By now we have all been caught up in #Bloodgate. Donald Trump’s chauvinistic gaffe about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly menstruating has (slightly) damaged his reputation among Republicans, leading to retracted invitations and the implausible explanation that he was referring to her nose. “I cherish women,” Trump later added.
As archaic and crass as The Donald is, he’s not the first to see menstruation as a drain on a woman’s intellect. Just this week the Daily Mail censored a picture of London marathon runner Kiran Gandhi, who dared to “free flow” during the competition. Many of us grew up on menstruation jokes, the punch line of which was ‘never trust an animal that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.’ This is not some modern Western hang-up: menophobia (the fear of menstrual blood) is a cross-cultural phenomenon. The sociologist Emile Durkheim actually hypothesized that religion developed as a partial response to the “repulsing action” of menstruation.
In the Jewish religious imagination, blame for what is actually the primordial “curse” is often placed squarely on Eve. Eve is seen as responsible for all of the unpleasantness of the reproductive process: menstruation and childbirth included.
In the ritual regulations that make up the book of Leviticus, menstrual blood turns out to be something of a problem. According to the book’s priestly author, menstruation is a cause of ritual impurity. Not only is a menstruating woman impure for seven days, but anyone who touches her is unclean “until the evening” (Lev. 15:19). Sex is squarely out of the question (unless you want to bring seven days of impurity on yourself) and, in the meantime, everything she sits or lies on also becomes unclean. The impurity associated with menstruation—much like the impurity associated with skin diseases or emissions of semen—was communicable through touch.
The prohibition on contact with menstruating women is not found only in Judaism. The Koran prohibits intercourse during menses (2:222) and the Hindu Laws of Manu indicate that a woman becomes purified from menstruation when she bathes at the conclusion of her period (6:66). Bathing post-period appears to have been the cross-cultural cure-all, but until menses were over women were contagious. Until 2005, Hindu women in Nepal were forced to live in cowsheds during their period. To this day some traditional members of Orthodox Christianity abstain from receiving Holy Communion during menstruation.
But this is about more than either cleanliness or ritual purity. The idea that menstrual blood poses a health risk is evident in a variety of cultures. The ancient Jewish collection of rabbinic opinions known as the Talmud reads, “If a menstruant woman passes between two [men], if it is at the beginning of her menses, she will slay one of them, and if it is at the end of her menses, she will cause strife between them” (b. Pesaḥ. 111a). Watch out, Chris Wallace and Brett Baier.
Trump may not have been one of the Republican nominees who paraded their Christianity around the arena in Cleveland, but there is a religious basis to (this part of) his misogyny.
And all of this anxiety about women’s reproductive cycles leaves aside the old wives’ tales about how menstruating women shouldn’t attend funerals, bake bread, or pickle vegetables.
But why do we obsess over a biological process experienced by the majority of (although not all) women?
Part of it is to do with the way that menstrual blood reminds us that the human body is not hermetically sealed from the world around it. To an extent, as UNC-Charlotte anthropologist Jon Marks told me, “All bodily fluids are symbolically charged—phlegm, urine, etc. Probably the symbolic ambiguity is that they are both part of you and not part of you simultaneously. Mucus, ear wax, saliva.” At the same time though, “Blood…is sort of in a class by itself, because it indicates so much, from valor, essence, and ancestry to illness and infertility.”
This is not to say that menstruation does not have its advantages, even in religious contexts. Menstruating women can be exempted from the fasting that accompanies Ramadan and, in some cultures, are encouraged to avoid work. In her book Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb describes how among the Beng people of Cote d’Ivoire, menstruating women are released from work in the fields and instead cook a special sweet palm-nut sauce. The fact that members of the community prize this particular dish suggests that menstruation is not naturally or necessarily taboo.
Perhaps Trump will take solace in the knowledge that, while he’s a throwback to an earlier, Pre-Enlightenment age, he’s hardly alone in finding women’s bodily discharges repulsive. And who knows, perhaps there’s a business opportunity here. Trump Red Tents does have a nice ring to it. While you’re building the wall between us and Mexico, Donald.