This article was first published as ‘Tampon’ in Alison Bartlett and Margaret Henderson (eds), Things that Liberate: An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013. Now called ‘The tampon’, it is republished with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing. I thank the editors for their encouragement.
'We have lived our lives as if there was something intrinsically inferior about us', wrote the Boston Women's Health Book Collective in the justly famous work, Our Bodies, Ourselves, first published in 1971. The problem was — as it continues to be — differences in power between women and men: ‘power is unequally distributed in our society; men, having the power, are considered superior and we, having less power, are considered inferior’. ‘What we have to change’, they continued, ‘are the power relationships between the sexes’. That might not be easy, but ‘at least the situation is changeable’, they believed, ‘since it is not based on biological facts’.
Feminism is always multiple and various, fluid and changing, defying efforts at definition, characterisation, periodisation. Nevertheless, there was a moment when, for some, late twentieth-century feminism's determination to alter differences in power between women and men depended on a rejection of biology. Feminist sociologist Ann Oakley encapsulated this moment when, in 1972, she asked, ‘Does the source of the many differences between the sexes lie in biology or culture? If biology determines male and female roles, how does it determine them? How much influence does culture have?’ Technology had altered the relationships between biology and society, she noted, but there had been no corresponding shift in the relationships between society and culture. For that to occur, it would be necessary to draw a distinction between ‘male and female roles’ — a distinction between sex and gender.
'Sex’ is a word that refers to the biological differences between male and female: the visible difference in genitalia, the related difference in procreative function. 'Gender’ however is a matter of culture: it refers to the social classification into 'masculine’ and ‘feminine’.