Aunt Flo Comes for a Visit – In Outer Space

| September 29, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

When NPR’s Adam Cole interviewed two female NASA astronauts for his science Tumblr “Skunk Bear,” the most common question listeners submitted to be asked to these highly-accomplished women was “What happens when you get your period in space?”  Although Adam did not ask the question on air, he posted the answer online (the same thing that happens on earth) along with a brief discussion of the persistent stereotypes that female astronauts have encountered in their quest to menstruate in space.  For example, from 1960-1962 the Lovelace Woman in Space Program tested female pilots to determine their suitability for space travel.  Although 13 of the 19 women passed these tests – beating out men (only 18 of 32 whom passed) in several areas –Sally Ride did not become the first female astronaut for more than two decades after that program ended.  In fact, the only publication resulting from the Lovelace Women in Space Program was a 1964 report by J.R. Betson and R.R. Secres, in which the men speculated that women shouldn’t be astronauts because it would be hard to operate the craft while PMS’ing; the pair wrote, “the intricacies of matching a temperamental psychophysiologic human and the complicated machine are many and, obviously, both need to be ready at the same time.”

Even today, more than 30 years after Ms. Ride entered space (and more than 50 years since Valentina Tereshkovaexited earth’s orbit to become the first woman in space) what happens to women who menstruate in space remains a pressing concern to journalists and governments alike.  For example, on its “Astronaut FAQ” page, the Canadian Space Agency addresses only one topic under the heading “Astronaut Health” – menses. Apparently, the Canadian Space Agency wants to make sure you know basic facts about space travel, like how many Canadian astronauts there are (2); how to contact an astronaut (carrier pigeon); and whether female astronauts get their periods in space (duh).

Despite the attention to this specific subject, periods are not just an issue for women in space.  Women at work in all fields – lawyers, teachers, accountants, construction workers, scuba divers, clowns – get their periods at work.  The disruption caused by this basic biological event is so concerning that in 2013 a Russian politician Mikhail Degtyaryov proposed a law that would give women two days off each month to deal with the complications of menstruation which, according to Mr. Degtyartov, is necessary in part because “the pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance.”  Countries including Japan and Korea already have such a law.

The pragmatic, economic, legal, and cultural problems with implementing such a law in the U.S. should be obvious enough that it bears little discussion (but you can read more hereherehereherehere or here if you’re inclined), particularly in a country where even paid maternity leave is difficult to come by.  Regardless of whether passing a law to give women of menstruating age two days off each month is as terrrrrrrrrrrible of an idea as it sounds (although believe me, I as much as any other woman of menstruating age would revel in two, non-weekend days a month to run errands, exercise, and catch up on the latest episodes of Suits), that doesn’t mean that nothing should be done for women in the workplace.  Instead, employers should provide tampons or sanitary pads, over the counter pain relief, and ample breaks so that women can easily cope with their periods at work.

Based on my highly-non-scientific sample of one, over the course of their menstruating lives many women will work in settings where their employers don’t acknowledge periods.  Before my current job, I worked in numerous non-profit and government offices with nary a tampon in sight to guard against unexpected visits from Aunt Flo.  I wonder how much productivity is lost each year by women ducking out to buy supplies or running to the bathroom to check on the make-shift wad of toilet paper stuffed in their underwear.   But apart from productivity, it’s also just a nice thing to do.