History in the Women’s Room

I had an appointment in an older downtown Milwaukee office building yesterday and stopped in the women’s room on my way out. While washing my hands, I noticed this old machine for dispensing “feminine hygiene” products hanging on the wall.


Meds Tampons were a Modess product available from the 1930s till sometime in the 1970s, according to the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, which apparently actually was a museum once but is now a website maintained by the man who single-handedly ran the museum until it became too much work in addition to his job—and, more to the point, why shouldn’t there be a museum about such a significant topic?

Anyway, it’s odd to realize that this machine was presumably installed a minimum of 40 years ago. And here it is, still.

Kind of off topic here, but related in both its possible inappropriateness (i.e., connection to sexuality) and its connection to the idea of “history.” When I was in college I watched Last Tango in Paris in a film class. What has always stuck with me from that movie (no pun intended) was the moment at the very end, when Marlon Brando takes his chewing gum out of his mouth and presses it to the underside of the balcony railing outside the apartment window just before he dies after his mistress (girlfriend? anonymous sex partner? rape victim?) shoots him.

Of all the overwhelming images in that film, seriously, that was the only one that made a deep enough impression that I can still picture it vividly all these years later.

Why? Because to me that piece of gum is a witness. A testimony to the fact that—like “Kilroy“—Paul (Brando’s character) was here. That gum is the one thing to save him from the nothingness he seemed to crave before. It’s the only thing to ensure that his existence won’t be entirely erased. Remaining behind in the world is this chewing gum that was once in his mouth, taken with his fingers and placed intentionally beneath the railing by him in those final seconds of life.

Sticking that gum under the railing is kind of disgusting and could be viewed as a final act of aggression/rape in Paul’s relationship with Jeanne. The tango was such a good metaphor for what was going on with those two. It’s such a highly sexual dance form, but the two partners basically never acknowledge each other. That connection as a motif  was probably made explicit in the film; it certainly seems obvious to me now, in retrospect, but I don’t know if I realized it then. Doubtful. I was a political science major and didn’t really develop a grasp of literary/artistic intellectual concepts like “metaphor” until well into my studies for the Ph.D. in English.

In any case, my 20-year-old self’s experience of that final image was visceral and intuitive.  It was like Paul was redeeming himself as a human being. Where he was kind of dead before, numbed by his wife’s suicide, he has finally—in death—become aware of life’s value.

By leaving his chewing gum behind as an artifact of his time on earth, he has also left his “mark” on history. A declaration that he was here. That he was alive.

Very existential reflections/ramblings today, and all prompted by an old tampon dispenser hanging in an even older (marble walls!) women’s room 🙂

Sometimes the field of history is classified as a social science discipline, but I think it belongs firmly in the humanities. After all, the whole point of history is to hold up a mirror that makes us aware of ourselves as humans. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the purpose of life?


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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5 Responses to History in the Women’s Room

  1. So true!! Love the segue!


  2. mworfolk says:

    Wow! Very thoughtful reflections…interesting that they were all prompted by a vintage tampon machine. We used to have one in our public library, but they just remodeled the washrooms and it’s gone now….


    • Thank you! One thing my school has done that really impressed me was that a few years ago they stocked the machines in the women’s rooms with free tampons and pads. Free! That seemed like such a welcoming message to send to young women on an engineering campus (as engineering is a traditionally male discipline).


  3. Sally Cissna says:

    Katie, I love this reflection. I get carried away with history also…the old made new again…or not. Those old buildings downtown Milwaukee are such good examples of builders who were true crafters (if that’s a word). Walls of marble, built-in bubblers, skylights, stained glass, etc. They were quite overdesigned, but that is why they are still working well today. Strong materials, strong connections, built to hold up huge loads from the stories above. Today…curtain-walls, light-weight materials, easy to dismantle. They are what we are leaving for generations to come a hundred years from now. Message?


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