Florida Legislation Recalls the Tragic History behind Fights for Sex EducationHistorians in the News
tags: Florida, womens history, Sex Education
Nine decades ago, a 13-year-old girl’s death by suicide after getting her first period sparked an effort to educate kids about their bodies to prevent fear and confusion — a once-settled issue that new legislation in Florida is resurfacing.
That teenage girl in 1935, who had never been taught about menstruation, thought her period was a “terribly shameful, retributive disease,” says one account of the history. The fact that this British girl who believed she had a venereal disease had no one to teach her about her body, and no one to talk to, deeply impacted Chad Varah, the 23-year-old deacon who officiated her burial.
Standing over her grave, Varah, who later became a priest, promised to devote his life to battling ignorance and despair about sexual issues. “Little girl, I never knew you, but you have changed my life. I shall teach kids what I learnt when I was younger than you. …” he said at her gravesite in England, according to the Samaritans of Rhode Island, a chapter of the suicide-prevention charity he later founded.
Eighty-eight-years after that suicide, across the ocean, a sexual health bill, put forward by a GOP lawmaker in Florida, would ban girls from talking or learning about their menstrual cycles in school until the sixth grade, even if a girl begins her period before then. This has left some gender experts and historians worried about the mental and physical health of children.
Not having trusted adults to discuss bodily matters with, “can leave girls very isolated and anxious because they might not understand what is happening to them, or why,” said Cathy McClive. She is a history professor at Florida State University and the author of “Menstruation and Procreation in Early Modern France.”
Historians said that most American parents have never felt comfortable discussing sex or bodily matters with their children.
That is why it is “strange” that parents in Florida would want schools to stop providing this educational service for girls that has helped countless girls and their parents, said Lara Freidenfelds, a historian and the author of “The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America."
When Freidenfelds asked women who grew up at the start of the 20th century what it felt like getting their first period without knowing what to expect, they all said the same thing: “terrified, ashamed and confused,” said Freidenfelds.
“And if today’s young girls don’t know what to expect, we are going to see physical and mental health problems,” she said.
Freidenfelds said that, historically, American mothers weren’t really talking to their daughters about menstruation because they didn’t know the right language or the appropriate time to have the talk.
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