A few months back, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new birth control pill, Lybrel. It is as effective at preventing pregnancy as the other pills already in the market, but overrides them with one advantage: Women who take it will never get their periods.
Lybrel is landing on pharmacy shelves this month. Now menstruation may never be the same- it may disappear altogether.
Already the first few volleys in this battle have been exchanged, a barrage of advertising and research highlighting the debilitating effects of periods and the joys of menstrual suppression.
Women libbers may argue- periods and their mood swings are bad for family values (cranky mothers), bad for women's health, bad for the fashion industry and bad for the economy (leave taken on grounds of period pain).
In a presentation by Lybrel's maker, Wyeth, to investors and analysts last October, Dr. Ginger D. Constantine, the company's therapeutic director for women's health, laid the groundwork. Citing company-backed studies, she reported that menstruating women feel less effective at work and take more sick days. Not only that, but they don't exercise and they wear dark clothes more often, she said.
Suddenly, news articles are weighing the pros and cons of the monthly cycles. Yet, history shows that such debates are, well, cyclical.
In the 1870s and 1880s, when Americans were debating the value of higher education for women, a flurry of research asserted that women's cycling constitutions made them unfit for sustained mental and physical labor.
Henry Maudsley, a British doctor, reflected popular opinion when he observed that menstruation doomed girls to failure in college.
Comparing boys and girls, Maudsley insisted in an article, was "not a question of two bodies and minds that are in equal physical condition, but of one body and mind capable of sustained and regular hard labor, and of another body and mind which one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for hard work."
After women pressed ahead, attended college and excelled in the halls of learning, the debate about menstrual cycles shifted from their suitability for higher education to their suitability for public life in general. When the suffragists asked to participate in the political process, experts retaliated with more research proving that women belonged in the domestic sphere; menstruation figured prominently among the reasons.
Once women won the right to vote in 1920, the menstruation-equals-inadequacy debate waned for a while. In fact, two decades later, new proof arrived that women were perfectly fit and capable (even when bleeding) and therefore should step right up and join the war effort.
But after the war, a fresh batch of studies were released proving that children need their moms at home, that the workplace is potentially hazardous to women's unborn children and that women's cycles make them less efficient workers than men.
In any case, the present debate against such a pill is not a particularly profitable attitude for Wyeth, as it angles for its share of the $1.7 billion annual American market for birth control pills.
So as business-savvy officials re-conceptualize menstruation as a disease in need of treatment, bleeding women may well be in for a lot of confusion- to stop or not to?