Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
ISSN 1492-3713

(Return to index)

Functional Periodicity

Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1914)
Posted July 2000

[p. 92] XII [sic]


What, now, are the results of this investigation? And what are the factors that detract from the value of those results as conclusive evidence on the question herein treated?

It may be objected that these records for all tests measure only momentary efficiency. The subject gathered her energies, and the figures show only what can be done on a "spurt." It is true that no tests for long endurance were made. It was impossible to include this within the scope of the present experiment. It is to be hoped that experiments will be made to ascertain the comparative rate of motor fatigue during periods, for long continued work. The matter of determining comparative mental fatigue presents great difficulties, since it would involve almost continuous mental labor at one task every day for several months, -- a truly heroic undertaking. Moreover, the existence of a purely mental fatigue, entirely apart from physical fatigue, has never been satisfactorily demonstrated.

However, since these subjects did not lessen their usual amount of work in any conscious way during periods, it might be reasonably inferred that if endurance were less at such times, the subjects would be unusually tired by nightfall, and that this fatigue would manifest itself in poorer records. But the figures do not show that this was the case.

That which may be fairly claimed for these tests is that they yield a sample of the individual's efficiency, at a given time, in the traits which they are designed to measure. That is, if the actual maximum speed of movement were lessened, if the quality of perception, inhibition, and association were impaired, these tests would reveal the condition. It is not likely that any greater effort was put forth during critical periods than on other days, especially in the cases of F1 and F3, and some of the subjects in the extensive experiment, who knew nothing of the purpose of the tests, and whose attention was in no way called [p. 93] to the fact that they were being tested at a critical moment. It is also true that when the nervous system is in a state of real agitation, increased effort to control the resulting confusion only increases the agitation, and the individual has little power to conceal his or her true condition in such a test as that for steadiness. This also holds for the other tests here used.

It is stated by various scientific workers and others (see chapter on Previous Literature) that the sense of well being and the feeling of efficiency is diminished among normal women at catamenial periods. It is evident that these tests do not touch upon this point. They measure only sensori-motor and associational processes; the affective and volitional processes are left unmeasured, except in so far as the negative results indicate no unfavorable influence on volitional and affective processes during critical periods.

The most important objection to any general conclusion drawn from the data presented is, of course, that the subjects studied were but twenty-three, and that the subjects studied intensively were but six. This objection is admissible. but the difficulty of obtaining a large number of subjects who can and will give up a stated hour every day for several months, without compensation and without information as to what the object of the work may be, is obvious. However, it must be noted that the records of all the women here studied agree in supporting the negative conclusion here presented. None of them shows a characteristic inefficiency in the traits here tested at menstrual periods. And there is no reason to suppose that they do not constitute a fair, though small, sample of the world of normal women. They ranged from 20 years to 45 years in age, the mode for the group falling between 24 and 34 years. They were engaged in both professional and domestic work. They had, to be sure, in common the fact that all had undergone the process of professional training. It may be argued that this fact in itself shows them to he a group highly selected on the basis of physical strength and endurance, and therefore more likely than women in general to show negative results in these tests. On the other hand it may be argued that, far from making of them a selected group likely to show negative results at menstrual periods, this factor of strict professional training would lead us to expect a very [p. 94] marked disturbance at such times, since, according to the views quoted (see chapter on Previous Literature), strict professional training acts to produce far-reaching and disastrous effects upon this function.

These records, of course, tell nothing about what may be true in pathological cases, which in themselves offer an interesting opportunity for investigations similar to this. Data concerning the latter would be much more easily gathered than in the case of normal women, since pathological persons are collected for long period's in institutions, and are available for experiment which requires a stated hour every day.

It is obvious, therefore, that the present study by no means covers all phases of the question of the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation. It does cover the traits of voluntary speed of movement, steadiness, speed and accuracy of perception, and controlled association. It is suggestive, also, beyond the specific traits which are definitely measured, in that it shows what happened in the only cases where the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation have been investigated by rigidly controlled experimental method, and by means of instruments of precision. The results may be briefly and specifically stated as follows:

(1) Careful and exact measurement does not reveal a periodic mental or motor inefficiency in normal women.

(2) No part of the period is affected.

(3) Physical suffering seems to affect associational processes adversely, judging from the two instances here recorded where suffering was experienced on the first day.

(4) The variability of performance is not affected by physiological periodicity.

(5) No regularly recurring period of maximum efficiency within each month is discernible.

(6) The "cycle" referred to by Ellis and others is not discovered by methods of precision.

(7) No agreement is established between curves platted for pulse, blood pressure, temperature, caloric radiation, etc., and the curves of work for the mental and motor traits here tested.

It is astonishing how little support is found in these results [p. 95] for the statements quoted earlier in this paper. It is difficult to understand such striking disparity between what has been accepted and the figures yielded by scientific method. Yet several factors come at once to mind, which may have contributed to the situation.

In the first place, the tradition emanating from the mystic and romantic novelists, that woman is a mysterious being, half hysteric, half angel, has found its way into scientific writing. Through the centuries gone those who wrote were men, and since the phenomenon of periodicity was foreign to them, they not unnaturally seized upon it as a probable source of the alleged "mystery" and "caprice" of womankind. The dogma once formulated has been quoted on authority from author to author until the present day.

A more immediate source of error is to be noted in the fact that the greater part of the evidence quoted on this subject is clinical in character, -- the contribution of physicians. But it should be obvious to the least critical mind that normal women do not come under the care and observation of physicians.

To investigate the matter experimentally has been somewhat difficult, because until very recently all investigators were men, and the taboo put upon the phenomenon by men and women alike, rendered it a more or less unapproachable subject for experiment by men who were not physicians. And since physicians are seldom acquainted with the interests and methods of experimental psychology, the matter has not been undertaken by them. In addition to the difficulties caused by the taboo, the conditions of a conclusive and thorough research are so tedious that this problem might not suggest itself for experimental solution as readily as many others.

A quotation from Icard's lengthy treatise,[1] published in Paris [p. 96] in 1890, is interesting and instructive as an illustration of the kind of data formerly collected, and the manner of collecting data. The following occurs in the Introduction to that book.

"The menstrual function may, especially in the case of the predisposed, induce sympathetically a mental state, varying from a slight psychosis -- to absolute irresponsibility. Such is the proposition which I lay down, and which I shall endeavor to demonstrate.

"I have studied my subject long and conscientiously. This work is the fruit of many years of study. I shall cite in support of my thesis the opinion of the most famous authors. From time to time I shall let the ancients speak. . . . Finally I shall give some of my personal observations. . . .

"I have consulted with care distinguished alienists, father confessors, and directors of convents, superintendents of boarding schools and homes of refuge, mid-wives, women of the world.

"I can do no better than to resay badly in prose what Alfred de Musset has said so well in verse:

"'L'âme et le corps, hélas! ils iront deux à deux,
Tant que le monde ira, pas a pas, côte à côte,
Comme s'en vent les vers classiques et les boeufs,
L'un disant: 'Tu fais mal!' et l'autre, 'C'est ta faute.'"
On the basis of data thus collected, Icard [2] concludes: "The psychical and physical state of woman during the menstrual period seems to me to constitute one of the chief reasons why she should not administer public affairs. Indeed, one cannot depend upon a health so fragile and so often disturbed; the errors of judgment and the false evaluations so often made at that time prove that they (women) are unable to undertake [p. 97] comfortably and successfully that which should be the exclusive lot of the strong sex."

From whatever source or sources the idea of woman's periodic irresponsibility may have risen, it is certainly very widespread. Men of the most varied interests and professional equipment have written on the matter, -- historians, physicians, lawyers, philosophers, physiologists, novelists and educators. Men to whom it would never have occurred to write authoritatively on any other subject regarding which they possessed no reliable or expert knowledge, have not hesitated to make the most positive statements regarding the mental and motor abilities of women as related to functional periodicity. Even the daily press has lately exploited periodicity as an argument against conceding political freedom to women.[3] Yet the irresponsibility and inefficiency so widely proclaimed in theory are not considered and are not realized in practice. The psychologist writes that there are grave and profound changes in mind and body during menstruation; yet he makes no allowance for this in his experiments on women subjects. The physician declared fifty years ago that women were forever unfitted for higher education because of this function; yet the number of women graduated from colleges and universities in perfectly normal health increases yearly. It is positively asserted that women cannot successfully pursue professional and industrial life because they are incapacitated, and should rest for one-fifth of their time; yet it is not proposed that mothers, housekeepers, cooks, scrubwomen and dancers should be relieved periodically from their labors and responsibilities.[p. 98]

Furthermore, the various scientific writers who have expressed themselves on this subject, even when contemporaneous, are far from uniform in statement. (See chapter on Previous Literature.) Hall,[4] for instance, places the period of maximum efficiency and vitality after the hemorrhage; Van Ott,[5] before it. Jacobi [6] concludes that there is no reason why normal women should rest during menstruation; Clarke [7] urgently insists that the whole educational schedule of women must be regulated by it. Clouston [8] declares that the influence of menstruation is marked and universal among insane patients; Näcke [9] denies that there is a pronounced effect on the insane, due to menstruation, and is inclined to doubt its influence altogether.

Thus the disparity between accepted dogma and the results of scientific method is, perhaps, not so surprising after all. The remarks made by J. Stuart Mill [10] in 1867 are still about as true as they then were:

"Even the preliminary knowledge, what the differences between the sexes now are, apart from all question as to how they are made what they are, is still in the crudest and most incomplete state. Medical practitioners and physiologists have ascertained to some extent the differences in bodily constitution; and this is an important element to the psychologist; but hardly any medical practitioner is a psychologist. Respecting the mental characteristics of women, their observations are of [p. 99] no more account than those of common men. It is a subject on which nothing final can be known so long as those who alone can really know it, women themselves, have given but little testimony. . . ."
It seems appropriate and desirable that women should investigate these matters experimentally, now that the opportunity for training and research is open to them. Thus, in time, may be written a psychology of woman based on truth, not on opinion; on precise, not on anecdotal evidence; on accurate data rather than on remnants of magic. Thus may scientific light be cast upon the question so widely discussed at present and for several decades past, -- whether women may at last contribute their best intellectual effort toward human progress, or whether it will be expedient for them to remain in the future as they have remained in the past, the matrix from which proceed the dynamic agents of society.


[1] S. Icard. La Femme Pendant la Période Menstruelle, 1890.

"La fonction menstruelle peut, par sympathie, surtout chez les prédisposees, créer un état mental variant depuis la simple psychalgie . . . jusqu'à l'irresponsabilité absolue. Telle est la proposition que je formule, et ce que je vais essayer de démontrer.

"J'ai longuement et consciencieusement étudié mon sujet. Ce travail est le fruit de plusieurs annees d' étude. Je citerai à l'appui de ma thése l'opinion des auteurs les plus celebre. Je ferai parier les anciens . . . Apres avoir entendu les maîtres nous laisserons la parole aux faits: . . . a dessein j'appoite peu d'observations personnelles . . .

"J'ai consulte avec soin des aliénists distingués, des prêtres confesseurs, et directeurs des couvents des femmes, des directrices de pen sionnats et de refuges, des accoucheuses, des femmes du monde" . . .

"Je ne fais que redire en mauvais prose ce qu' Alfred de Musset a dit si bien en vers:"

And later:

"Les anciens . . . traduissaient leur pensée en disant que la femme est alors lunatique, expression qui s'est conservée jusqu' à nous, et qui peint très bien l'état d'instabilité nerveuse et psychique dans lequel se trouve la femme à cette epoque."

[2] Icard, op. cit., p. 263.

"L'état physique et psychique de la femme pendant la période menstruelle me paraît une des raisons principales qui doivent la tenir éloignée de la gestion des affaires publiques. On ne saurait en effet, se reposer sur une santé aussi délicate et si souvent troublée; les erreurs de jugement et les appréciations fausses dent elles donnent alors si souvent la preuve lui permettre de s'occuper convenablement et avec succès de ce qui doit être l'appanage exclusive du sere fort."

[3] The New York Times for March 28, 1912, contains the following paragraph:

"No doctor can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of a woman is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies. It is with such thoughts that the doctor lets his eyes rest upon the militant suffragist. He cannot shut them to the fact that there is mixed up in the woman's movement such mental disorder, and he cannot conceal from himself the physiological emergencies which lie behind."

NOTE. -- Yet scientific workers writing as late as 1907 and 1909 quote Icard as giving "a full and careful statement of the present state of knowledge regarding the mental condition of women during the menstrual period" (H. Ellis, op. cit., p. 293), and quote his conclusions without critical comment, as facts established (G. S. Hall, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 498-499) Gross (op. cit., p. 312), says, "Icard has written the best monograph on this subject," meaning the mental state of women during menstruation, especially with reference to legal responsibility!

[4] G. S. Hall, op. cit., p. 492.

[5] Van Ott, op. cit., p. 505

[6] M. P. Jacobi, op. cit., p. 227.

[7] E. H. Clarke, Sex in Education. 1873, p. 45.

[8] Clouston (see Ellis, op. cit., p. 293).

"The melancholics are more depressed, the maniacal more restless. the delusional more under the influence of their delusions in their conduct; those subject to hallucinations have them more intensely, the impulsive cases are more uncontrollable, the cases of stupor more stupid, and the demented tend to be excited."

[9] P. Näcke, Die Menstruation und ihre Einfluss bei Chroniken Psychosen. Arch. f. Psychiat, 2896, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 188-9.

"Nur für wenige Fälle, meine ich, könnte man eine eventuelle Abhängigkeit einer psychischen Aenderung von dem Menstruationsvorgange selbst annehmen, das sind nämlich die Fälle von schwerer Dysmenorrhoe . . .

"Schwerlich wird sich die Lebenscurve nur auf die Zeit der Geschlechtsreife beziehen; sie fängt wahrschienlich mit der Geburt an, um erst mit dem Tode aufzuhören, doch mit einem Maximum während der Geschlechtsreife. Sie scheint auch beim Manne zu existieren. und ist vielleicht gar ein allgemeines biologisches Gesetz der gesammten organischen Welt. . . . Auf diesem ganzen Gebiete giebt es also noch unendlich viele Probleme zu lösen, da wir erst am Anfange der diesbezüglichen Studien stehen."

[10] J. Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, 1867, p. 42.