Classics in the History of Psychology

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

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Functional Periodicity

Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1914)
Posted July 2000


The present study concerns itself with the mental and motor abilities of women during menstruation, a question of special interest in the United States, where co-education and the higher education of women are well established.

The literature of ethnology relates in variety and detail the ancient superstitions and primitive practices that center around the functional periodicity of women. Menstruation has always been the object of superstition and taboo, and is such even among the civilized peoples of to-day. As an instance of the long survival of savage notions it may be pointed out that The British Medical Journal as late as 1878 contains a long and serious correspondence and discussion as to whether a menstruating woman will contaminate the food which she touches. One contributor puts himself on record as follows:

"I thought the fact was so generally known to every housewife and cook that meat would spoil if salted at the menstrual period, that I am surprised to see so many letters in The Journal. If I am not mistaken, the question was mooted many years ago in the periodicals. It is undoubtedly the fact that meat will be tainted if cured by women at the catamenial period. . . . Whatever the rationale may be, I can speak positively as to the fact."[1]
Another contributor, opposed to medical education for women, exclaims:
"If such bad results accrue from a woman curing dead meat whilst she is menstruating, what would result, under similar conditions, from her attempt to cure living flesh in her midwifery or surgical practice?"
In reviewing certain of the primitive beliefs and rites that rose in connection with this phenomenon, Havelock Ellis,[2] in a chapter on " The Functional Periodicity of Women," remarks: "It is not difficult to see how the menstrual function has given [p. vi] origin to the erroneous notion that women are natural invalids. Thus Galliani in his Dialogue sur les Femmes describes woman as 'un animal naturellement faible et malade." Galliani also refers to "the symptoms so well known in every race of man, and which make her (woman) an invalid for six days during every month, which makes at least a fifth part of her life. -- They are caressing and engaging as invalids usually are. -- Quickly irritated, they are promptly appeased. A mere nothing amuses them, like invalids."

In the late seventies and the early eighties of the nineteenth century, when the question of higher education for women was much discussed, a great number of books and articles appeared setting forth women's unfitness to be educated. Many agitated prophets raised their voices to warn the public against the dangers of admitting women to the universities, and one of the strongest arguments against the movement was based on physiological grounds. Henry Maudsley,[3] writing in 1874, shows the attitude typical of the time:

"This is a matter of physiology, not a matter of sentiment; it is not a mere question of larger or smaller muscles, but of the energy and power of endurance, of the nerve force which drives the intellectual and muscular machinery; not a question of two bodies and minds that are in equal physical condition, but of one body and mind capable of sustained and regular hard labor, and of another body and mind which for one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for hard work."
In 1883 W. LeC. Stevens [4] collected data from the very few colleges which were then co-educational, to determine whether Columbia might admit women " without detriment" to the college. Since "the physiological argument" was "that which is really of most importance," a questionnaire was sent to the presidents of co-educational colleges. President Andrew D. White of Cornell reported that on the whole the effect of co-education had been favorable to the health of women. President Angell of Michigan declared, "Most women are more vigorous at their graduation than on their admission." President Beach of Wesleyan said of women: "They are rarely ever on the sick list. I think in this respect they do much better than the young men."[p. vii]

Quotations might be multiplied to illustrate the differences of expert opinion that arose and attained publication at this time. Over thirty years have passed since then, and women are graduating by thousands from the institutions of higher learning. Yet the literature of gynecology still abounds in inconsistencies, differences of opinion, and contradictory instances in the matter which is the subject of this research. In view of the interest of the subject for educators of women, and for women students themselves, especially under conditions of co-education, where the women compete with the men on a high level of intellectual efficiency, and on the same terms, it seems that the matter should be subjected to methods and instruments of precision, and that exact data should be collected. Nor is the matter of pedagogical import alone; its sociological and economic implications are by no means negligible.

The present study, therefore, represents an effort to treat objectively this phenomenon concerning which such a remarkable variety of folk-lore and superstition has survived among civilized peoples from the days of savagery and magic. The work has extended over about three years. The method was adopted almost bodily from the monograph of Professor H. L. Hollingworth on "The Influence of Caffein on Mental and Motor Efficiency." It was, in fact, first suggested to me by this monograph that the influence of functional periodicity on mental and motor work might be objectively tested.

I am especially indebted to Professor Edward L. Thorndike, under whose supervision the work was accomplished, and who aided me with indispensable counsel and advice on matters of general and statistical treatment.

To Miss Caroline E. Stackpole and Professor Maurice Bigelow, of the Department of Biology at Columbia University, I am under obligation for aid in securing subjects for the Extensive Experiment. My sister, Miss Ruth Stetter, gave me much help in the matter of taking records in the Extensive Experiment, and in various other matters. Mr. William A. Perlzweig, of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, translated for me the dissertation of the Russian, Voitsechovsky, without which my work would have been incomplete.

The custom which is followed by the members of The New [p. viii] York Academy of Medicine of opening their library to the public every day for several hours has very greatly facilitated my labors, and it seems fitting that I should express my appreciation of this fact here.

My debt is greatest to the twenty-five individuals who served for me as subjects. They were without exception busy women and men. Had they not been willing to give time and effort to this undertaking, without compensation of any kind, the work could not have been done at all.

L. S. H.


[1] W. Storey, Brit. Med. Jour., 1878, p. 633. see also pp. 324, 353, 590. It is only fair to the editors of The British Medical Journal to say that they countenanced these contributions only as an experiment, to see how widely superstition was rife among civilized and educated persons.

[2] Ellis, Man and Woman, 1909, ed., p. 283.

[3] Maudsley, Sex in Mind and Education, 1884, p. 29.

[4] Stevens, The Admission of Women to Universities, 1883, p. 5.