When a group of academics and doctors decided to form the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in 1979, a well-meaning colleague approached Alice Dan and told her he disagreed with its name. He suggested that instead of forming an independent organization, Dan's group should join forces with his Reproductive Health Foundation, "because menstruation is an aspect of reproduction."
"That's a male perspective, that menstruation is only important because it's part of reproduction," says Dan, professor of medical surgical nursing and director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We told him, 'Oh, no. Actually, reproduction is just one part of the menstrual cycle.' So you can see the difference perspective can make."
There weren't any forums for academics doing menstruation research to share their findings when Dan planned the first conference on the subject in 1977. Menstruation was an even more taboo subject than it is today. Tampons were not advertised on television, and women suffering from menstrual cramps were told they would cease after they had a baby or learned to accept their feminine role, Dan recalls. It was common for doctors to tell women experiencing symptoms of early menopause that they were "too young" to be going through it. "Victim blaming isn't quite the right term," she says. "But there was certainly a lack of respect for women's experience."
The stigma and misconceptions remain, despite 20 years of work by researchers and activists. "The simple answer is sexism," says Dan. "We've come a long way, but there are still vestiges of this notion that somehow men know better about life in general."
She cites an article in an April issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association in which a "Dr. D.," presenting a case study of a woman with irregular menses, wrote, "I think menses itself is just a very anxious thing. It's such an inconvenient thing in life."
"I think that's a remarkable commentary for somebody who is a resident, which means they got their medical training very recently," says Dan. "People often say menstruation is a pretty negative experience for women. It is and it isn't. Like many experiences it may have its negative sides, but its neutral or positive aspects are seldom seen."
Dan points out that the reproductive aspect of menstruation is ovulation, which comprises less than half of a woman's menstrual cycle. "Menstruation is an example of a biorhythm, and it also provides a very interesting way to study body-mind relationships.... Cycling is something that's not only about the menstrual cycle, but it gives us a perspective on ebb and flow, the notion that things go around and you don't have to act like you're always the same. That's an important insight."
The symposia and panels at the 12th conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research will address such topics as the pros and cons of hormone-replacement therapy, cross-cultural differences in women's experiences of menopause, the female body in advertising, and Jewish purity laws. Speakers include Susan Love, a breast surgeon and author, and Harry A. Finley, founder and director of the Museum of Menstruation in Hyattsville, Maryland.
The conference, which meets every other year, starts at noon Thursday, June 5, with a keynote address by Love on the medicalization of menopause at 3:30. It continues all day Friday and from 9:30 to 3 on Saturday at UIC's Chicago Circle Center, 750 S. Halsted. It's $225 for the entire conference ($150 for students), $125 for the Friday program only, and $100 for either Thursday or Saturday. Call 312-413-9434 for more. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alice Dan photo by Katrina Witcamp.