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.
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.”
The bill, which requires that instruction on sexual health, sexually transmitted diseases and human sexuality not start until the sixth grade, has advanced from a Florida subcommittee to the House.
Girls typically start menstruating between the ages of 8 and 16, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Eight-year-olds are commonly in the third grade.
State Rep. Stan McClain (R), the author of the bill, later clarified that he would consider amendments to the bill if they came up and that it is not the bill’s intention to penalize girls who wanted to ask teachers questions about their menstrual cycle.
McClive, the professor from Florida, said that girls and young women have always had questions about their periods. “Even Queen Marie-Antoinette worried about the regularity and health of her menstrual cycle,” McClive said. “She exchanged letters to her mother about this early in her marriage.”
Varah, the deacon who presided over the teenager’s burial in 1935, was so inspired by her tragedy that along with his priestly duties he also became a sex therapist. He spent the next 18 years giving premarital talks to young couples, solving peoples’ sexual problems and doling out sex education at every opportunity.
It was in 1953 that Varah was able to fulfill his promise to the girl by launching the Samaritans, one of the world’s first suicide hotlines.
Much damage has been done to people by repressing sexual education, Varah said while discussing the tragic suicide of the girl with reporters at The Washington Post in 1978. He said he felt tired of people who impose their “stuffy” attitudes about sex on others in the name of the church.
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.
Companies like Kimberly-Clark, which make Kotex products, and Johnson & Johnson stepped in to close the knowledge gap by producing pamphlets with the necessary information about menstruation, Freidenfelds said.
And soon, schools took over the job of educating girls about their periods.
“Mothers felt good about the education the school was providing,” said Freidenfelds. “Why stop that now?”
Parents should be encouraged to have these conversations with their children, Freidenfelds added, but to take on the full responsibility of educating them about the mental and physical aspects of menstruation is a cultural shift.
“Banning young girls from discussing their periods in school means they could miss out on vital peer support and support from trusted teachers, mentors, and guidance counsellors,” said McClive, the Florida State University professor.
The connection between a girl’s first period and the knowledge and support that helps her deal with it has long been known. Varah noticed it eight decades ago.
“I made my debut in the ministry by burying a 14-year-old girl who’d killed herself when her periods started because she thought she had a sexually transmitted disease — which had a profound effect on me,” he said toward the end of his life.
The Samaritans, the charity he set up inspired by the girl, fielded 10,000 crisis calls in the United Kingdom in 2020. Local chapters in the United States have helped thousands of others struggling with mental health.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit 988lifeline.org or call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.