When Donald Trump wanted to dismiss Fox News host Megyn Kelly for treating him too harshly during the Republican debate last Thursday, he chose very particular imagery. “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” he said Friday on CNN.
It was immediately understood by many as an allusion to menstruation. That’s because there is a long history of using women’s monthly menses against them.
Curdling milk. Spoiling beer and wine. Drying rivers and wells, and killing off plants. Name the calamity, and a woman’s menstrual blood has been blamed for it. Pick a culture or religion, and you’ll probably find a prohibition applied only to women and girls who are bleeding – whether it’s abstaining from intercourse, being kept home from school or dietary restrictions. Menstruation is so stigmatized that “feminine products” are hidden away in drugstores and spoken about in commercials in cheerily euphemistic ways (and colors).
Once women began to demand roles and responsibilities that had once been wholly reserved for men, the period stigma took on new life. It was seen as proof of women’s essential inconstancy and weakness, compared to men’s allegedly strong steadiness.
In 1995, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich declared that of course women couldn’t go into combat. “Females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections, and they don’t have upper body strength.” Rep. Pat Schroeder, an outspoken feminist, thought the 30-day mark was no coincidence and interpreted the remark to refer to menstruation; others thought it referred to vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections.
In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton famously getting misty-eyed in New Hampshire in 2008, syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant portrayed a weeping Clinton under the headline “Madam President Meets the Bad Guys,” complaining of meanness in the face of dictators and terrorists. A tiny Bill Clinton pops out of the corner to note, “This is when PMS goes nuclear.” Asked on the “O’Reilly Factor” in 2008 what the downside is of having a female president – a loaded question if there ever was one – author Marc Rudov cracked, “You mean besides the PMS and the mood swings, right?” He later insisted, “Well, you know, I’m joking. Of course, the main problem I have is if a woman has a female agenda.”
In 2009, when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to be a justice on the Supreme Court, former Nixon official and conservative radio host G. Gordon Liddy expressed his fervent hope that “the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then.”
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has maintained a particular obsession with women synchronizing their menstrual periods. He has said he thinks it would help women in the military be “ready to be Banshees.” He wondered whether it was the reason that the women who accused then-Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexually harassing them appeared together. “I did ask yesterday, what’s the big deal with the panel here?” he asked in 2011. “Do they want to synchronize their menstrual periods?”
Nothing lasts forever, including menstruation. Next comes menopause, which carries its own stigma, the assumption that a woman is no longer biologically or sexually relevant. For the woman who is an avatar of gender anxieties, Hillary Clinton, it was a new opportunity to engage in biological determinism. Earlier this year, Time magazine drew fire for running a piece by a psychiatrist that asserted that Clinton was the perfect age to run for president. It contained the sentence, “ A woman emerging from the transition of perimenopause blossoms,” and the observation that Clinton “would have all the experience and self-assurance of a postmenopausal woman.” They call it the “change,” but to Clinton, it probably felt like more of the same.