Weeping of a Disappointed Womb

Themes in mythology about the female reproductive system
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(Wikimedia)

In 1968, eight years after the FDA approved the birth control pill and one year after it was legalized for unmarried women, the publishing house of the LDS church released Living, Loving, and Marrying, an instructional handbook for youth of the faith. In a chapter titled “What Every Young Girl Should Know,” Lindsay R. Curtis, M.D., an OB-GYN and Mormon missionary, illustrated an egg’s journey from the ovaries with a series of pen-and-ink cartoons. If the egg is fertilized, one cartoon shows, she will wear lipstick and a veil as she meets her sperm groom in the Fallopian tube.

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(Living, Loving, and Marrying, 1968)

But no honeymoon in the uterus awaits the unfertilized egg. She will tumble from the body alone, her eyes wide with terror, reaching back with her small egg hands toward the chute that ejected her. A caption explains:

If the egg that is given off by the ovary is not fertilized, it merely passes on through the uterus, out the vagina, and is lost. The outer cells lining the uterus are then discarded for the month along with blood that is released as they tear themselves away from the wall. This is called “menstrual flow.” It is said that menstruation is the “weeping of a disappointed womb,” when pregnancy does not occur.

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(Living, Loving, and Marrying, 1968)

Curtis, who co-authored the book with a family counselor named Wayne J. Anderson, knew something about wombs. He was the first OB/GYN resident at the University of Utah, and led the women’s surgical section at Walter Reed hospital; he would go on to produce a nationally syndicated medical-advice column, “For Women Only,” and popular titles including Sensible Sex and Pregnant and Lovin’ It. Wombs, he surely knew, have no tear ducts. But while at odds with the latest medical wisdom, the portrayal of menstruation as malfunction was well timed.

Living, Loving, and Marrying arrived in bookstores against the tides of social change. Divorce rates were rising as states started to loosen the legal grounds for dissolution, making way for the next decade’s crop of no-fault laws. Women were gaining access to contraception and opportunities in the workplace. Birth rates were dropping. Curtis and Anderson dedicated their book to those couples who “seriously set about this business of ‘making our marriage work.’” And if marriage was a business, the reproductive system was its factory floor.

Past fears of a changing social order had inspired similar messages about procreation. A century before Living, Loving, and Marrying, Brigham Young delivered a sermon in Tooele, Utah, comparing birth control to infanticide. He warned that “the attempts to destroy and dry up the fountains of life,” among other “unnatural” behaviors,are fast destroying the American element of the nation; it is passing away before the increase of the more healthy, robust, honest, and less sinful class of the people which are pouring into the country daily from the Old World.”

Young’s message was a call to industry, probing the fresh wounds and insecurities of a country in the early stages of Reconstruction. An empty womb was a failure of patriotism: If an egg is lost—destroyed, dried up, passed away—so too is the nation. Like Curtis and Anderson, Young talked about the missed opportunity of pregnancy in tones of violence, destruction, and disappointment.

The anthropologist Emily Martin has argued that such descriptions pervade even scientific literature, reflecting subtle assumptions about gender. “Menstruation not only carries with it the connotation of a productive system that has failed to produce, it also carries the idea of production gone awry, making products of no use, not to specification, unsalable, wasted, scrap,” she writes in The Woman in the Body. She points, for example, to the work of Walter Heape, a late-19th-century English biologist who studied the periods of langur monkeys. Heape determined that at the end of each cycle, the lining of the uterus:

… is cast away, leaving behind a ragged wreck of tissue, torn glands, ruptured vessels, jagged edges of stroma, and masses of blood corpuscles, which it would seem hardly possible to heal satisfactorily without the aid of surgical treatment.

He marveled at the “powers of recuperation” required to recover from “such a completely devastating action as menstruation.” The physical result of a fertilized egg, we understand, is something generated, developed, birthed. That of an unfertilized egg is something purged. Martin notes that modern medical textbooks still describe menstrual bleeding with the language of pathology: While men “produce” sperm, women “shed” eggs.

Beyond weeping wombs, innumerable myths about menstruation fostered the idea that a period is somehow deviant, unnatural—even supernatural. A menstruating woman’s canned tomatoes will spoil, her jams and jellies will fail to set, her bread dough won’t rise. Her blood can cure leprosy or headaches, or be turned into a potion that will bind a man in love. The folklore endures. When Playtex surveyed Canadian women last fall to find out what advice they received when they got their periods, the responses included warnings against getting a cavity fixed while on your period (because the dental filling will fall out) or getting a perm (because your hair won’t curl). Earlier this year, Kimberly-Clark launched a campaign called “Generation Know” under their Kotex brand, with a sleek website and ad series intended to correct common misinformation about periods.

The project has a long history to revise. Circa AD 77-79, Pliny the Elder chronicled the dangerous powers of menstruation in his Natural History:

On the approach of a woman in this state, must will become sour, seeds which are touched by her become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits. Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately.

For the record, Pliny also believed that kissing a mule could remedy a cold, and advocated healing fractures with a paste of honey and charred field mice. Though his guess is as good as any for what’s happening to the bees.

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Sarah Yager is an associate editor at The Atlantic.

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