Are you ever around women who seem frustrated, upset or irritated? Have you ever asked one of them if she was on her period or perhaps been tempted to inquire?
Take it from me: Don’t. Presuming that female reproductive organs make women behave irrationally is rude and sexist. It also evokes the same unscientific beliefs that have always held women back.
I’m a sociologist who researches the perils women experience on a daily basis simply for existing. In studying the systemic nature of sexism, I’ve learned that men and women alike can contribute to gender inequality in seemingly innocuous ways, including through what might seem like small talk.
Hysteria and menstrual taboos
One big problem with asking about periods has to do with the underlying assumptions behind that question. The same person who might want to find out if there’s a legitimate reason for their male colleague to become angry, frustrated or agitated might ascribe those same reactions in a woman to menstruation.
All women are subjected to this assumption regardless of whether they actually have the capability to menstruate or don’t for whatever reason, including menopause and being transgender. This double standard rests on assumptions of female biological inferiority and reinforces a prejudice stretching back to ancient times.
For most of history, women in many cultures were denied equal access to public spaces and career opportunities for one reason: having a uterus.
Female reproductive organs supposedly rendered women too “hysterical” – an English term derived from the Greek word “hysterika,” meaning uterus – to rule, learn or give any sort of valuable input. Although the symptoms of hysteria changed throughout cultural contexts, symptoms were consistently connected to the prevailing medical beliefs of women’s biological anatomy.
The ancient Greeks believed women were hysterical because they had “roaming uteruses” that moved around within their bodies. In the Victorian era, the British referred to it as a “nervous-weakness” or “faintness” – never mind that women were expected to wear tight corsets that made it hard to breathe. Regardless, the men diagnosing hysteria used it to justify keeping women at home and out of the public realm.
Throughout time and in most cultures, labeling women as “hysterical” continued to suggest that women’s competence, or lack thereof, remained anchored to their reproductive organs. And since men don’t have periods – with rare exceptions – they seemed to be more rational and reliable.
Not moving on
Research suggests that millennials and members of Generation Z – Americans born between 1995 and 2015 – are more accepting of people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity than earlier generations. Despite that, I’ve found that sexism remains a daunting problem for young adults.
I spent three years conducting a study involving roughly 185 college students attending two large universities in different parts of the country. The majority were women, and two-thirds were white. I asked the participants, who were between 18-21 years old, to write down anything they perceived, witnessed, experienced or observed to be examples of sexism for six weeks.