If you are a woman, you may have likely, at some point in your life, had someone blame “your period” for a time when you spoke up, stood up for yourself or others or demonstrated any form of attitude or assertiveness. While there is no denying that there are unpleasant physical symptoms, such as cramps, headaches and nausea, the idea of Pre-menstrual Syndrome (PMS) as some type of emotionally and logically impairing condition, is at best, unfair.
While some women may in fact experience emotional fluctuations during their menstrual cycles, it is inaccurate to say that these fluctuations make women less competent or rational than men.
And this is where the problem comes in. PMS is often used as an excuse by the media and society to discredit women who voice an opinion, or to question the credibility and competency of women in leadership positions. A great example of this is the 2008 presidential election. That election was a historic one for multiple reasons, one being how close we came to having a female president. And of course, with every election, there came a great deal of criticism for all the candidates.
However, when it came to arguing against Hillary Clinton, the arguments started with her politics, but many individuals also chose to shift the discussion to her being a woman. During a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor,” host Bill O’Reilly asked guest author Marc Rudov, what he thought the downsides to having a female president would be. Rudov responded by saying, “You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings, right?” Rudov then went on to dismiss these comments as “joking.”
Whether it was actually a “joke” or not, only he knows. But the fact that he considered it an acceptable thing to say, even by veiling it as a joke, is demonstrative of the long trajectory of using PMS as an excuse to question a woman’s qualification for leadership. I am all for political critique, but when the critique becomes an ad hominem attack based on identity politics, in this case gender, it is no longer political critique, but an example of bigotry, in this case sexism. If you disagree with Clinton, critique her all you want, but base it on her politics and ideas, not the functions of her reproductive system.
No one ever discusses that (newsflash) men have mood swings too! The truth is ALL human beings experience mood swings, some more frequently than others, but we all do. The truth is that human emotions are complex, and sometimes we humans shift from one to another at a moment’s notice. And that is nothing to be vilified. Mood swings are not a male or female issue, they are simply an emotional issue. Occasional mood swings alone are not sufficient evidence to question a man or a woman’s abilities.
A question that the PMS excuse poses is why there is a social and cultural need to define a woman’s assertiveness or temperament? Why do we need to be able to have something to point fingers at in these situations? Why is PMS always the go-to excuse when a woman stands up for herself or demonstrates any form of aggression, whether in her career or her demeanor? When a man demonstrates assertiveness or aggression, he is not dismissed for the functions of his reproductive system. This behavior is never questioned because these behaviors are socially constructed as naturally “male” traits. And this is problematic not only because it frames women who demonstrate these traits as non-normative or unladylike, but also because it dismisses men who do not have these traits as “not manly enough.” Gendered expectations create problems for everyone, men and women.
A recent study at the University of Toronto found that there was little connection between a woman’s menstrual cycle and negative moods. Dr. Sarah Romans, a researcher in the study, told The Atlantic that it is not that PMS is made up, but that “those symptoms are culturally over-attributed to the menstrual cycle, to the detriment of the medical community and those experiencing them — and as a broader issue of gender equality.”
The study, published in Gender Medicine, concluded that their research “failed to provide clear evidence in support of the existence of a specific premenstrual negative mood syndrome.” So the connection may be even smaller than you think. Periods may not affect moods as much as it is commonly thought. This is not to say that it does not affect moods at all, but that it may not as much as we all think, and that more often than not, the PMS excuse is used to either consciously or unconsciously promote harmful gender stereotypes. As the study in Gender Medicine put it, “This puzzlingly widespread belief needs challenging, as it perpetuates negative concepts linking female reproduction with negative emotionality.”
Jeanette Reveles is a fourth-year film and media studies and women’s studies double major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.