Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the iconic book about puberty and preteen firsts, debuts on the big screen later this month, along with the much anticipated documentary, Judy Blume Forever. Social media has been abuzz with fans spanning generations sharing their own #MargaretMoments.
Here’s mine: When I researched and wrote the book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity in 2017, I delved into the national discourse about menstruation in the United States during the 20th century. Of course, Margaret plays a leading role—but so too, I learned, does the invention and commercialization of modern menstrual products. Ms. proudly offers a brief summary excerpt here.
In the early 1900s, wartime nurses realized that the cellulose bandages they used to dress soldiers’ wounds absorbed blood better than plain cotton. Those bandages became the inspiration behind the first disposable pads. This advance, interestingly, coincided with another key historical development—the fight for women’s suffrage. The year 1920 marked a profound advance on both fronts: the debut of the Kotex brand and the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Tampons with cardboard applicators and menstrual cups arrived just over a decade later. While internal protection wasn’t a particularly new idea—over the centuries, women spanning the globe have used a wide variety of materials including lint, flax, cotton, paper, wool, plants, grass or essentially anything absorbent—it still sparked concerns among those who feared it sexual in nature. As women entered the workforce in greater numbers during World War II, though, practicality won the day.
With the advent of disposable pads and tampons, in particular, public messaging about menstruation was channeled almost exclusively through marketing and advertising campaigns. Discretion was the rule: Packaging was plain and nondescript; separate payment tins on store counters ensured no words or sideways glances would be exchanged.
By the mid-20th century, imagery began to shift—less about secrecy, though modesty still prevailed, with an overt nod to fashion and self-presentation. Names of products were sweet, diminutive: Lillettes and Pursettes. As for the ads, think crisp attire and a parade of confidently demure, always pristine, upscale—and white—women.
Later on, a sportier, more diverse and youthful set joined the fray promoting period protection, often perched on a balance beam or ready to take a quick dive in the pool. The message was always the same: No leaks, no stains. No pain, no problem.
Menstruation management, and the efficacy of products themselves, became embedded in the emerging national ethos of the 1950s. In part, this was a practical result of women assuming a greater role in public life, education and the workforce. It also reflected a distinct commitment to middle-class values—growing reliance on the modern medical establishment, appreciation of and aspiration for high-tech convenience products, and a robust advertising economy. Pads and tampons, and the messaging around them, were reflections of the American lifestyle they portrayed. Simplicity, self-sufficiency and self-control.
Another corporate communication tool of the era: “informational” pamphlets, which made the rounds under the guise of sex education curricula, reaching a captive audience of millions of potential consumers. “Very Personally Yours” was a Kimberly-Clark creation, a booklet that cheerily offered up the facts of life and, conveniently, hawked its Kotex products. It also offered tips for tempering the use of tampons by teens (not coincidentally, the tampon market was dominated by rival, Procter & Gamble).
Soon after, nearly all companies produced versions similarly spun with names like “Accent on You,” by Tampax and “Strictly Feminine,” by Modess (which offered a parental counterpart dramatically entitled, “How Shall I Tell My Daughter?”).
Kimberly-Clark also commissioned companion content: the Walt Disney 10-minute film, The Story of Menstruation. The Disney company was in a postwar slump and had suffered major financial losses after producing its animated masterpiece Fantasia. As a way to boost revenues, it brokered contracts with private corporations. As for the film, more than 100 million students viewed it from its release through the mid-1960s. The whole thing is all very Disney-fied, filled with a cast of chirpy characters—no sign of blood and certainly no mention of sex. Girls are urged to keep exercising, keep clean and keep smiling. It received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and a spot in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress.
By the 1970s, menstruation further integrated into mainstream discourse but, for the first time, through women’s own voices, questions and stories—a remarkably powerful expansion.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret landed in bookstores in 1970. Ms. magazine proudly launched the following year as a New York magazine supplement, and then as its own fiercely independent feminist publication in 1972. (In fact, Blume explicitly names Ms. as an inspiration for her feminism while on camera in Judy Blume Forever.)
Next up, the Boston Women’s Health Collective released the groundbreaking first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1973, one of the most influential how-to handbooks ever published.
In so many ways, the sum of these publications was and has continued to be both radically life-changing and sanity-saving. Each succeeded in embracing many of the facets of menstruation as a topic of personal and political relevance.
It was Margaret, though, that uniquely enabled young readers to engage in pragmatic period talk. It also adopts much of the “products as progress” sensibility of the time, as seen through the characters’ fascination with and commitment to modern period management. Branded pads (“Teenage Softies”) and training bras (“Gro-bra”)— and a sex-segregated school assembly for “the talk”—all feature prominently.
I loved my purple- and orange-covered copy when I read it as a fifth grader in the late 1970s. I revisited Margaret around 15 years ago when my older daughter was the same age. I bought the latest edition for her and was actually stunned and saddened that one key relic from the original had been scrubbed: Margaret’s sweet pink sanitary belt was replaced with pads with sticky strips. (Spoiler alert: no belts in the movie, either.)
For much of the 20th century, pads required a utility belt-like contraption to keep them in place; they were the brainchild of a Black woman inventor, Mary Beatrice Kenner. Self-stick pads didn’t arrive on the scene until the early 1970s. Even when I read the book for the first time, I’d never seen a belt in real life, though I was intimately aware of its every mechanism thanks to Margaret. The indelible imagery of her nervously lingering in her local drugstore to choose one and her grateful exuberance when she finally gets to use it for real—that belt was the source of a visceral, colorful memory, not just for me, but for a generation of readers.
Removing it from the story was not without controversy apparently. Said Blume of the maxi pad upgrade in a 1998 interview: “Some people said, ‘Oh no, it’s a classic. You can’t mess around with a classic.’ And I said, ‘Look, we’re not messing around with the character … We’re just messing around with the equipment.’”
New York magazine columnist and author Rebecca Traister wrote a 2006 Salon essay lamenting the modernization of the supplies—and summing up the true magic of Margaret:
“It’s hard to imagine, but while we’ve been busy growing up, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has become a historical novel, one that gives its readers more than just a mirror held up to their own specific conditions. It offers them the thrill of seeing themselves, even in characters who live in different times, in different worlds.”
Margaret’s is a story we need today more than ever—including in Blume’s home state of Florida, where book banning is rampant and first periods were recently the subject of a contentious legislative hearing, thanks to a regressive sex education bill that would prohibit students younger than sixth grade from learning or talking about menstruation.
Blume herself initially weighed in with a simple tweet: “Sorry, Margaret.” She later issued a full-throated rebuke, wishing lawmakers “good luck” in their attempts to police girls in elementary school from discussing periods.
Indeed. As Blume’s writing has proven, more books, more discussion— and more visibility for periods— is surely our best way forward.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.