Kate Clancy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois who writes for Scientific American’s blog network, tackled menstruation's historical baggage today in a piece entitled "Menstruation is just blood and tissue you ended up not using."
The article begins with the story of Dr. Bela Schick, who in the 1920s asked a nurse to put some flowers in a vase. The nurse told him she couldn't because she had her period, explaining that when she menstruated, any flowers she touched wilted. Dr. Schick decided to try an experiment. He placed some flowers into a vase and asked a menstruating woman to handle another bunch before putting them in water.
Photo by Sam Love.
Predictably, the flowers that were not overly handled did fine, while the bunch that was subjected to excessive handling -- to ensure whatever toxin the woman clearly gave off during this time of the month really got on them -- soon wilted. The findings would become the subject of many consequent studies, and give rise to the myth of menotoxin, a poisonous substance believed to be present in the sweat of women.
But the vilification of menstruation begins long before Dr. Schick’s experiment. As Clancy notes:
The cultural conditioning that has produced the idea that women are dirty, particularly during menses, is quite old. The Old Testament of the Bible claims that women are unclean when they menstruate, and menstrual huts exist in some cultures to separate out menstruating women from the rest of their group.
But some mark the beginning of our misunderstandings of female physiology in European-derived cultures with one book in particular written in the thirteenth century – De Secretis Mulierum, The Secrets of Women. This book was written by a man who claimed to be the monk Albertus Magnus, but was most likely an impersonator … [who] never treated women and based much of his work on having dissected a female pig.
“Woman is not human, but a monster.” Menstruating women give off harmful fumes that will “poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by a glance.” Children conceived by menstruating women “tend to have epilepsy and leprosy because menstrual matter is extremely venemous [sic].”
After Schick's experiment, other researchers began to explore the idea of menotoxin, and the theory about it expanded beyond the menstrual blood itself and the sweat given off by women during menstruation. Soon menotoxin was believed to be present even in the venous blood, breast milk, and sweat given off at other times of the month. No woman between puberty and menopause was safe. Studies reported menotoxin was responsible even for asthma and colic in children that were exposed to toxic mothers.
Eventually, menotoxin was linked to pathology. "Since now all reproductively-aged women could secrete it from any bodily fluid at any time, the state of being female essentially made one pathological," concludes Clancy, despite the fact that the studies supporting the existence of menotoxin had no real basis. According to her research, the study of menotoxin runs between 60 and 90 years, appearing during this time in various established medical journals. As Clancy points out, while the idea of a toxin given off by women is no longer considered valid, there does remain an attitude that menstruation is dirty. As late as the mid-90s, papers have taken the view that menstruation is a form of the body's purging of embryos -- or pathogens brought into the female body by sperm.
Her piece is excellent, and it drives the point that cultural constructs can and often do cause science to pursue and support hypotheses that enforce erroneous predetermined notions. More important, however, is that in sifting through the historical baggage of menstruation, we are forced to question how we see and what we feel about our bodies. How much of these views are based on personal experience and how much are culturally imposed?
Read Clancy's piece. Ask yourself some questions.