“Is PMS Real?” It was the headline that launched a thousand hot takes—a bold statement by Frank Bures (a male author) that left many women who experience premenstrual symptoms rolling their eyes. After all, PMS and its related woes are real enough to the more than 85 percent of women who experience its symptoms. But how did PMS become a thing, anyway? As C. Amanda Rittenhouse explains, its existence in the public discourse doesn’t go back as far as you might think.
The term only came into common use in the 1980s, says Rittenhouse, though it’s been part of the medical literature since at least the 1930s. Rittenhouse asks how the syndrome—which was once dubbed “premenstrual tension” and given little medical attention—became construed as a social problem. She tracks its rise to two events in the 1980s: murder trials in Britain that reduced two women’s sentences because of their severe PMS. The trials sparked debate about how PMS affects women and coincided with a cultural context that questioned women’s participation in society.
Like the debate about hysteria a century before, arguments about PMS as a social problem revolved around whether women were limited by their menstrual cycles or not. To tease out those themes, Rittenhouse studied medical, popular and feminist literature.
She found several conceptions of PMS, but notes that because it hit the public discourse in connection with well-publicized murders, it was always construed as a potential social problem. Initially, medical literature constructed the syndrome as a minor hormonal problem, a private issue that required control of problematic menstrual cycles. The number of medical articles devoted to the problem skyrocketed after the trials, and the term itself gradually became devoted not to all premenstrual symptoms, but only to the most serious menstrual changes.
As PMS hit popular literature, it began to replace vague, negative descriptions of women as “once-a-month witches.” Though the term was associated with serious menstrual issues in the medical literature, popular literature construed it with any kind of premenstrual symptom. But only feminist discourse, writes Rittenhouse, challenged the syndrome or its implications. Concerned about the medicalization of normal menstrual rhythms and worried about the social implications of the condition, feminists began to wonder if PMS could be used to justify women’s exclusion from society. Over time, feminists began to link PMS to culture within a context of women’s shifting roles.
“PMS brought back old stereotypic views of women’s abilities to control themselves…yet over time this view changed,” writes Rittenhouse, who claims that premenstrual syndrome just isn’t as debated today as in the past. But her piece, which was written in 1991, predates the internet and its ability to turn just about anything into an argument or hot take. Just as the 1980s conversation about PMS revived old debates about hysteria, perhaps reaction to Bures’ article means it’s time to revisit the myths and lived experiences of menstruation for modern women.