Editor’s note: In honor of Menstrual Equity Day (May 28), Ms. is republishing this classic piece from its first issue in 1972. The original piece (below) was written by Dr. Estelle Ramey; the introduction—written by Ramey’s granddaughter, Jessica Stender, Ms. contributor and feminist lawyer—is a modern revisit of topics explored by Ramey in ’72.
The cry that anatomy is destiny has held women back for centuries. Inherent in this claim is the idea that women’s hormones render them unfit for positions of leadership.
In 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman—Vice President Humphrey’s physician and a member of the Democratic Party’s Committee on National Priorities—dismissed U.S. Representative Patsy Mink’s assertion that a woman could be president, by referencing women’s “raging storms of monthly hormonal imbalances.”
The woman who subsequently held him to account was Dr. Estelle Ramey—my grandmother.
In a letter published in the Washington Star, she observed that as an endocrinologist (specializing in the study of hormones), she was “startled to learn that ovarian hormones are toxic to brain cells.” This led to a highly publicized debate between the two, hosted by the National Women’s Press Club, (women were barred at that time from membership in the National Press Club)—a confrontation that ultimately nurtured a broader public awareness of the scientific invalidity of such arguments.
In “Men’s Cycles (They Have Them Too You Know)”—published in the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972 and republished here—Dr. Ramey exposed the inherent sexism of statements like Dr. Berman’s. She explained that hormonal variations affect all human beings, and that, although far less acknowledged, men also experience monthly hormonal cycles which cause changes in mood, energy and overall well-being.
She emphasized that the broader failure to accept this reality not only prevents an understanding of how these cycles affect men’s physical and mental health, but also perpetuates the myth of women’s inferiority owing to their inherent biological difference from men.
As Dr. Ramey pointed out, “What is human and the same about the males and females classified as Homo Sapiens is much greater than the differences.”
While progress has unquestionably been made in society’s views of female capabilities, women continue to be denigrated and denied positions of power on the pretext of physiological inferiority. One need look no further than the current occupant of the White House, who crudely suggested that reporter Megyn Kelly had been on her period after she questioned him during a presidential debate, and who repeatedly makes demeaning comments about women’s appearance, proper role, and emotional strength—referring, for example, to Hillary Clinton as “unstable,” “unbalanced” and “unhinged.”
As noted by Dr. Ramey, a broader societal recognition of the inherent similarities between the sexes, will require a rejection of the “mythology of male biological stability”—an imperative which has not yet become a reality, perhaps because “logic has little to do with the impulse to enshrine and justify a power structure.”
Men’s Cycles (They Have Them Too, You Know)
“Male supremacy rests on the belief that women are defective men, since they are periodic and lack the rod of divinity.”
Sooner or later at every cocktail party polemic on the subject of women, someone (usually male) plays the trump card.
“You have to admit,” says the accuser, all sweet reason and paternalism, “that women are biologically different from men.”
This is the cue for cries of “Vive la différence,” or other examples of sexual wit, and the argument for social justice being made by the defendant (usually female) tends to get drowned out in the innuendo and laughter.
As an endocrinologist, I found out long ago that men and women are different. But I also found that what is human and the same about the males and females classified as Homo sapiens is much greater than the differences. I think we are all beginning to understand that “different”––when applied to females, or to males of other races––has been exaggerated and oddly interpreted in order to come out synonymous with “inferior.”
In fact, the accusations and laughter so common in living room debates are almost gestures of religious faith: forms of worshipping the great Freudian tenet, “Anatomy Is Destiny.”
As a rational justification of sex discrimination becomes harder and harder to find, much less sustain, the need for the religious masculine supremacy becomes greater and more intense. The newest wave of pseudo-biology and pseudo-anthropology to hit the publishing business, a wave typified by Lionel Tiger and his belief that human females should behave in the same way baboon females do, is a self-protective upsurge of this popular religion.
In practice, the religion rests on the belief that women are defective men. They are structurally lacking, since they lack the rod of divinity.
(Of course, Mother Goddesses have been worshipped for precisely the reverse reason––that they have wombs, and men do not––but logic has little to do with the impulse to enshrine and justify a power structure.)
Furthermore, females lack the consistent and calm behavior of males, because women suffer from a form of periodic lunacy imposed by their lunar sex hormone rhythms. Men, according to this theory, are the natural leaders, being endowed with a biological stability that rivals that of the rocks.
To be fair, the recurrent drama of menstrual bleeding must have been unnerving to primitive peoples. In man, the shedding of blood is always associated with injury, disease or death. Only the female half of humanity was seen to have the magical ability to bleed profusely and still rise phoenix-like each month from the gore.
But now that human knowledge has exceeded the invention of elaborate myths to explain the events most obvious in nature, we should be willing to accept and to study the less obvious evidence of cycles, both monthly and daily, that affect all living things––men as well as women, plants as well as animals.
Because men do have monthly cycles. The evidence of them may be less dramatic, but the monthly changes are no less real.
In Denmark, for instance, a careful, sixteen-year study was conducted in which male urine was tested for the fluctuating amounts of male sex hormones it contained. The result: A pronounced 30-day rhythm was revealed through the ebb and flow of hormones.
Other studies have tested mood changes in men. More than 40 years ago, for instance, the late Dr. Rex Hersey believed that male factory workers were incorrectly thought to be stable and unchanging in their daily capabilities. For a year, he observed both management and workers, concentrating on a group of men who seemed particularly well-adjusted and at ease in their jobs.
Through a combination of four-times-a-day interviews with the workers, regular physical examinations, and a supplementary set of interviews with their families, he arrived at charts for each individual, showing that emotions varied predictably within the rhythm of 24 hours, and within the larger rhythm of a near-monthly cycle of four to six weeks.
Low periods were characterized by apathy, indifference or a tendency to magnify minor problems out of all proportion. High periods were often marked by a feeling of well-being, energy, a lower body weight and a decreased need for sleep.
Each man tended to deny that he was more or less irritable, more or less amiable, at different points in his cycle—but standardized psychological tests established clearly that he responded very differently to the same life stresses at different times of his cycle. This denial by men of a cyclicity traditionally accepted by women may be an important factor: a two-edged sword for both men and women.
Female acceptance of, and even obsession with, the monthly cycle may unnecessarily accentuate its effects. Women actively engaged in ego-satisfying work, for instance, report far less discomfort or emotional disarray during their biological ups and downs than women who are bored or relegated to stultifying jobs.
Even the statistical information derived by science is reported in a culturally-influenced way. Monthly discomforts are rightly regarded as “normal” in women, because 60 percent of all women report them.
But the obvious converse––that 40 percent of all women report no cycle symptoms––is emphasized much less. And 40 percent is a lot of women.
It is forever being pointed out, too, that women have a higher incidence of car accidents and suicides during their “periods.” However, it is rarely added that the percentage of women who have accidents or commit suicide is still much lower than the percentage of men.
Men, on the other hand, also respond to cycles in a way that is a function of their culturally-acquired self-image. They deny it.
“This reluctance to deal with their biological bondage”
This reluctance to deal with their biological bondage has probably played down men’s monthly symptoms compared to women’s, since the human brain is extraordinarily powerful and suggestible. But it has also postponed the study of male cycles by a largely male scientific community, and therefore postponed the practical utilization of biological rhythms in the treatment of disease or in protection against disease both mental and physical. (Resistance to disease may be different at different points in the cycle, for instance, yet this possibility is rarely considered in treatment. Japanese researchers have discovered psychoses that occur in teenagers and adult men in near-monthly cycles.)
Study of men’s cycles might even have the socially and commercially useful result of reducing the accident rate.
The directors of the Omi Railway Company of Japan, for instance, are pragmatic students of human behavior and have therefore decided to accept the fact that men have lunar cycles of mood and efficiency. This company operates a private transport system of more than 700 buses and taxis in dense traffic areas of Kyoto and Osaka.
Because their operations were plagued with high losses due to accidents, the Omi efficiency experts began in 1969 to make studies of each man and his lunar cycles and to adjust routes and schedules to coincide with the appropriate time of the month for each worker. They report a one-third drop in Omi’s accident rate in the past two years, despite the fact that during the same period traffic increased. The benefit to the company––and to the men––has been substantial.
“Another kind of cycle, the daily or ‘circadian’ cycle, has often been ignored or taken for granted by both men and women”
Menopause in men has been studied somewhat more than the effects of their monthly cycles, but not enough.
For women, the menopause is an abrupt end to an obvious cyclicity, and it is made more traumatic by various cultural factors: Older women are often regarded as having less social value than older men, and women’s main role as mother is likely to run out about the time of menopause, as children become independent and leave home.
For men, menopause appears to be less traumatic, being largely a social and psychological response to a generalized fear of aging and death. They are likely to be at the height of their careers at this crucial time, in great contrast to most women. (Among women, those with continuing ego-satisfying work suffer menopausal symptoms much less.)
But it is also true that there is a gradual decrease in the secretion of testosterone, the male hormone, from youth to old age. In some men, the downslope of sex hormone production is steeper than in others. Very little attention has been given to this part of the male life cycle, perhaps again because men––even men of science––have assumed their freedom from cycles. (One wonders sometimes if they prefer not to know.)
But a great deal more research into the male menopause needs to be done if men are to be relieved medically from some of its symptoms, and to suffer less from the personal implications of trying to deny biological facts.
So there are, for all living things, lunar cycles, as well as the longer life cycles of childhood, puberty, adulthood and senescence. But another kind of cycle—the daily or “circadian” one—has often been either ignored or taken for granted by both men and women.
The data just beginning to come out of hospitals and laboratories are rather startling. They show men and women to be in a constant 24-hour rhythmic flux of hormones, moods, strengths and weaknesses. We sleep and wake, our body temperature rises and falls with our hormones (sex hormones included), and this causes a rise and fall of efficiency and libido.
These circadian rhythms are remarkably fixed in time and are difficult to alter by changes in lifestyle. They are also age-linked: The young child has more erratic timing of biological events, and the older person shows signs of disorganization in daily timing. In healthy maturity, however, the adult human changes with clock-like regularity during each day, just as he or she does during each month, or each of life’s seasons.
The hormonal cycles that have been most studied are the periodic changes in the adrenal hormones (cortisone, for example), which are called the stress hormones. These vital substances are secreted in largest amounts about the time of waking in the morning, and in the smallest amounts after midnight. Their physiological effects, however, are not felt until several hours after the highs and lows are seen in blood levels of the hormones.
A similar pattern has been reported for the secretion of male and female sex hormones in the course of each day. Testosterone levels are found to be highest in early morning and lowest after midnight. The maximum functional effects seem to be reached several hours after the actual secretion of the hormones. They induce subtle changes in mood and behavior, but men are seldom aware of them. Many psychological tests have shown, however, that daily mood variability is a real and recurrent background to emotional response.
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In medicine, relatively little attention is being paid to the significance of these cyclic changes in hormones. Yet there is evidence to show that the timing of the administration of a drug is critical in determining its effects, whether toxic or curative.
When a certain dose of amphetamines was given to rats at the daily peak of their body temperature cycle, for instance, it killed 77.6 percent of them. The same dose, given to litter mates of these animals at the lowest point in their daily activity cycle, killed only 6 percent.
Yet we continue to prescribe and use buckshot capsules that release drugs at the same rate continuously into the blood stream with no regard to changes of sensitivity. Overdoses are probably errors in timing, as frequently as errors in dosage. If a person imposes a powerful stimulus on the brain when it is already at peak excitability for that 24-hour cycle, he or she can cause death with the same dose of the drug taken with impunity on another day, at another point in the excitability rhythm.
Cancer cells also seem to be affected by the circadian rhythms. They may be at their highest point of metabolic activity and cell division when normal cells in the same organ are at a low point. This has many implications for therapy, whether with anti-cancer chemicals or with X-rays. It may eventually be possible to time the treatment so that the cancer cells are at the peak of their sensitivity to the destructive agents while the normal cells are most resistant to them. Smaller doses of these toxic agents would thus be more curative, and the unpleasant side effects could be minimized.
Some clinicians and researchers are beginning to suggest that certain kinds of cancers may result from the consequences of altered internal clocks. Cancer cells have abnormal rhythms and are outside the temporal discipline found in healthy tissue. Some people are more sensitive than others to an alteration in their fundamental cyclicity.
Given these two facts, investigators propose that inheritance of susceptibility to cancer may be related to a propensity for mis-timing, and that a person’s speed of readjustment to time shifts could be an indicator of vulnerability to illnesses of mis-timing. Such individuals, they point out, should probably avoid irregular work-rest schedules and jobs involving rotating shifts. It’s still very much in the theoretical stage, but these concepts may turn out to be vital to the preventive medicine of the future.
Emotional problems may also be exaggerated in individuals who frequently alter their cyclicity. (But remember, individual tolerance of such changes varies. Ideally, those least suited to such jobs could be pre-selected out.) Workers who often change from night to day shifts have been found to be the most vulnerable to emotional and physical disorders.
Next come those workers who remain in the night shift: They are more likely than day workers to have ulcers or nervous disorders. And most healthy are those who work regularly and during the day.
Even the traveler who flies overnight to Tokyo or Peking has significantly deranged his or her circadian rhythms, and cerebral activity is likely to suffer. In addition, individuals vary greatly in their ability to restore normal cycles, sleep-wake patterns and performance.
Some of men’s most cherished tests of stamina have to do with the ability to function well without sleep, but these tests of manhood may be doing us all in. Interns, for instance, are traditionally put through round-the-clock work schedules during much of their internship, as if this were part of the training of a real doctor, like the puberty tests of primitive tribes. In fact, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that chronic sleep deprivation impaired the interns’ performance sharply, no matter how much of a “man” the male or female intern might be.
“Sleep-deprived interns,” said the study, “felt increased sadness and decreased vigor, egotism and social affection. In addition, numerous psychopathologic symptoms developed…”
Internal clocks aren’t reset easily. Even after ten hours’ sleep for each intern, the previous sleep-deprivation resulted in “decrements on a vigilance task.” The article concludes that only a small amount of sleep loss can be sustained before emotional and intellectual function deteriorates.
It seems hard for men to admit they are not the masters of nature. During World War II, Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman of the University of Chicago was asked by the Navy to study the sleep patterns of seamen working the traditional four-hour shifts of naval duty. Dr. Kleitman measured body temperature cycles and correlated these changes with efficiency of performance in the four-hour cycle. It turned out to be a terrible physiological way to run a Navy, with enormous cost in efficiency of response.
Dr. Kleitman wrote an eloquent scientific report on his findings. The Navy thanked him courteously and has continued the traditional four-hour work cycle to this day.
“Women’s chains have been forged by men, not by anatomy.”
Given this and a myriad of other evidences of male resistance, it is perhaps optimistic to expect our male-run hierarchies to take lessons from women, or even from the Japanese, when it comes to the less admissible problem of monthly cycles. Such a departure from the mythology of male biological stability might produce in men the same kind of psychological wrench that Copernicus inflicted on them when his theories revealed that man is not, in fact, the center of the universe.
But men––and women––should take heart. What separates us from baboons and other animals, even if Lionel Tiger would rather not admit it, is our very different kind of cerebral cortex.
We are Homo sapiens: the thinking ones. We share with other living creatures a captivity to time, but human beings, we alone have the extraordinary plasticity of behavior that results from the unique powers of our cerebral cortex. In other words, our minds can control our behavior to a degree unknown in any other animal. Perhaps we would all be better off if we recognized both the cycles that control humans, male and female, and the intellectual powers that can mitigate their effects.
Thomas Jefferson had periodic migraine headaches all his life. Abraham Lincoln had periodic depressions. The potential women leaders of this country have cycles, as all living things have to varying degrees, but women do not have the encouragement to mitigate and work around their cycles. Women’s chains have been forged by men, not by anatomy.
We should all be informed of the various forces that influence us. As Dylan Thomas wrote,
“Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the
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