The XX Factor

Thanks, but We Will Pass on Paid Menstrual Leave

A businesswoman types, sheds her uterine lining, and talks on the phone.

Should Paid ‘Menstrual Leave’ Be a Thing?” asks Emily Matchar this morning at the Atlantic. In some countries, it already is. Japan passed a law in 1947 granting seirikyuuka (“menstrual leave”) to women enduring painful periods.* In South Korea, a 2004 revision to the country’s labor act set aside one day a month for women to stay home and stew. (When that right was threatened in 2006, more than 5,000 female professionals took to the courts.) In Indonesia, the grace period lasts for two days every month—though, Matchar notes, employers don’t always follow regulations and may even require women to prove they are bleeding by submitting their underwear for inspection. Taiwan provides three days of period leave a year. In Russia last summer, a politician proposed a draft law cordoning off two days a month for female workers to nurse their lady complaints. Here is his rationale:

During that period (of menstruation), most women experience psychological and physiological discomfort. The pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance … Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colorful expressions of emotional discomfort.

Menstruation represents “not only a medical, but also a social problem,” the lawmaker concludes.

Well, not really. “Colorful expressions of emotional discomfort” aside (and whose problem is that?), as Matchar points out, about one-fifth of women experience dysmenorrhea—the kind of debilitating period pain that could interfere with daily life. But companies with fair sick-leave policies should be able to accommodate these women without prying into their pants. For some of the countries that offer menstrual leave, the gesture is framed as an advancement in workplace equity: a way to integrate “embodied femininity” into the office. The Atlantic piece quotes a researcher, Alice J. Dan, who refers to Japan’s law as “a symbol of women’s emancipation … a way to speak openly about their bodies and to gain social recognition for their role as workers.”

But if women really want to demystify their bodies in their places of employment, maybe they should just drag those menstruating bodies to work and give their colleagues the play-by-play. (“Hold that thought. Gotta change my tampon.”) Mostly, these policies reinforce bizarre ideas about female anatomy and fertility—like the notion that ladies “who don’t rest during their menses will have difficulty in childbirth later,” or that “the fairer sex” can’t function while their uterine lining sheds.

Matchar is more fair-minded than I, weighing whether period leave amounts to “reverse sexism or a reasonable human rights move.” Does the time off have to perpetuate weird myths about our traumatic, crazy cycles—or can it just cut us some slack when we feel drained and low?

The problem is that it does both, and whether or not we deserve the extra slack (we don’t), we definitely don’t deserve the added attention to—or annoyingly reverent theorizing around—our ovaries. They will be fine! Nor is menstrual leave analogous to maternity leave, as Matchar suggests. While the first addresses a real need to care for a living person you have expelled from your body, and care for your own body out of which a living person was just expelled, the second recasts cramps and crankiness as mysterious ailments beyond the therapeutic powers of aspirin. One moment your boss is giving you days off to menstruate, the next he’s hiring a witch doctor to bless your uterus thrice upon the full moon. (Also, here’s a cool piece about the convergence of menstrual panic, misogyny, and Halloween fun in the female werewolf legend.) 

Therefore, I present my plea to employers. Give us tampons in our bathrooms! Give us Midol in our medicine cabinets! (I just checked Slate’s office stash: There is, nestled among Band-Aids and cough drops, a box of something called Pain-Aid premenstrual formula, which looks approximately 100 years old. But we do have communal cashews.) Give us plenty of paid sick leave for those days when we “are hunkered down under four blankets in soul-crushing pain,” as one of my colleagues puts it. Sometimes, some of us will need to sequester ourselves in lady caves of chocolate and cool washcloths and mumble to ourselves in an ancient tongue only she-dolphins can understand. But don’t offer us paid period leave. We’ll just spend it all taking self-pitying BuzzFeed quizzes.

Correction, May 20, 2014: This post originally mistranslated the Japanese term seirikyuuka to mean “physiological leave.” It means “menstrual leave.”