Elaine Goodfriend, who edited the commentary to accompany the portion Metzora in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,* notes a number of reasons that menstruation was probably less common for ancient women compared with contemporaries:
sparser diet and later onset of menstruation;
earlier marriage and more pregnancies;
breast-feeding for 3 years (based on biblical stories).
I have read similar comments over the years. Was menstruation regarded in the ancient world, then, as out-of-the-ordinary, rather than a regular, natural process for women? I don’t know the answer, but it could explain much of the disconnect between the biblical and the modern understanding of women’s bleeding/discharge.
Leviticus 15 is a tightly constructed essay on genital pollution, arranged chiastically but not along gender lines. In what may be an added verse to the otherwise tightly constructed chapter (v.31) all Israelites, men and women, are warned to be on guard against uncleanness. In case we have any doubt above the overall structure of the essay, we find the apt conclusion in vv. 32-33:
Such is the ritual concerning one who has a discharge, and him who has an emission of semen and becomes unclean thereby, and concerning her who is in her menstrual infirmity: anyone, that is, male or female, who has a discharge, and also the man who lies with an unclean woman.
“Anyone…male or female” — that is the key to Leviticus, which establishes impurity rules, but does not discriminate between men and women. Both are agents of impurity insofar as either emits an bodily substance through the sexual organs. The remarkable thing is how the Rabbis interpret the same rules with an entirely different criterion in mind…
…the key to body-fluid pollution should be sought in the issue of control….At issue is a deeper perception that the Rabbis have of men on the one hand and women on the other….this underlying perception takes us back once again to blood as the Rabbis’ primary means of symbolizing gender issues. The binary opposition obtains between men who are in control of their blood, so of themselves, and therefore of society; and women, who lacking control of blood and therefore of self, are thus denied control of society as well. Continue Reading