Overview:

Spain is giving women with severe period pain three days off per month but there are concerns about whether it will end or perpetuate stigma.

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Chances are good that you know someone who suffers from intense menstrual distress: cramping, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea, just to name a few.

You might even be that person.

I’ve been lucky in that, despite having a uterus, it rarely acts up too badly. But I see it all around me: in family members, in friends, in students who email me to let me know their cramps are so awful, they can barely sit up, let alone attend class.

In the US, we’re living without a unified healthcare policy, where severe medical needs may simply go ignored in the workplace, schools, and domestic life. The prevailing message is too often, “Suck it up, buttercup,” and be prepared to be denied if you request any type of accommodation.

It’s ableist, it’s misogynist, and quite frankly, horrible.

But Spain has taken a vastly different approach by introducing policies to allow women up to three days of medical leave off per month if they experience debilitating period symptoms. The rationale is that period symptoms are a legitimate medical condition, and people whose uteruses make them suffer to a high degree are likely to take off work anyway.

Beyond the medical leave, Spain’s new policy will include lower taxes on menstrual products, as well as making them available for free in schools, which seems quite sensible, since young people are required to be in schools. To deny them free access to a basic hygiene product that roughly half of them will need to exist comfortably there is simply cruel.

Not surprisingly, there has been some pushback against these policies: one woman asked why, if her husband has debilitating migraines, he cannot take a similar kind of leave? Ideally, yes. Migraines are horrible. So are menstrual symptoms for many people. Hopefully, if Spain is willing to create these types of inclusive policies, others will follow.

Another concern might be the stigma around periods that these types of policies could enforce. The belief that periods are gross, or punishment in some religions, is already quite pervasive. Specific medical leave policies could perpetuate existing stereotypes around women being the “weaker” sex, needing coddling and supervision rather than the agency to make our own decisions around our own bodies.

And, finally, there’s a long history of assuming women are inferior and incapable, so I worry that these policies might reinforce this belief—that women are just using them to get out of work since we don’t belong outside the home in the first place. Dr. Thomas Laqueur was among the first to analyze the history of sexed bodies in European thought and medicine in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, arguing that throughout much of Western history, women were viewed as inverted, inferior versions of men. For example, men had external genitals whereas women’s were more like penises pushed inside the body to form a womb.

Bizarrely misogynist ideas have been pervasive in medicine, from the European folk belief that if pregnant women were scared by an animal, her baby would resemble that animal, to the idea that the post-pregnancy body is impure, which comes from my own familial tradition of Jewish belief. But even though we know that gender essentialism is sexist and that we’re all made of the same parts, arranged differently, not everyone has adopted these findings as truth. And, this type of policy could add fuel to a fire we’re hoping to extinguish.

But if we are able to look at this new menstrual leave policy as a step toward acknowledging the suffering that many people experience, especially when it’s highly gendered and has been dismissed as imagined, then I’m in favor of it.

Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...