“Will you be sick during the time of the trip?”

Docked canoe on Pog Lake in Algonquin Park. Summer, 2013. Photo: Dan Cojocari (Wikimedia Commons).

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and gender history. The entire series is available here.

In the fall of 1981 at the age of 72, Mary Northway found herself back at Glen Bernard (GBC), a private girls camp near Sundridge, Ontario, where she had spent almost two decades as a camper and staff member in the 1920s and 1930s. She had returned to share her recollections of these experiences with Doré Millichamp, a friend from Toronto. The two women recorded their conversation as they perambulated through the camp property. As they approached a small stream that ran through the centre of GBC Mary confided to her companion:

I don’t suppose I should put this on tape, but…Maria and I wanted very much to go on a long canoe trip…and we both thought that it was about the time we’d be under the weather. And Maria’s sister, a nurse, told us if we sat in cold water it would push forward. So, we’d go down every morning and sit in this stream that’s as icy as can be. [1]

If the meaning of Mary’s confession is unclear, an excerpt from Esther Keyser’s autobiography, Paddle My Own Canoe, may be helpful:

[Northway Lodge]’s approach to female hygiene, which I took for granted at the time, was that girls who were menstruating were not allowed to go on canoe trips. None of our modern sanitary supplies had been invented. Washable rags served the same purpose as sanitary napkins and tampons. Before a canoe trip, we would be asked if we would be menstruating. The question was usually asked, “Will you be sick during the time of the trip?” [2]

Esther’s report on her experiences at Northway Lodge, the province’s first summer camp for girls, helps us to decode Mary’s cryptic admission. “Under the weather” functioned as a euphemism for menstruation, and menstruating girls, at least at some summer camps, were prohibited from participating in canoe trips. Mary and Maria subjected their adolescent bodies to icy baths in an attempt to alter their monthly cycles and gain access to a much-coveted camp experience, the canoe trip.

Asking questions about menstruation reveals some of the silences in the archival record of “wilderness experiences”—in this case, summer camps and backcountry trips. These two examples are the only references to menstruation I have encountered since my first foray, in 2006, into the Ontario Camping Association archives at Trent University. Asking questions about menstruation also sheds new light on the intersection between gender and environment. In Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers, Nancy Unger observes that “sex-related functions (menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding) affected the way North American women interacted with the environment,” shaping both “environmental attitudes and actions throughout American history.” [3] However, environmental historians have had little to say about menstruation. The same is true of historians of summer camp. In the latter case, the most sustained discussion of menstruation appears in architectural historian Abigail Van Slyck’s A Manufactured Wilderness. Her analysis of washhouses at Girl Scout camps is instructive in understanding menstrual etiquette in the early twentieth century. [4] There is still much to be learned, however, particularly in the Canadian context.

This post considers why, in the 1920s and 1930s, menstruation was understood as a barrier to girls’ participation in canoe trips while at summer camp. It further sheds light on the ways in which campers responded to this prohibition, which in turn, tells us something about the appeal of canoe trips for girls in this period. First, though, a few words about summer camp…

The cover of the August 1929 issue of Camp Life.
The cover of the August 1929 issue of Camp Life.

Summer camps began appearing in North America in the late nineteenth century, a product of the “back-to-nature” movement that also inspired urban and wilderness parks, cottages, and residential suburbs. In Canada it was not until the 1920s that a recognizable camping movement developed. [5] At private camps in Ontario, canoe trips were not fringe activities engaged in by a few; they were an important annual rite of passage that lasted anywhere from a night or two to a week or more. Most girls attending a private camp, primarily white girls from well-to-do families, spent at least part of their summer paddling and portaging. Summer camps were meant to raise girls in a beautiful and natural place, far from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Canoe trips, which took girls away from the comforts of cabins and dining hall, were seen as doing this par excellence.

Not all were given equal access to canoe trips. Typically age determined the length of the outing, with longer trips reserved for older campers. It was also common to require that girls pass canoeing and campcraft tests to be permitted to go out on trip. Finally, as the opening examples suggest, at least at some camps, menstruating campers were prevented from taking part in canoe trips.

What prompted this prohibition? Esther Keyser suggests that it stemmed from a lack of “modern sanitary supplies” and, by extension, the challenge of managing menstruation in this period. Although mass-produced menstrual products were widely available by the 1920s, their uptake was uneven. Women in many parts of the Anglo-American world continued to use washable cloths and rags into the 1960s and 1970s. [6] In this pre-pad and tampon era, Nancy Unger argues that “menstruation significantly hindered women’s freedom of movement.” Describing westward travel at the turn of the twentieth century, Unger observes that not only were menstrual rags unreliable, but their laundering also required very particular conditions. [7] Things appear to have been a little easier at camp. At Girl Scout camps, laundry rooms typically only available to staff members were opened to allow menstruating campers to wash their rags and cloths privately. [8] A canoe trip with no laundry facilities and limited privacy was likely more akin to an overland journey than a summer camp in this respect.

While the practicalities of managing menstruation likely contributed to rules preventing campers from participating in canoe trips, we should not underestimate the power of contemporary ideas about menstruation and women’s bodies. As Patricia Vertinsky has shown, physicians at the turn-of-the-twentieth century conceived of menstruation as a disability that made women “both the weaker and the periodically weakened sex.” [9] Following on this, medical commentators often used pathological language to refer to a woman’s menstrual cycle. Menstruation was seen as acutely problematic for adolescent girls because of a belief that “the onset of menarche was…a time of particular physical stress and crisis.” [10] Martha Verbrugge notes that, in adolescence, the “likelihood of overexertion and menstrual difficulties seemed greater and the long-term consequences more dire.” [11]

Canoe trips were not the only verboten activity for menstruating girls while at camp. We know from Leslie Paris’s work that it was common to forbid menstruating girls from swimming at American summer camps. Paris also reports that at Camp Andree in New York State in the 1930s, girls were to abstain from chopping wood. [12] Given the paucity of writing about menstruation at summer camp, the example of physical educators in the first half of the twentieth century helps us understand camp directors’ attitudes toward menstruation and physical activity. Between 1900 and 1940, gym teachers, in contrast with the physicians described above, increasingly conceived of menstruation as a natural rather than a pathological process. Menstrual periods, they felt, “might inconvenience, even handicap a girl, but should not incapacitate her.” [13] Physical educators advised light exercise for girls during menses, believing it therapeutic. Vigorous activity, by contrast, was prohibited “before and during the menstrual flow because it could damage an already overburdened uterus.” [14]

We can only assume that canoe trips constituted vigorous exercise. While it was rare for girls in this period to carry canoes across portages—hired guides took on this responsibility—they did have to do the work of paddling and carrying packs. Certainly, Fannie Case, the founding director of Northway Lodge, “believed in canoe trips as a vital part of the out-of-door living experience” because they provided “a taste of hardship” and, thus, “were preparation for life’s challenges.” [15]

While the rule prohibiting menstruating girls from participating in canoe trips constrained girls’ participation, it was not a guaranteed deterrent, as the example of Mary and Maria makes clear. Esther Keyser also admitted to “occasionally lying about this matter” because she wanted to go on a trip. [16] Interestingly, these two examples reveal different responses to the “problem” of menstruation and canoe trips. While Esther seemed to have no qualms about bending the truth and, consequently, dealing with the practicalities of a period on trip, Mary and Maria’s approach is less easily explained. Did they not wish to lie to their superiors? Or did they want to avoid the extra work and potential discomfort?

The traces that Mary and Esther left behind in the archival record confirm Nancy Unger’s observation that women’s encounters with the environment were shaped by “sex-related functions,” including menstruation. [17] Menstruation, while increasingly conceived of as a natural process rather than a pathological one, still served to constrain women’s physical activity. Specifically, in the 1920s and 1930s, menstruation could prevent white well-to-do girls at summer camp from participating in canoe trips. So not only do sex-related functions mediate women’s encounters with environments, they themselves have also been perceived alternately as “natural” or “unnatural.” Esther and Mary’s recollections also speak to the powerful appeal of canoe trips for young women at summer camp, and girls’ varied and original responses to prohibitions on going on such trips. They are confirmations, in other words, of the girls’ agency and creativity, as well as testaments to their desires. This is, however, only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is much still to uncover about menstruation and women’s experiences in the great outdoors.

Notes:

[1] Trent University Archives (TUA), 90-016/1, Interview with Mary L. Northway, 29 September 1981.

[2] Esther S. Keyser with John S. Keyser, Paddle My Own Canoe: The Story of Algonquin Park’s First Female Guide (Whitney, ON: The Friends of Algonquin Park, 2003), 32.

[3] Nancy C. Unger, Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 5, 6.

[4] Abigail A. Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006), 160-5.

[5] Key scholarly texts in the history of summer camping are Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness; Leslie Paris, Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp (New York: New York University Press, 2008); and Sharon Wall, The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism, and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-1955 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009).

[6] Annemarie Jutel, “Cursed or Carefree? Menstrual Product Advertising and the Sportswoman,” in Sport, Culture and Advertising: Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation (Routledge, 2005): 214.

[7] Unger, Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers, 54-5.

[8] Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness, 160-5.

[9] Patricia Vertinsky, “Exercise, Physical Capability and the Eternally Wounded Woman in Late Nineteenth Century North America,” Journal of Sport History 14, no. 1 (May 1987): 8.

[10] Vertinsky, “Exercise,” 17.

[11] Martha H. Verbrugge, Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 70.

[12] Paris, Children’s Nature, 128.

[13] Verbrugge, Active Bodies, 64.

[14] Verbrugge, Active Bodies, 69. See, also, Vertinsky, “Exercise,” 8.

[15] Prewitt, 71.

[16] Keyser, Paddling My Own Canoe, 32.

[17] Unger, Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers, 5, 6.

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Jess Dunkin

Director, On the Land Programs at NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin is the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. She lives in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8), home of the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene. In her free time, Jess loves to paddle, cross-country ski, and tweet about life in the #SpectacularNWT from @jessddunkin.

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