The author explains how the Menstrual Movement represents the challenges to raced dimensions of doing public activism around the body, and goes further to explore why the movement has simultaneously repelled black activists and somehow attracted queer activists. Bobel concludes, “If transgressing boundaries is, in Reitman’s words, ‘already accepted and expected’ in queer communities, it makes sense that the menstrual activism movement, itself rooted in transgression, would serve as a gateway of sorts for high numbers of queer activists. In contrast, the politics of sexual respectability may serve as a barrier to African American women’s access to the movement (and possibly to other women of color as well).” This conclusion exemplifies Bobel’s prowess as a researcher—she asks the tough questions and opens herself, and the reader, to the subtle answers that may escape the rest of us in our blind assumptions.
What is most intriguing about this conclusion is that Bobel notably does not attribute the menstrual movement’s racial homogeneity to the obvious answers: some sort of racialized “hierarchy of needs” or simply disparate racialized consciousnesses. These are certainly major factors that perpetuate the overwhelming whiteness of the menstrual movement. But the key in Bobel’s words is the enduring hope that whispers through the chasm. Bobel implies that despite the intra-movement fissions, menstruation, as a universal, embodied, natural bodily function, can somehow, someday, unite people. Although African American women experience a barrier to access the movement, this is notably not a barrier to the movement altogether.
A barrier to access implies opportunity. It implies room to invite, reform, and unite. Without a critical and self-reflexive moment of pause, the menstrual movement is destined to have, in Bobel’s determination, “little influence over even fewer people.”
As we continue listening and reflecting, we cannot lose sight of the one thing holding us all together: our experience of menstruation and our radical hope to change the world’s view on menstruation. And this, Bobel assures, is the glue holding both sides of the menstrual sphere, both waves of feminism, together. Menstruation is in no way a universalizable issue, but it certainly is a universal one. Perhaps then, the question is not, “Will you join us?” but rather, “Can we join you?”