Janis and Geneva in a moment of menstrual camaraderie
At the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (the “other” menstrual museum, abbreviated as “MUM”), the focus is on only one menstrual synchrony researcher, that is, Martha McClintock.
MUM excerpts “from pages 123-124 of “Rebels in White Gloves: Coming of Age with Hillary’s Class – Wellesley ‘69” by Miriam Horn, 1999” as follows:
“Martha McClintock was just 20 years old when, perched at the edge of a room full of the world’s top biologists, she broke into their conversation with an observation that would become the basis for a study of major scientific importance. It was the summer after her junior year at Wellesley, and Martha was invited, with a handful of other students, to attend a conference at Jackson Laboratory in Maine. The scientists were discussing pheromones – chemical messages that pass between organisms without their conscious knowledge – and how they cause female mice to ovulate all at the same time. McClintock recalled the event for Chicago magazine:
“Driven by curiosity despite my self-consciousness, I mention that the same thing happens in humans. Didn’t they know that? All of them being male, they didn’t. In fact, I got the impression that they thought it was ridiculous. But they had the courtesy to frame their skepticism as a scientific question: “What is your proof?” I said it was what happened in my dormitory. And they said unless you address it scientifically, that evidence is worthless.”
Her Wellesley faculty advisor, Patricia Sampson, encouraged Martha to take up the challenge, and the 135 women in her dorm agreed to participate. Each woman recorded the dates (…). She wrote up her results as her senior thesis and the next year, in graduate school at Harvard, was urged by E.O. Wilson, the sociobiologist famous for his studies of chemical signaling among ants, to submit her findings to Nature Magazine. In 1971, when Martha was twenty-three, the paper was the first scientific evidence ever presented of the functioning of human pheromones.”
Let us simply call the above sequence of events “The McClintock Moment” – a woman entering a male-dominated scientific field (“perched at the edge of a room full of the world’s top biologists”); having an insight arising out of female “embodied knowledge” (“Didn’t they know that? All of them being male, they didn’t.”) And then in the end, having her insight confirmed experimentally (“…the paper was the first scientific evidence ever presented of the functioning of human pheromones.”).
So, not only is women’s personal involvement in the coincidence of menstrual overlap a powerful motivator for a belief in menstrual synchrony, so too is the “McClintock Moment.” This curator herself can remember a similar moment as an undergraduate, while in the office of Richard D. Alexander (Professor of Animal Behavior, Ecology at the University of Michigan and author of the classic text “Evolution and Human Behavior”). I had carefully written out my questions in a notebook, in case fear made my mind go completely blank. It was a short interview: It ended when Alexander replied irritably to one of my questions: “Science will never understand that. Do you think it should?” Perhaps if I’d known then of McClintock’s experience, I’d have been able to stand my ground, and answer: “Yes. I think it should!”
However, it is entirely possible to honor the pivotal moment that McClintock’s initial insight and subsequent research represented, and at the same time, respect the decades of further research done by scientists all over the world, which at best presents an ambiguous picture of menstrual synchrony’s validity.
We can also look for other examples of female researchers as role models, such as Lisa Ludvico, who studied “female reproductive strategies” in horses. In “The Wild Mares of Assateague” by Nancy Marie Brown (Research/Penn State, Vol. 16, no. 4 (March, 1995)), Ludvico explains: “I think the whole focus of my study…is to look at female reproductive strategies where you don’t expect to find them – where you don’t expect it because of the label, harem.”
We can also educate ourselves as to the ways in which ethnic background, family of origin issues, socioeconomic status, language, sexual orientation, health issues, and so on, can lead to their own important scientific insights and areas of research.
But even if some MOLT visitors are willing to “honor the moment, respect the decades,” others may still resist giving up menstrual synchrony as a real phenomenon. Perhaps this reluctance has to do with a belief that there are no other ways to experience menstrual camaraderie, that is, to experience menstruation as a shared, positive event.
Is it true, however, that 30 years after McClintock’s original study, there are no other ways? Other than the by-now familiar exchange of:
A: “I just got my period.”
B: “So did I! We must be synchronizing!”
Is this as good as it gets? And without this single opportunity to “say something good” about menstruation, are we left with nothing to say at all?
By way of example, this curator invited a friend over shortly before the first Menstrual Monday holiday, to help put together Menstrual Monday Starter Kits. We both happened to be on our periods at the time; at one point I became aware of the odor of menstrual blood, and realized I couldn’t tell if it was her flow, or mine, or both of ours, that I was smelling! I experienced this as menstrual camaraderie; whether this was a result of pheromonally-induced menstrual synchrony (doubtful, because we were living in different cities at the time), or “mere” menstrual overlap, is ultimately irrelevant.
And not only is there Menstrual Monday, the holiday, and Menstrual Monday Starter Kits, there are all kinds of kits available for menstruating women, as well as a deck of “Hot Flash” cards for menomavens experiencing menopause. There is the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, Bloodsisters in Montreal, Helynna Brook’s Menstrual Millennium listserv, a menstrual conference in the UK in January 2003, TWO menstrual museums, videos, books, music, poetry, aromatic oils, cartoons, recipes, Period Pride tote bags, documentaries, teas, and coming soon…a Traveling Menstrual Show of menstrual ads full of the spirit of menstrual camaraderie.
Regardless of whether menstrual synchrony is someday proven to be true, or vice versa, false, these many opportunities for menstrual camaraderie are a wonderful legacy of McClintock’s groundbreaking research. Enjoy!