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Is Eliminating Periods the Best We Can Offer?
Some big assumptions about what needs fixing about women
Next weekend, I’ll be speaking at the 2022 Effective Altruism for Christians conference. The whole thing is online, and my panel is “Is EA too utilitarian for Christians?” You can find more details and register here.
I call this newsletter Other Feminisms for two reasons: I want it to be a fruitful conversation space for people who feel like they don’t fit naturally into mainstream feminism. And, a little more specifically, I’m interested in examples of where a problem women encounter is acknowledged, but we’re offered a bad solution to it.
The Atlantic had an article a few years ago about chemically eliminating periods, which I feel falls into that second category.
The core claim made by Sophia Yen, a pediatrics professor at Stanford Medical School, is that periods are for pregnancy, and if you’re avoiding conception, a menstrual cycle is only a handicap.
Yen sees a future in which many more people know they can opt out, and do—in which no one menstruates unless they’re within two years of their first period or are trying to get pregnant. “In my ideal world, it would be about 28 periods over the course of a lifetime,” she said. Right now, that figure is in the hundreds. For Yen, a mother of two daughters—a 10-year-old who hasn’t gotten her period and a 13-year-old who has—that rebalancing would place her own children on a more level playing field with boys. Without periods, she says, they won’t miss two days of school or work each month, or get cramps during the SAT or swim meets, or deal with any of the other related stresses. “I want them to be competitive against those who don’t have uteruses,” Yen said. “Teenage years are so turbulent and horrific as is. I don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily—and I can alleviate this for my child.”
Difficult menstrual periods are a heavy burden for many women (not least because the menstrual cycle is under-researched). Already, hormonal contraception is offered as a fix for problems like irregular periods, heavy bleeding, or intense pain.
Treating the symptoms without being curious about the underlying problem can lead to greater difficulties down the line. The pill can cloak medical issues like PCOS or endometriosis for a while, but time spent simply treating symptoms with no follow-up care is time that pushes back a diagnosis and treatment of the real issue. (The median wait from symptoms to diagnosis of endometriosis is around seven years).
More than that, I’m troubled by the way that Yen’s perspective treats being a woman as too much of a disadvantage to tolerate. It’s true, the world tends to be built around a male default, and, in the short run, it can be helpful to have ways to better fit that mold. But, in the long term, it concedes too much to ask women to be better men.
And when it comes to Yen’s examples in particular, I’m troubled by the drive to eliminate interruptions; to make sure that we can always be going full tilt. I don’t want to help women “catch up” by eliminating the parts of our life that call for a pause. I want to work to build a gentler society that accommodates a range of reasons people can’t (and shouldn’t) go 24/7.
The enforced pause of a snow day is celebratory, but it’s also a stress test of our ability to weather the interruptions that are not shared. If our society can’t handle a snow day, then how will employers be prepared to be compassionate to the worker who has a burst pipe or a child with the flu? If the loss of a day’s wages sends a family spiraling into poverty, we have already left them too close to the brink. Their lack of breathing room was already suffocating them.