When Donald Trump said that Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” he showed that cultural taboos and biological misconceptions about female menstruation die hard. Trump later denied implying that Kelly asked him unfair questions in the first Republican presidential debate because she was having her period, but rather said he was referring to blood coming out of her nose.
His original comment — made at a time when women are running corporations, countries and for U.S. president — caused a public furor. It sounded curiously like an echo from 50 years ago, when Western women began entering the workforce in droves even as many men in power — and some women, like conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly — insisted that females were hormonally ill-suited for positions of authority.
Indeed, it’s hard to find a society, a religion or a part of the world that does not find some way to make women feel dirty, guilty, unworthy or dangerous because of their monthly cycle. “Menstrual taboos are so widespread, they’re almost a cultural universal,” says Beverly Strassmann, evolutionary anthropologist and biologist at the University of Michigan who studies menstrual taboos.
Yet there are exceptions: societies that treat menstruating women with respect.
The negative associations with menstruation are well-known. Women may be prohibited from sexual intercourse, banned from places of worship or segregated in special huts. Various theories about the widespread prohibitions and restrictions range from false beliefs that menstrual blood carries toxic bacteria to fears that the blood triggers castration anxiety in men to beliefs that the smell of the blood disturbs animals and interferes with hunting.
But some cultures have a different attitude. In societies where women might have their period only every two years or so because of frequent pregnancies and long breastfeeding, there might be fewer negative associations with menstruation, says Alma Gottlieb, professor of anthropology and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois and author of Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation.
“Yurok, a native tribe from the northwest coast of the United States stratified by class, had a group of aristocratic women who saw their periods as a time for purifying themselves,” she says. As many women living in close proximity do, this group had their periods at the same time each month. “They were on a shared menstrual cycle and did a series of rituals during the cycle that they said was a period of their most heightened spiritual experience.”
The Rungus women from Borneo, she says, are pretty blasé about their periods. “They don’t say it’s pure, they don’t say it’s polluting,” says Gottlieb. “It’s just a bodily fluid that needs to be evacuated. They don’t make a big deal of it.”
Among the Ulithi women of the South Pacific, she says, breastfeeding women join menstruating women in huts, along with their children. “It’s kind of a party atmosphere.” The huts can be a torturous experience for women in some places, but “there are many other variations on the theme,” she says.
In some parts of Ghana, West Africa, young girls sit under beautiful, ceremonial umbrellas when they begin menstruating. “The family would give her gifts and pay her homage,” says Gottlieb. “She is celebrated like a queen.”
For the Deng women of Ivory Coast, Gottlieb found that male-imposed restrictions on menstruating women come with a more positive twist. “An older man, a religious leader in the local religion, told me menstruation is like the flower of a tree. You need the flower before the tree can fruit,” she says. “That’s a very different ideology than the ideology of sin, dirt, pollution.”