Nearly four decades ago, Gloria Steinem wrote the now famous essay If Men Could Menstruate for Ms. magazine. In it, she imagined how the world might look different if men got their periods. “Clearly,” she wrote, “menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.” In wry detail, she speculates:
Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.
Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.
I was reminded of this essay when the British company Coexist announced last week that it had introduced a “period policy” aimed at giving female employees time off during their time of the month. Said the company’s director, Bex Baxter: “We wanted a policy in place which recognizes and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness.”
While it might sound like a policy men would establish if they bled three to seven days of every month, the news has been met with mixed reactions. It’s no secret that women are penalized in the workplace for any number of unjust reasons, including not being likable enough. To add a period policy to the mix struck some as just another opportunity to stigmatize female employees. Said Naama Bloom, founder of HelloFlo and the author of the upcoming guide to puberty There Will Be Blood, which I am co-writing with her: “I worry it means that if [women] were frustrated with coworkers or doing their jobs expediently in the days prior to their being out on their period leave, those actions will be called into question.”
Certainly, every woman at some point in her life, whether it be at school, or the office, or on live national television while moderating a presidential debate—or while running for the office of President of the United States—has been accused of succumbing to her “time of the month” when displaying even a modicum of strong emotion, no matter how warranted it may be.
Which is perhaps not surprising when you consider that the cultural history of menstruation has long been one of shame, seclusion, and suspicion. We’re all familiar with the story of the red tent, the place where women in ancient times were sent when menstruating to separate them from the men. The Romans, meanwhile, thought menstruating women possessed the power to kill crops and turn dogs mad. The French thought sex during a woman’s period would result in the birth of a monster. Prior to the 19th century, doctors thought women bled to release their emotions. And while progress was made in the 20th Century, it’s worth noting that the word “period” was not mentioned on national TV until 1985, at the very end of a Tampax commercial by a very young Courtney Cox circa her Dancing in the Dark days: “It can actually change the way your feel about your period.” Indeed. Though not, it seemed, the way our periods were portrayed to us. Imagine the shock of thousands of young women upon discovering that menstruation did not involve passing blue dye or running through sunny fields resplendent with wildflowers.
And yet, I would argue that one of the ways we are are going to normalize women’s health issues—maybe one of the only ways—is by creating policy around them. Even if it’s a policy that no one uses, or feels comfortable with, or avoids availing themselves of for whatever reason. Just by dint of being an official policy, it might be the first step toward formally acknowledging that the workplace is more than half full of women and a tiny nod to women’s daily realities. We currently live in a world where the workday is structured on the realities of men’s lives as they existed half a century ago. As Rebecca Traister pointed out during a recent reading for her new book All the Single Ladies, we have a school system that still lets kids out at 3 p.m., based on the premise of a stay-at-home mother that is no longer a reality in country where women hold 52% of professional jobs. There is a lot of talk about reorganizing the workday around schedules that make sense for women, and maybe this could be one small step towards that.
Formalizing period policies might also push us toward prioritizing women’s health in other areas, like, say, research. Research on women’s health issues still falls far behind that devoted to men. Amazingly, the reasons for Dysmenorrhea, the medical term for period cramps, a reality for nearly every woman, are still largely unknown to doctors. Imagine that! A symptom suffered by nearly half the world’s population and we don’t know why. If nothing else, imagine the money to be made by drug companies who bothered to invest in some research and come up with a cure beyond OD’ing on Advil once a month.
If employers on this side of the ocean ever did institute a similar policy—and one glance at America’s shameful maternity policies suggests we are a long way from doing so in any meaningful manner—it would likely be rocky going for the first while. Similar policies in countries like China, Indonesia, and South Korea have been met with mixed results. And based on the ways in which we know women are punished for getting pregnant and taking maternity leave, it seems likely women would run similar risks in this instance. There is also the matter of health being a private issue. Much the way you wouldn’t necessarily disclose to your employer the exact reasons why you are taking a sick day, I suspect many women would not be altogether comfortable announcing they are getting their periods.
That said, like so many of the enormous cultural shifts we’ve experienced in the last decade, so too has our relationship with menstruation changed dramatically in recent years. To wit: Bloom’s HelloFlo videos, which shone an edgy and truthful and much-needed light on the realities of getting your first period, went viral. Period underwear, by companies like THINX and Dear Kate, are everywhere—including, finally, the MTA. Kiran Gandhi, who ran the London marathon while on her period and without using any protection, has been hailed a hero. And on Instagram there has been pushback to the blocking of photos showing women who have leaked, a reality every one of us has experienced at some point in our lives.
And then there’s this reality: according to a British professor, period pain can be almost as severe as a heart attack. This particular revelation may only have been news to men; the rest of us, having found ourselves curled up in a ball on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor praying for the Advil to kick in soon, please, for the love of God, did not need to be told this. And yet, there was something very validating about having it put in a context that men could understand.
Finally, there’s another reality: We are menstruating more. For much of human history women were pregnant from puberty till menopause, averaging only 40 periods in their lifetime. Now that we are getting married later and having far fewer children, that average has skyrocketed to 400 periods. That is a lot of blood in the workplace. Perhaps there’s never been a better time for women to take a page from Steinem’s alternate bloody reality and begin bragging about how long and how much.
Glynnis MacNicol is a writer living in Brooklyn.