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Gender and Education

ISSN: 0954-0253 (Print) 1360-0516 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cgee20

Material flows: patriarchal structures and the menstruating teacher

Kristidel McGregor

To cite this article: Kristidel McGregor (2018): Material flows: patriarchal structures and the menstruating teacher, Gender and Education, DOI: 10.1080/09540253.2018.1451624

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2018.1451624

Published online: 15 Mar 2018.

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Material flows: patriarchal structures and the menstruating teacher

Kristidel McGregor

Education Studies, University of Oregon, College of Education, Eugene, OR, USA

ABSTRACT

In recent educational discourse, public schools can be seen as sites of feminine power, as the majority of teachers are female and some gains have been made in girls’ school achievement. However, some theorists argue that schools are too feminine, and thus boys’ achievement is at risk. This article refutes this claim, and shows that schools are still fundamentally patriarchal structures. Drawing on feminist new materialisms thinkers, particularly Barad’s ideas of intra-action and posthuman performativity in relation with Alaimo’s concept of the material memoir, this article considers the experiences of the menstruating teacher, and explores how new materialisms can help researchers trace the complex, ongoing ontological relationship between the teacher and the materiality of the school.

ARTICLE HISTORY

Received 29 April 2017 Accepted 1 March 2018

KEYWORDS

New materialisms; Barad; menstruation; school bathrooms; teacher experiences

Introduction

Some days were just… (her voice trails off). I learned to not wear light colors. Something was

going to happen, to leak through, no matter what I did. I would try, but sometimes just had to

say, well, whoops. Well, I hope the students don’t notice (uncomfortable laugh). (taken from an

informal interview with a high school teacher)

I’m standing in front of twenty-five twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, trying to keep my back

straight and my face calm, to keep answering questions about the assignment, to keep

class moving. Despite the ultra-sized tampon and the thick, uncomfortable pad, I can feel a

soft pushing, an opening and flowing between my legs and warm wetness spreading down

my thighs. I’m glad I wore black, and horrified, and trying with all my might to appear as if

everything is fine, to answer student questions, while simultaneously wondering what I’ll

do if someone notices. (the author’s personal account)

From afar, American public schools could be seen as sites of female power. After

decades of discussion about challenges traditionally faced by girls in schools, school

systems have made efforts to create a more equitable environment. In fact, a 2004

report by the United States National Center of Educational Statistics claims that ‘females

are now doing as well as or better than males on many indicators of achievement and edu-

cational attainment.’ Recently the debate has turned to discussions of male students as

being disadvantaged, as they navigate a system of mostly female teachers who are

rewarding so-called feminine styles of learning (Carrington and Mcphee 2008; Foster,

© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

CONTACT Kristidel McGregor [email protected]

GENDER AND EDUCATION, 2018

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Kimmel, and Skelton 2001; Hartley and Sutton 2013; Van Houtte 2004). This brings up an

arguably important question: are schools dominated by the feminine? Or is it possible that

despite the undeniable female presence and some closing of ‘achievement gaps,’ schools

are still built on distinctly patriarchal structures? One place to explore this question is by

exploring the materiality of the schools themselves, and how that materiality impacts the

embodied experiences of female teachers.

The taboo nature of the topic at hand makes traditional methodologies difficult. There

is little to no research that directly investigates or discusses school bathrooms and the

menstruation of students and teachers. I see this silence as not just a lack of research,

but as an example of what Lisa Mazzei calls a ‘desiring silence.’ According to Mazzei

‘the “desire” functioning to produce silent discourses is one that aims to maintain a

status quo that is in part a gendered response’ (Mazzei 2011). In this case, the staus

quo to be maintained is that of profound shame around menstruation, and the assump-

tion that a menstruating body is not a ‘normal’ body. This desire creates a silence around

menstruation that is not just a lack of research, but an active reinforcing of hegemonic

masculinity.

This paper, then, seeks to break that silence and open possibilities for new kinds of

research and discussion. In order to do so, I draw on

‘data’ from several, often non-traditional sources. This is not a traditional research project as

such, but rather is part auto-ethnography, part narrative, part feminist phenomenological

investigation, and part new materialist inquiry. I hope that by embracing Jackson and

Mazzei’s call for researchers to ‘think differently about how they collect, analyze, and represent

meaning using the voices of others, as well as their own.’ (2008, 4)

I can open new ways of thinking about menstruation, gender, and what is ‘normal’ in

schools, and lay a foundation for further research and inquiry.

In the first section of this essay, I discuss recent arguments regarding gender inequality

in schools. These ‘common sense’ accounts paint schools and classrooms as sites of female

power. In fact, some go so far as to contend that schools have become so feminized that

boys’ schooling is at risk. I disagree, and show that schools are still a powerful site of patri-

archal discourse through the way hegemonic masculinity and the feminization of the

teaching profession are taken up among educational researchers and policy-makers.

In the next section, I consider how the work of material feminists could trouble the

gender binary described in the previous section, and allow for new ways of thinking

about the material structures of schools. Material feminists such as Barad, Bennet, and

Alaimo have long highlighted the importance of challenging the taken-for-granted dual-

isms that seem to be ‘natural’ to Western thinking, such as the male/female binary (Alaimo

2010; Barad 2007; Bennett 2010; Kirby 2011). I draw on Barad’s concept of intra-action,

which describes how all matter (including humans) is caught up in entanglements of

co-constitutive, shifting agentic force. When I decenter the human and focus on material

accounts of bodies and matter and time, I can begin to see how the material spaces of

schools act, and how teachers with bodies that menstruate are produced in this space.

In the final section, I present autoethnographic and narrative accounts of menstruating

teachers, which I argue disclose the inherent patriarchal structure of schools, both material

and temporal. These patriarchal structures persist despite (or perhaps because of) the fem-

inine nature of the profession. But if we collapse the mind/body dualism, we can perhaps

2 K. MCGREGOR

begin to think, with Alaimo and Hackman, that ‘perhaps the meat of the body is thinking

material?’ (Alaimo and Hekman 2008, 221). These fleshy intra-actions of teacher and bath-

room, hallway and clothing, blood and students can help us understand how the material

structures of schools are still based on the patriarchal idea of a male body as normal.

Bathroom talk is common among teachers – as a former teacher, I still joke with others

about how long I can wait to urinate, my body disciplined by my years in the classroom.

But one cannot ‘hold’ menstrual blood, and menstruation jokes are not considered fit for

decent company. Even among teachers, there is little open discussion of menstruating

while teaching, and the experience is defined by shame and fear of disclosure. But as a

former teacher myself, I can recall my own experiences of menstruating while teaching.

I also can ask my old friends and colleagues about their experiences, sharing my own

stories and hearing theirs, told in whispers behind closed doors. This non-traditional

data, thought with feminist phenomenological accounts through a new materialist lens,

provides my somewhat unconventional methodical framework. I use accounts of menstru-

ating while teaching, both from my own experience and the stories of others, to illustrate

the way that the temporal structure of schools – the bell schedule – combines with the

material/spatial structure – the location/type of bathrooms – to create a lived bodily

experience that is remarkably unwelcoming to menstruating bodies. The materiality of

these school structures produces female teachers who have an intense awareness of

both the struggle to conform to an unwelcoming material environment, and a deep

desire to conceal all evidence of menstruation in the face of a constant threat of

shame. The assumption of a masculine body is seen as the norm, and the needs of a men-

struating body, therefore, as abnormal, is built into the very structures of school.

The feminine/masculine binary and schooling

America today limits girls’ development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them

traumatized. (Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, 1994)

When school is not a good fit for a boy, when his normal expressions of energy and action

routinely meet with negative responses from teachers and classmates, he stews in feelings

of failure – feelings of sadness, shame, and anger, which can be very hard to detect

beneath that brash exterior. (Dan Kindlon, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of

Boys, 1999)

The question of gender bias in schools is an old debate. Early research in the 1970s

focused on girls, particularly in math and science, whose ‘poor performances were attrib-

uted to a lack of certain qualities, such as low confidence, high anxiety and fear of success’

(Vantieghem, Vermeersch, and Van Houtte 2014, 359). Girls’ compliance with teachers’

requests was seen to be a passive and inferior learning style, while boy’s more active

demeanor was styled as learning for understanding (Byrne 1978). Furthermore, research-

ers pointed out that there were fewer good role models for girls in textbooks, and that

boys dominated classroom time and teachers’ attentions (Vantieghem, Vermeersch, and

Van Houtte 2014, 359).

In the 1990s, however, the discussions around gender bias in the classroom began to

shift. New research was showing that girls were, contrary to expectations, outperforming

the boys in several important areas: boys were repeating more classes, getting lower

grades, dropping out more often, and had lower enrollment in higher education

GENDER AND EDUCATION 3

(Foster, Kimmel, and Skelton 2001). The shifting interests of researchers in education was

reflected in popular culture by the best-selling 1994 book on adolescent girls’ difficulties,

Reviving Ophelia; which was shortly followed by the 1999 account of boys’ educational

peril in Raising Cain (Kindlon and Thompson 1999; Pipher 1994). By the turn of the

century, the question of gender research in education predominately became ‘what

about the boys?’ (Foster, Kimmel, and Skelton 2001, 1).

One argument with disturbing implications that has arisen in response to concerns

about boys’ underachievement is that learning itself may be gendered, that boys ‘are natu-

rally interested in sports, action, and technology and need to be given clear goals and

feedback that will challenge them but also make them feel competent and in control’

(Watson, Kehler, and Martino 2010, 358). The argument goes that these qualities that

define boys and girls – masculinity and femininity – are understood to be innate, so edu-

cational success rests upon acknowledging and accommodating these differences (Rowan

et al. 2001; Van Houtte 2004). Many educational thinkers and researchers have pointed out

the danger in this kind of essentialist thinking (Carrington and Mcphee 2008; Vantieghem,

Vermeersch, and Van Houtte 2014), but it remains a part of the ‘common sense’ conversa-

tions around how to best educate children.

Another recent focus for research on how gender impacts schools centers on the idea

of hegemonic masculinity, ‘the dominant form of masculinity in a certain context, which is

superior in the gender order’ and thus ‘must define itself against what it is not, what it is

superior to’ (Vantieghem, Vermeersch, and Van Houtte 2014, 361). Researchers have

mapped out ranked hierarchies of masculinity and femininity that influence school per-

formance, with femininity firmly in the subordinate, undesirable position. Thus, femininity

and the ‘lesser’ forms of masculinity are associated with school achievement, particularly in

the areas of literacy and social sciences. School achievement, or so the rhetoric goes, is not

consistent with hegemonic masculinity, so boys resist doing well (Hartley and Sutton 2013;

Van Houtte 2004). This understanding of the role masculinity plays in schools is under-

stood as a small part of the patriarchal discourse that takes place outside of schools, in

the larger culture.

Inside this discussion of hegemonic masculinity, schooling, and gendered learning

styles, researchers began to consider the ‘feminization’ of teaching. Across the Anglo-

Saxon world (USA, Canada, UK, New Zealand, and Australia) teaching is a female-domi-

nated profession, and has been for most of its history. If one thinks of learning styles as

gendered, then the ‘role-model’ argument can be made: that boys need to have male tea-

chers who are role models, to whom boys can relate, and who share similar, masculine

interests. Under this model, ‘boys’ literacy underachievement continues to be attributed

to female teachers’ failure to accommodate boys’ interests and learning styles’ (Watson,

Kehler, and Martino 2010, 356). According to this kind of thinking, the female-dominated

teaching profession has ‘feminized’ school, and thus made learning unwelcoming to boys

(Foster, Kimmel, and Skelton 2001; Hartley and Sutton 2013; Van Houtte 2004).

While this type of thinking is presented as a ‘common sense’ part of the educational

debate, very little actual research supports the idea of a feminized school, and many

researchers have challenged the wisdom of this essentialist thinking (Carrington and

Mcphee 2008; Foster, Kimmel, and Skelton 2001; Rowan et al. 2001; Vantieghem, Ver-

meersch, and Van Houtte 2014). However, ‘despite these empirical challenges to the

4 K. MCGREGOR

role model argument, policy-makers continue to look upon same-gender matching as a

cure-all for male underachievement’ (Carrington and Mcphee 2008, 115).

Several things happen if we accept both the notion that learning is gendered, and that

schools have been ‘feminized’ by having female teachers. Under this model, schooling and

education itself is devalued in the hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity, because of its

association with the feminine. Additionally, the ‘common sense’ conclusion could be

that these feminized schools that are so alienating for boys and male teachers should,

therefore, be empowering for girls and female teachers, almost by definition. This has

the effect of reinforcing the patriarchal ideas and the status rankings of hegemonic mas-

culinity in relation to schools. The thinking goes like this: those who are masculine and

high status do not do well (or need to do well) in school; school is a place for women

and lesser men. The argument is, schools do not need to worry about girls’ achievement,

because school is feminized, so the girls must be doing fine. Following in the same logic,

because school is feminized, it is a site of female teachers’ power, but this power is not

threatening to hegemonic masculinity because of the devalued nature of education itself.

In this way, the discussion of gender and school achievement serves to reinforce and

reiterate the hegemonic power of patriarchy even as it asserts schools as feminine

spaces. How can I think outside of this destructive, masculine/feminine binary? Is there

somewhere to rest my theoretical lever, to begin to pry open the binary of masculine

or feminine and refocus on the material conditions of schools themselves, and of the

bodies that learn and work there? I argue that new materialism can be the theory that

helps researchers reframe this discussion, and see what has been missed by traditional,

discourse-based arguments. One place where to begin to see some of what traditional

research can miss is in the intra-action of the material spaces and temporal structures

of schools with the bodies of those very people who have ‘feminized’ schools: the

teachers.

New materialisms, lived bodily experience, and the ‘material memoir’

In the accounts of menstruating teachers that follow, I detail the material intra-actions of

teachers and spaces, drawing on personal accounts to trace the effects of spatial and tem-

poral mattering on and with bodies in schools. Working this methodology is tricky – there

is tension between considering experience as data and thinking with new materialisms.

These two methods have very conflicting ideas about subjectivity. To navigate this

tension, I will consider Barad’s ideas of intra-action and posthuman performativity in

relation with Alaimo’s concept of the material memoir, as I begin to articulate a posthu-

manly performative subjectivity.

As I begin this work, it is important that I remember thinking with newmaterialisms pro-

duces a very different approach to my data. In these accounts, both my own and those told

by other teachers, the humans are not treated as the only site of agency, but rather as a co-

producer of the particular enactment being described. These are what Jackson and Mazzei

call ‘knowing in being,’ (Jackson and Mazzei 2012, 122) accounts of bodily encounters with

matter. This is a very different account of subjectivity, and will produce different results.

First, I draw on Barad’s idea of intra-action to explore how a new materialist approach

affects the very idea of subjectivity. For Barad, the world is made up of ‘ontologically primi-

tive relations,’ relationships that don’t assume the prior existence of independent ‘things’

GENDER AND EDUCATION 5

that then come together and act upon one another (Barad 2003, 815). For Barad, things,

including people, only exist in their intra-actions ( 2003, 2007). The shift from inter-acting

with the world to intra-acting highlights the importance of this move. The term ‘inter’

implies the previous independent existence of the things that are acting; intra-action

instead posits an ongoing co-constitution of the world, with nothing existing previous

to, outside of, or independent of this ongoing relational ontology. When I consider how

bodies meet the material spaces of schools, using intra-action, I am considering how

these things – the embodied teacher, the bathroom space, the menstrual product

slipped up a sleeve – are part of an ongoing entanglement, and it is this entanglement

that produces subjectivity.

This view of subjectivity is fundamentally different from the traditional humanist

subject. Barad posits a relational ontology that displaces subjectivity into a broad,

always shifting and becoming agentic dance of human and nonhuman. There is some-

thing useful to be found, though, in this tension; as Barad says, ‘if we follow disciplinary

habits of tracing disciplinary-defined causes through to the corresponding disciplinary-

defined effects, we will miss all the crucial intra-actions among these forces that fly in

the face of any specific set of disciplinary concerns’ (Barad 2003, 810). Following Barad’s

model, I cease to consider subjectivity as something that is fixed and predetermined,

always already a part of each human being. I think of agency as something that is not

exclusively reserved for the human, and something that emerges from and is made poss-

ible by intra-actions with the world. Thus, for Barad, individualist subjectivity is replaced

with connected subjectivity – we are not being-in-the-world so much as we are being-

with-the-world. The account of experience, then, is not how discrete individual subjects

meet a separate, waiting world, but rather how subject and world co-constitute one

another in an ongoing becoming.

The lively matter of the school – hallways, floors, students, bathroom stalls, the sounds

of the principal’s whistle – entangles together to create the world. This entanglement is

what Barad calls an ongoing intra-active phenomena, which is not just a collection of

things together, but a network of relationships and shifting patterns of agentic forces

(Barad 2007). Focusing on the material structures of the school, in this framework,

means not asking what the materiality of the school is, but rather asking what it is doing.

As Jackson and Mazzei have discussed, when I ‘read’ these accounts and posthumanist

theory through one another, it is important to remind myself that ‘agency is distributed in

a way that avoids hanging on to the vestiges of a knowing humanist subject that lingers in

some post-structuralist analysis’ (Mazzei 2013, 778). Likewise, focusing on the experience

of an intra-active subjectivity isn’t asking what a separated, discrete subject discovered in

the world, but rather examining how that subjectivity was formed with and in the world, as

agency and subjectivity are continually re-constituted and fluid within intra-active

phenomena.

One theorist who has begun to work with personal accounts within a new materialist

view of subjectivity is Stacy Alaimo, in her book Bodily Natures (2010). Alaimo is deliber-

ately breaking the bounds of corporeality, asserting that human bodies (and nonhuman

bodies) are not bound, our edges are not firm. Alaimo describes a trans-corporeal land-

scape, which she explains as the recognition that ‘the human is always inter-meshed

with the more than human word’ (Alaimo 2010, 2). In the book, she attempts to ‘trace

how trans-corporeality often ruptures ordinary knowledge practices’ in moments when

6 K. MCGREGOR

beings (human and nonhuman) have to navigate the material, entangled reality of their

selves, often while simultaneously negotiating ‘hazardous landscapes’ of risk and toxicity

(17). In this move, Alaimo attempts to take us from Barad’s displaced subjectivity, back into

the embodied, lived experiences of beings, without re-inscribing a fixed humanist subject.

The term Alamio uses for these accounts of bodily experience are ‘material memoirs.’

Alaimo says of material memoirs: they reveal ‘how profoundly the sense of selfhood is

transformed by the recognition that the very substance of the self is interconnected

with vast… systems that can never be entirely mapped or understood’ (2010, 95).

Consider the following accounts, then, both my own and those told to me by others, as

material memoirs – as articulations of a subjectivity that is not isolated and fixed, but is

instead emergent and contingent, part of a trans-corporeal landscape that includes

other material and non-material beings, political and economic systems, and even domi-

nant discourses.

Educated bodies

Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren,

grafts die,

seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory

are dulled,

hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the

air;

to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison. (pliny the elder,

natural history: A selection)

I have periods now, like normal girls; I too am among the knowing,

I too can sit out volleyball games and go to the nurse’s for aspirin

And waddle along the halls with a pad like a flattened rabbit tail

wadded between my legs, sopping with liver-colored blood. (margaret atwood, cat’s eye

(Atwood, 1999))

Feminist phenomenologist Iris Marion Young describes the phenomenon of menstrua-

tion as having two main effects: shame that compels women to conceal their menstrua-

tion, and the ‘misfit between women and public places such as schools and workplaces,

which often refuse to accommodate women’s social and physical needs’ (Young 2005,

109). This concept of a material space that refuses to accommodate is one to carry

forward as we consider how teachers are produced from their intra-actions with the

matter of schools. Teachers contend with this material refusal in a unique way: their work-

place is the school, the institution Young chose as her example of the public place that is a

‘misfit’ for a menstruating person.

An average public school is home-away-from-home to hundreds of students and

dozens of teachers. Restrooms are a necessity but also a point of contention – student

bathroom breaks are often strictly policed, and the state of the restrooms themselves is

at issue. In most schools, there are separate restrooms for teachers, but they are located

in the front office or library, far from classrooms. These bathrooms, both student and

teacher designated, intra-act with teachers to produce a very particular subjectivity. In a

recent survey by the American Federation of teachers, 21% of teachers reported ‘lack of

opportunity to use the restroom’ as a serious, everyday stressor in the workplace. Nearly

half of teachers surveyed reported that they do not get adequate bathroom breaks, and

GENDER AND EDUCATION 7

44% say they are not able to use the breaks they get (American Federation of Teachers

2015). One of the reasons that teachers don’t use the restroom is that they cannot get

to it – it is literally not possible to get from the classroom, to the teacher restroom, and

back in the brief time between classes.

In secondary schools, teachers stay in their classroom while students change classes

anywhere from 4 to 8 times a day. Educators frequently debate the need to police and

restrict bathroom passes for students, and teachers are sometimes told by administrators

to monitor the hall during passing time, greeting students as they arrive to class and

keeping students moving. In order to begin to understand what the bathroom structures,

practices, and policies are doing, what is being enacted by this complex intra-action, I will

turn to accounts of menstruating while teaching, in particular these teachers’ and my own

material intra-actions with schools.

When I was a teacher, using the restroom between classes was a project that required

advanced preparation, careful execution, and precision timing. I would wait until all stu-

dents from the previous class had left my classroom, a minute or more from when the

bell rang, while not allowing students in the next class period to enter. Then I would go

in the hallway and lock the door to the empty classroom behind me, assuring the students

waiting to enter that I would be right back. The halls would be crowded with students,

bumping and jostling as they flowed in hurried streams on their way to their next destina-

tion, laughing and talking. Often a principal would be standing at a nearby intersection of

hallways, blowing a whistle and yelling ‘walk on the right!’ to the river of students. At the

end of my hallway, past that busy intersection, was a student bathroom.

Consider for a moment the sheer amount of ‘vibrant matter’ I had to content with in my

search for a bathroom (Bennett 2010). In that moment, I was produced by a complex intra-

action of varying agential forces: the structures of walls and doors and hallways, the

sounds of students and the movement of other bodies, the locked classroom door at

my back, and the awareness of time passing. In this intra-action I was produced in a

very particular way: aware of the risk of lateness, the pressure of time, and the unique jux-

taposition of the need to both be the authority in the classroom, and the need to avoid the

shame of being exposed as a menstruating body. In this way, the intra-actions taking place

in that hallway were produced me as shameful, as marginalized, as fearful.

Inevitably, by the time I secured my room, fought through the crowd, and arrived at the

bathroom, five of my seven minutes of passing time were already gone. I would quickly

check for toilet paper (which was chronically out), lock myself in a small stall and take

care of my menstrual needs, in a noisy bathroom full of 7th graders. If there was no

toilet paper, or all the stalls were in use, my only other option was the teacher restrooms

near the front office, another long hallway away. In these often frantic moments, my sense

of selfhood, my awareness of the way I existed in the world, was produced through my

intra-actions with these bits of vital matter (Barad 2003; Bennett 2010; Taylor 2013).

Locked doors and long hallways, toilet paper and plumbing, and the passing of time

acted on and with me, shaping how I existed in and with the world, and my understanding

of my own place and worth. Menstruation is constituted as abnormal, shameful, and some-

thing to be hidden at all costs, reinforcing misogyny even in this female-dominated space.

Consider the intra-action of the menstruating teacher, the used menstrual product, the

toilet paper, and the trashcan. There were no trash cans in those stalls, so I would have to

mummify used tampons and pads in toilet paper, and then carry my bundle out of the stall

8 K. MCGREGOR

with me so that I could throw it in the single large garbage can by the front door. A teacher

I spoke with laughed as she described hiding these toilet paper wrapped bits of effluvia

deep in the bottom of her purse, to be emptied at home, in secret, at the end of the

day. These small bits of material have powerful force within this intra-action, producing

and reinforcing the concept of the menstruating body as shameful and abnormal.

Because of the lack of garbage cans in the stalls, it was not unusual to find such mum-

mified menstrual products left by others on the floor of the stalls or stuffed up in the toilet

paper holders. One teachers told me that she had gone to administration at the school, to

try to get them to add trash cans to the girls’ stalls, to prevent this problem. The admin-

istration refused – that it was too much extra work for the janitors, they said, and it would

create opportunities for vandalism. These girls, the administration had added, are just

going to be messy anyway.

Let us take a moment and acknowledge the material entanglements of these little

mummified bits of effluvia. This mummification of any sign of menstruation is a

symptom of the shame associated with menstruation – bringing the discourse of

normal and abnormal bodies into the intra-action occurring in that bathroom stall. In

our modern world, no one would openly agree with Pliney the Elder that menstrual

blood is inherently dangerous or destructive. But, as Young points out in her essay Men-

strual Meditations, that very idea of ‘normal’ is working against women. ‘The normal body,

the default body, the body that every body is assumed to be, is a body not bleeding from

the vagina. Thus to be normal and to be taken as normal, the menstruating woman must

not speak about her bleeding and must conceal evidence of it’ (2005, 107). The artful con-

cealment of these little bit of matter looms large. These mummified remains intra-acted

with many aspects of the school: with me, producing quickly wrapped bundles smuggled

to the trash can. With my fellow teacher, who stashed them in the bottom of her purse

rather than be seen disposing of them. With the students, who stuffed the mummified

offerings into the toilet paper holders to avoid being seen in their company. With the jani-

tors, who took the presence of such matterings to be a provocation for locking bathroom

doors at lunch, saying ‘the mess these girls leave!’

For a teacher, the necessary concealment is a complex art. One teacher I spoke with

talked about putting menstrual products up her sleeves so she could navigate a

hallway filled with students. I, lacking pockets, would hide extra tampons in my bra at

the beginning of a school day, the bit of solid materiality a pressing reminder of my men-

struating condition. I remember a few times, in a pinch, slipping a pad under the waist-

band at the back of my pants, so it would be hidden by my shirt. In this way, I and

these other teachers acted out our own oppression, a result of this material-discursive

intra-action.

Another teacher I spoke with related that in her multi-level, large high school, there

were teacher bathrooms only on every other floor, and then only one stall per gender.

She said that even if she got there during passing time, it was likely someone else got

there first, and there was no time to wait. She was, she said, more likely to be able to

use a student restroom, but reported that as an acutely uncomfortable experience: to

be the only adult in a space crowded with socializing teenagers, locked in a stall that

offers minimal privacy and trying to take care of the needs of menstruation, without

getting ‘caught’ by students, all before the next bell rings. This account highlights the

complex, ongoing ontological relationship between the teacher and the materiality of

GENDER AND EDUCATION 9

the school: the walls that enclose and gaps that reveal, the sounds of bodies in small

spaces, the sense of time passing.

Many times, though, even the quasi-comfort of student bathrooms are not an option

for a menstruating teacher. Studies show that nearly half the time, student restrooms

lack essential items like soap, toilet paper, or paper towels (Gewertz 2003; Stover 1997).

Also, student bathrooms are often sites of student misbehavior (Perkins, Perkins, and

Craig 2014). The first high school I worked at had problems with disgruntled students light-

ing fires in bathroom trash cans. In the middle school where I taught most recently, the

restrooms were often the site of bullying, fights, and student truancy as girls skipped

class and hung out in the bathroom. The needs of menstruating bodies, combined with

the material conditions of the restrooms, force teachers to deviate from the ‘normal’

needs of adult bodies in the schools. Even if the students were not misbehaving in the

bathrooms, the building was old, and drains were sluggish. Toilets were often backed

up, or sinks overflowing. One way schools respond to these things is to lock the bath-

rooms, which further complicates the situation of the menstruating teachers. In this

way, ‘schools extended into the landscape. They were not inherently bounded entities,

they were an intra- active phenomenon’ (Juelskjaer 2013). In every instance, the

complex intra-action of the materiality of the school bathroom is productive, enacting par-

ticular realities for those who exist in that space.

In one article about the uncleanliness of school bathrooms, as reported in School Board

News, there was story about a male teacher, suffering gastrointestinal distress, who was

able to find only locked bathrooms. The article told of how this outraged teacher who

had ‘soiled himself because the restrooms were locked went to the school board and

offered his pants as evidence of poor conditions at that school’ (Stover 1997, 57). This is

a provocative moment, as teacher and soiled pants become a part of the intra-action of

the school board meeting. Those pants have ontological weight, and we can imagine

how their presence in that room was productive of particular subjectivities.

Compare this example of material intra-action to the frequent ‘soiling’ that happened to

all of the menstruating teachers I spoke with about this project. Many related tales of bring-

ing extra clothing to school on a regular basis, because they knew their clothes would be

soiled. But it is hard to imagine one of these teachers going in front of the school board,

offering clothing soiled with menstrual blood up as proof of poor conditions at a school.

These two material actors, the fecal-stained pants and the bloodied ones, produce very

different phenomena in their intra-actions. As Young points out, we don’t ‘accept the men-

strual in a less sensationalist way as a fact of bodily life, the way we accept earwax, or runny

noses’ (2005, 110) or even the soiled pants of that male teacher, presented to the school

board. Once again, we see the hegemonic discourse surrounding menstruation making

its way into the intra-action via materiality. Young explains that because we give male

bodies normative status, these uniquely female bodily wastes become monstrous in a

way other bodily wastes are not. Thus, they are not to be spoken of, and certainly not to

be taken into consideration when planning school schedules or bathroom facilities.

So, consider the original question: have female teachers ‘feminized’ schools into sites of

female power, at the expense of boys’ learning? The patriarchal discourse of hegemonic

masculinity is evident throughout this account of the encounters of menstruating teachers

and the materiality of schools. The female, menstruating body is not normal, even in

schools where female bodies are the norm, in that they make up most of the adult

10 K. MCGREGOR

bodies in the building. The male body and its needs are ‘normal,’ and that body has no

need for longer passing time, for closer and more spacious restrooms, for waste disposal

in every stall. It is the responsibility of women to deal with their ‘abnormal’ menstrual

needs, endure the difficulties of the workplace conditions, and to conceal all evidence

that they are doing so. These material conditions reveal how patriarchal discourse is

built into the system of schooling, even though it is female-dominated profession.

Limitations of this inquiry, and implications for further research

In this paper, I have traced the marks left by menstruating teachers’ embodied encounters

with material configurations of school bathrooms. In doing so, I have considered primarily

my own experiences, and the narrative accounts of others. I want to acknowledge that this

is a very limited source of data, and one that does not include many other important topics

for inquiry aroundmenstruation, school bathrooms, and gender. I have shown that despite

the prevalence of female bodies in these material spaces, the structures of the schools

themselves, from the bell structure to the location and availability of restrooms for teachers,

are not intended to accommodate menstruating bodies. While this limited inquiry reveals

the inherently patriarchal structure of schools and refutes the claims of feminization of

schools, it also shows that there is much work to be done to understand what school bath-

rooms are doing in their intra-actions with the humans that teach and learn in schools. One

immediate area in need of further inquiry is that ofenstruating students. Even beyond the

basic hygiene needs of students, the issue is further complicated by the fact that not all

bodies that menstruate are female. For many students, particularly those who do not ident-

ify on the gender binary, safe and reliable access to a restroom that matches their gender

identity is vitally important. At the time of this writing, lawsuits and policy decisions around

school bathrooms are playing out in courts and school board rooms across the United

States. The role of bathrooms in gender identity and expression has been taken up by the-

orists, particularly Sarah Cavanagh (Blumenthal 2014; Cavanagh 2010; Horan 1996), but the

specific issues of school bathrooms remain largely uninvestigated.

Another question that remains to be asked is how issues of race, ethnicity, and social

class intra-act with bathroom spaces in schools. Schools with high concentrations of stu-

dents who are non-white or living with poverty often are also under-resourced, in older

buildings and with fewer resources. But there is little to no research that investigates this

connection, perhaps due to the taboo nature of toilets themselves, let alone menstruation.

In order to fully understand how the material conditions of schools, particularly bath-

rooms, co-constitute those that teach and learn there, more work is needed. But the con-

sideration of material intra-actions in schools has promise as a methodological tool, one

that can help open new ways of thinking about how material-discursive intra-actions influ-

ence teaching and learning. This consideration of the material, in this case, makes one

thing clear: despite the prevalence of female bodies in the material spaces of schools,

the structures of schools themselves, from the bell schedule to the location and availability

of restrooms, are not intended to accommodate menstruating bodies.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

GENDER AND EDUCATION 11

Notes on contributor

Kristidel McGregor is a former public school teacher and third year PhD student at the University of

Oregon, where she studies how the material things of schools co-produce those who teach and learn

there.

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  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • The feminine/masculine binary and schooling
  • New materialisms, lived bodily experience, and the ‘material memoir’
  • Educated bodies
  • Limitations of this inquiry, and implications for further research
  • Disclosure statement
  • Notes on contributor
  • References

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