Society and Menstruation: If (only) Men Could Menstruate

Upon opening my news feed on Wednesday, I discovered – to my utter amusement, admittedly – that Planned Parenthood has recently received tens of thousands of donations from one name: Mike Pence. Pence, an avid advocate of restricting women’s reproductive rights, now comprises more than 12 percent of donations. Many of the women who sponsored Mike Pence’s donations also took a more direct approach, tweeting at the Vice President-Elect’s and calling his office to update him on their menstrual cycles. These are not isolated events; they are part of the “Periods for Pence” movement. This comical, politically-charged movement was fueled by the mantra: “Let’s make our bodies Mike’s business for real, if this is how he wants it.” Here is a small sampling of these women’s farcical attempts to provide Governor Pence with updates on what he seems so interested in:

p4p_1

p4p_2

While certainly laughable, these tweets betray the serious concern that many modern American women have: that men in power are passing laws which suppress women’s agency in regard to their bodies. The silliness of the tweets plays on our very real social taboos. Due to menstruation’s long history of stigmatization (see earlier posts for more on this), men are typically not keen on hearing about women’s regularly shedding uteri. In response to the menstrual bombardment of Mike Pence, one woman commented that if men had periods, this stigma would no longer exist. Tampons would rain from the sky, she said.

This sentiment is not novel.

In the October 1978 issue of Ms Magazine, the self-proclaimed “radical feminist” Gloria Steinem published a satire-saturated article entitled “If Men Could Menstruate.”  Though Steinem is generally known for her role as a serious spokeswoman for women’s rights, she wrote this article as a playful parody of gender definitions, perhaps because she saw the need for comic relief as she and other women grappled with gender inequality in the late seventies.

She opened this piece by pointing out that white skin and penises – the apparent markers of human superiority – are actually incredibly weak features. Simple UV rays are a formidable enemy to white skin, she explains, and external nature of the male sex organ makes it particularly vulnerable. Considering these glaring contradictions to the established biological superiority of white men, Steinem concludes that social inequality is justified by “logic” that ignores other logical arguments. For example, she shared an example of a boy who, when asked if he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up (like his mother), he replied, “Oh no, that’s women’s work.” Thus these gendered distinctions are entirely constructs of our own minds, and not necessarily rational. Steinem also shared an anecdote about a woman who bled all through her dress during a public speech before an all-male audience. Rather than adhering to the conditioned response of embarrassment, the woman told them that they should be proud that they had something “real” happened to them. This woman’s reaction defied the social logic, yet she could find her own logic to support the opposite. Pondering on the idea that oppression is separate from logic, Steinem then speculated on what would happen, if instead of women, men menstruated.

Her very first deduction she considered obvious: menstruation would suddenly be transformed into a glorious event. Heavier flows would warrant greater bragging. “On the rag” would become a compliment.* Families would celebrate their sons’ menarche with elaborate parties. Steinem also predicted that government would join in; all sanitary products would be fully subsidized, and more federal funding would be allotted to laboratories researching the cure for cramps than the small research groups studying heart disease. Television shows, too, would treat menstruation as an important part of life, and thus have no qualms about discussing it freely.

The principal belief system governing this different dimension imagined by Steinem is that men’s cyclical bleeding would justify their positions of power. Blood would become central to the rhetoric that argued men were best fit for military – giving blood counterbalanced taking blood –, and political leadership – connection to the cosmos empowered men to be great leaders. Blood, obviously, would be imbued with righteousness and tie men to God (who gave his blood for mankind), rendering them the most qualified religious leaders. The intellectuals of this dimension would reason that men’s cycles granted them an innate understanding of time, space, and mathematics, which female scientists could never truly achieve. The cyclical symbolism of male menstruation would also gift men with an intrinsic connection to the rhythm of the universe, thereby priming them to be sagacious philosophers. Steinem followed up this image with the statement that women’s inferiority would be rationalized by their lack of monthly cycles. Liberals, she expounded, would pity women for this unfair disadvantage. Some radical feminists would wound themselves monthly to show that they, too, could bleed.

Gloria Steinem’s hypothetical world in which men menstruated was a satirical case study in the logic of oppression. Her main point in applying menstruation – a natural female process that has historically been used as a mechanism to stigmatize women – to the male population was to argue that menstruation (or anything that women do, for that matter) does not necessarily relegate women to be the inferior gender. Power justifications are not decided based on who bleeds, bloats, and cramps every month. Rather, we, as members of the American society, determine how menstruation and women are construed. Gloria Steinem believes we can change it for the better, and so do I.

 

Source: Steinem, G. “If Men Could Menstruate .” MS Magazine 12, (1978): 41.

*See the earlier post on “How Euphemisms Hurt Women” to find out how and why “OTR” was used as an insult.

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6 thoughts on “Society and Menstruation: If (only) Men Could Menstruate

  1. It’s nice to see that some laws are changing regarding women’s reproduction – such as the “tampon tax” – but there’s still a long way to go. The control that men have on society truly is harmful to women, and I thought the ideas behind if men could menstruate to be fascinating! It really is more about culture than about blood that makes women the “inferior” sex. It requires the efforts of both men and women to make the changes necessary in society to bring about full equality.

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  2. The logic surrounding menstruation is so clearly gendered that it’s ridiculous. This satirical article does a great job of pointing that out, and making it clear that the negative connotation of periods is not because periods are inherently bad, but because society thinks they are. Yet, paradoxically, it is this power to create life that so many people, including important men in politics, feel so strongly is a positive thing that they feel entitled to make decisions regarding it.

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  3. First can I say that I love how this post is written? Bravo.
    Also, this movement is legit. I love it. In moments like this I love social media. We have more access to public opinion than ever before. To find out how white people felt about adoption in the 1740s is nearly impossible. Today? I can #adoption and know exactly what is going in in popular culture, the courts, and people’s personal experiences. It is a pretty sweet deal.
    All of these women reaching out (in a way) to Pence using social media? Genius and fascinating.

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  4. It’s easy to see historically and in modern times how women’s bodies have been used to restrict their agency. Women’s periods have become stigmatized, thus making it harder for women to talk about them freely. Similarly, women’s ability to become pregnant has kept them out of certain, male-dominated jobs; this has been true in the past as well as today.

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