Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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Functional Periodicity

Leta Stetter Hollingworth (1914)
Posted July 2000




There is almost no previous literature of this subject, if we limit our consideration to experimental reports. A few statistical studies, to be briefly summarized later, have been made, however, and scientific opinion has expressed itself frequently and freely.

Michelet [2] refers to the function as "the cause of a whole drama." Marion [3] declares,

"We cannot but say that during the best part of her life, woman, even the most strongly constituted and perfectly balanced in mind and body, is subject to disturbances more or less grave, which are characteristic of her sex. She inevitably has periods of physical lassitude which may quite incapacitate her; of general weakness, semi-morbid in character; of nervous excitability, which tends to be abnormal, almost necessarily accompanied by a corresponding mental condition of vague sadness, restlessness and fear."
Havelock Ellis [4] says,
"It is but the outward manifestation of a monthly physiological cycle, which influences throughout the month the whole of a woman's physical and psychic organism. Whatever organic activity we investigate with any precision, we find traces of this rhythm. While a man may be said, at all events relatively, to live on a plane, a woman always lives on the upward or downward slope of a curve. This is a fact of the very first importance in the study of the physiological or psychological phenomena in women. Unless we always bear it in mind we cannot attain to any true knowledge of the physical, mental or moral life of women."[p. 2]
Max Runge,[5] a gynecologist of Göttingen, writes as follows:
"Every twenty-eight days in the case of matured woman, a process takes place which is called menstruation. Its essential manifestations are local, but the general mental and physical condition of the woman, as all physicians know, almost always also suffers a change, distinct though subject to large individual differences, which may best be described as irritable weakness. Physiological experiments teach that the organic functions of woman are rhythmical. Temperature, blood pressure, motor power, and other functions are subject to a cycle, which in general rises before the beginning of menstruation and declines immediately before and with its beginning. Only the excitability of the nervous system and caloric radiation reach a climax with menstruation itself.

"An experienced observer will be able to notice many interesting phases of the mental changes in woman at menstruation. Even though scientific experiments are as yet lacking, it may nevertheless be stated that a very great number of healthy women are mentally different during menstruation, especially on the first and second days. Thus woman needs protection during menstruation. All demands on her strength must be remitted. Every month for several days she is enfeebled, if not downright ill."

Psychiatrists lay much stress on the significance of this function in nervous diseases. In clinical pictures it figures frequently. Clouston [6] writes,
"It has a psychology of its own, of which the main features are a slight irritability or tendency toward lack of mental inhibition just before the process commences each month, a slight diminution of energy or tendency to mental paralysis and depression during the first day or two of its continuance, and a very considerable excess of energizing power and excitation of feeling during the first week or ten days after it has entirely ceased."
Marion [7] in this connection says, "It will suffice to say with the same author (Dr. Sicard [8]) that the mental condition of woman, under the influence of functional disturbances, may vary from simple malaise, from simple moodiness, to the complete loss of reason."[p. 3]

The criminal psychologist also has his interest in the matter, and his opinion is quote-worthy. Gross [9] says, in discussing the value of women's testimony,

"The menstrual period tends at all ages, from the youngest child to the full grown woman, to modify the quality of perception and the truth of description. . . . It is not improbable that a menstruating woman shall have heard, seen, felt and smelled things which others and she herself would not have perceived at another time."
P. J. Möbius,[10] in a somewhat testy little volume, remarks,
"Moreover, the law should take account of the natural feeble-mindedness of woman (psychiologisches Schwachsinn des Weibes). . . . To the considerations just mentioned must be added that woman during a considerable part of her life is to be looked upon as abnormal. I do not need to point out to physicians the significance of menstruation in mental life."
Lombroso [11] indicates the fact that the madness of the female criminal lunatic becomes more pronounced at the time of menstruation, and Ellis remarks upon the frequency of the suicidal impulse at this time: "These facts of morbid psychology are very significant; they emphasize the fact that even the healthiest woman a worm, however harmless, gnaws periodically at the roots of life."

These remarks and opinions are quoted to show the attitude of scientific men on the subject of the present inquiry. The implication certainly is that the functional periodicity of woman must profoundly influence her mental life and condition her intellectual effort. Indeed many explicit affirmations of this alleged fact are found in the literature.

Engelmann [12] states that, "mental energy and acumen are as a rule diminished during the flow, at least as is affirmed by perhaps sixty-five per cent of the many questioned, who state [p. 4] that mental exertion and study at that time are more difficult and wearing, and require greater effort."

G. Stanley Hall [13] declares that "Women . . . can make less accurate and energetic movements, and the mental activities are less brilliant" at menstruation, and that they "can do less work with mind and body." Hall fixes the period of maximum efficiency after the hemorrhage ceases. He says further, "Relation of mind and body are nowhere more intimate than here (during the menstrual period) and a psychology that does not take careful account of this is defective."

In discussing the matter of efficiency Ellis [14] writes that there is greater impressionability, greater suggestibility, and diminished self-control; there is increased nervous tension and a greater muscular excitability. He thinks also that "The superstitions regarding the evil influences exercised by women at their periods on the food, etc., may be supported by an actual decreased success in such operations at this time due to a physiological decrease in energy and skill."

Unfortunately for the critical reader, these writers do not tell how they arrived at the facts and conclusions which they state, whether by common observation, questionnaire, or by exact experimental methods. There is, however, a group of statistical studies, made during the eighties and nineties. These were conducted with the aim of discovering the effects of college education on the health of women, and particularly on the function of menstruation.

In 1885 The Association of Collegiate Alumnæ [15] completed the first comprehensive statistical study of the health of college women. A questionnaire comprising 40 questions was sent to a considerable number of graduates of 12 colleges, of whom 705 responded. It was found that of this number 239 abstained from physical, 2 from mental work, and 73 from both, during their periods.

In 1886 John Dewey [16] published a further analysis of the figures gathered by the Collegiate Alumnæ, with comments and [p. 5] suggestions. He pointed out that of 290 college girls those who reported good health on entering college were 78.1 per cent; those during college, 74.9 per cent; those after graduation, 77.9 per cent. It must be remarked here in criticism that no control records were collected of the health of college boys before, during and after college; nor of girls during the same years who did not go to college.

Dewey further noted the fact that during the pubescent period 53 per cent were subject to pain, irregularity, etc.; during college life, 66 per cent; after it, 64 per cent. Also here there were no control reports made by sisters or cousins who stayed at home. Of those who entered college one or two years after the beginning of menstruation, 20.5 per cent reported bad health; of those who entered from three to five years after, 17.7 per cent; of those who entered five years or more after, 15.4 per cent. Of those who entered at sixteen or less, 28 per cent lost in health, and 17 per cent gained; of those who entered over twenty, 18 per cent lost and 28.5 per cent gained. Among female colleges 55 per cent said that they abstained from study or exercise during periods; in co-educational institutions, 25 per cent.

The fact that a certain number of girls abstained from work at periods is evidently taken to mean that the individuals were unable to work at such times. It has been pointed out by Dr. Clelia Mosher [17] that the tradition that women must be incapacitated at periods strongly tends to increase the idea that efficiency is impaired. Indeed, it will have come within the experience of almost any woman student or teacher that girls sometimes remit work at periods, not because they are incapacitated, but because they have been instructed to do so.

G. A. Preston [18] found that of over 200 college girls, 57 per cent suffered no prostration; 298 per cent were free from pain; 72.2 per cent were regular; and only 2.75 per cent dropped out from ill health, as compared with 2.85 per cent of college boys from Amherst.[p. 6]

Mary P. Jacobi,[19] on the basis of a statistical study, concluded that, "There is nothing in the nature of menstruation to imply the necessity or even the desirability of rest for women whose menstruation is entirely normal." She concurred in the contention that there is nothing in university education that might be peculiarly injurious to the health of women. She ascribed the claim of many that they are better during college partly to change of climate, but more to the benign influences of interesting work, freedom from the routine of petty home cares, and increased knowledge of hygiene.

Engelmann, [20] previously quoted in this monograph, also used a questionnaire, and based his conclusions on the introspective (retrospective?) accounts thus obtained. But disparity between introspective judgment of performance and actual organic efficiency is a common finding.

The objections to statistical studies in matters of this kind, and the well recognized sources of error, need not be rehearsed in detail here. In general, the replies to questions were based on introspection; may have been influenced on the one hand by what is traditionally taught, on the other by unwillingness to confess weakness; may be invalid as bases for conclusions because college women may be a selected group with regard to health and endurance.

Very recently a study of the effects of school work on menstruation has been made by Dr. A. E. Arnold,[21] who had as subjects normal school students over 18 years of age. Arnold says:

"From my experience as a physician and teacher I was convinced that much of the incapacity claimed was of a fictitious nature, and that not only was exercise at this time not injurious, but on the other hand, directly beneficial."
Acting on this conviction, it was determined to excuse from physical or mental work at menstrual periods only those girls in whose case there was some definite and discoverable difficulty. The study includes the records of 238 individuals for all periods for about two years. Each girl kept a carefully supervised ac-[p. 7]count of every menstrual period, with respect to the duration, amount of pain and state of general well being, under these conditions in which no respite was allowed from physical and mental work. As a conclusion Arnold states, "So far our investigation shows all improvement."

Two investigations by exact methods have proceeded from St. Petersburg. The first of these, published in 1887, was physiological rather than psychological. This was the study of Finkelstein [22] who experimented on twenty subjects to determine the effects of functional periodicity on the field of vision. He reports a concentric narrowing of the field, beginning one, two or three days beforehand, the field reaching its minimum on the third or fourth day, and gradually expanding again, reaching normal on the seventh or eighth day after the beginning of the change.

The second of the studies from St. Petersburg was published by N. V. Voitsechovsky [23] in 1909. This dissertation has never been translated from the Russian, but the portions describing Voitsechovsky's experiment were read and summarized for the writer of this study by Mr. William A. Perlzweig, of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Voitsechovsky had as subjects 6 women, 3 under 21 years of age and 3 over 21 years of age. All knew the purpose of the experiment; some of them experienced pain at menstruation and some did not; 3 of them were well educated, and 3 were not. These women were tested daily for free association, immediate memory (digits and dissyllabic concrete nouns), attention (Vaschide's method; Vaschide's table of 1,000 squares used), choice reaction, and simple reaction. Voitsechovsky does not present his data in such a way that the reliability of his conclusions can be calculated. He gives only curves. This is regrettable, for the normal fluctuations in curves of work such as are presented, can be disentangled from fluctuations due to any specific cause only with the greatest difficulty and uncertainty by mere inspection of the graph. Voitsechovsky announced his conclusions as follows: (1) Menstruation has an unquestionable influence on women's psychical sphere, which may be stated in the objectively psychological way. (2) [p. 8] Deviations of psychic activity, depending upon the menstrual process, cannot be explained by the accompanying sensations of pain, since no strict parallelism can be observed between the two phenomena, either in the sense of intensity, or in the time of appearance. (3) The indicated deviations in the psychic -field are determined, evidently, by the variation of the character of internal excitations received by the brain cortex, which arise from the periodic fluctuations of metabolism and the vital activity of organs. (4) Simple reaction in the majority of cases does not exhibit definite fluctuations in connection with menstruation. (5) The average time of choice reaction is lengthened at the menstrual period, while its average variation is increased. (6) In view of the irregularity of variation of the simple reactions, the increase in the case of the choice reactions must be referred to delay in activity of higher brain centers. (7) The velocity of the current of freely arising associations is evidently somewhat arrested during menstruation. (8) Concentration (attention) is weakened during the menstrual period, especially in its qualitative aspect. (9) Mental work capacity is lowered during menstruation, especially qualitatively. (10) The revival of sound impressions (immediate memory) of words and figures remains without change in this period.

These conclusions of Voitsechovsky are thus quoted at length because they are otherwise at present accessible only in the Russian language, and because they result from the only strictly psychological investigation by exact methods that has hitherto been made for the express purpose of ascertaining the influence of menstruation or, the psychic activities of women. The work came to the attention of the present writer only after she had completed the experiments recorded in this monograph, and it so happened that none of the specific traits investigated by Voitsechovsky were re-investigated by her. Nevertheless it may be stated that in the opinion of the present writer the graphs presented by Voitsechovsky scarcely bear him out in his conclusions. It is at least questionable whether the critical periods could be located on these curves if they were drawn entirely solid without any indication on the graphs themselves as to where these periods fall, and submitted to a number of judges. The con-[p. 9]lusions would certainly have gained in value if they had been supported by the complete data, showing their reliability. Voitsechovsky gives no control curves made lay human beings not subject to the phenomenon in question. It is also true that his subjects all knew the purpose of the experiment, and that their attention was especially directed toward the menstrual periods as crucial moments in the experiment by the fact that they were asked to introspect. Thus, even if the graphs unquestionably showed by inspection an effect of the menstrual period, no one could be sure that this was not the result of special agitation on the part of the subjects, caused not by menstruation, but by the realization that they were being tested at a crucial moment.

In order to establish beyond question the validity of the conclusions reached by Voitsechovsky, the traits tested by him would have to be re-tested, with subjects who were naive to the experiment. These subjects would have to be "controlled" by other subjects who were not characterized by the phenomenon in question. If the data thus obtained, when fully presented, showed a reliable difference between the curves of the naive women subjects and those of the control subjects (men), Voitsechovsky's conclusions would be definitely established.

Even in the many experimental studies of sex differences in mental and motor traits, as well as in other experimental work where women have been employed as subjects, it seems that no account has usually been taken of the presumably important influence of periodicity. A recent investigation,[24] it is true, of the influence of a drug on mental and motor processes in the case of both sexes, carefully noted the occurrence and duration of periods in the women subjects. We are left to assume that the investigator found no difference due to periodicity, since in the report of the results this factor is entirely neglected. With the exception of this one research, the writer of this monograph knows of no instance where the matter of periodicity in women, so much emphasized by writers on the so-called "psychology of woman," has been taken into consideration by those engaged in original scientific investigation in psychology.

Several physiological investigations of variation in pulse rate,[p. 10] blood pressure, excretion and temperature are recorded in the literature of gynecology. These will be noted in the chapter which deals with the correlation between curves of mental and motor performance, and the curves obtained for physiological changes.


[1] A complete survey of the various theories of menstruation, its cause, and its part in the organic economy, may be gained by reference to the appended Bibliography. It is no part of the present purpose to review these theories.

[2] Michelet, L'Amour, 1859 (see Ellis, op. cit.).

[3] H. Marion, Psychologie de la Femme, 1900, p. 59.

[4] H. Ellis, op. cit., p. 284.

[5] Max Runge, Das Weib in s. Geschlechtliche Eigenart, 1900, p. 3.

[6] Clouston, Mental Diseases, 1887, p. 480.

[7] H. Marion, op cit., p. 58.

"Il suffrait de dire avec le même auteur (Dr. Sicard) [8] -- que l'état mental de la femme, sous l'empire de troubles fonctionelles, peut varier du simple malaise, de la simple inquiétude de l'âme jusqu'à l'aliénation, á la perte complète de la raison, en modifiant la moralité des actes depuis la simple attenuation jusqu'à i'irresponsabilité absolue!"

[8] Dr. S. Icard is no doubt here intended, since this is a statement made by that author in his work on "La Femme Pendant la Période Menstruelle." (See Bibliography.)

[9] Gross, Criminal Psychology, 1911 (Trans. from 1905 revised ed.), pp. 312-315.

[10] P. J. Möbius, Über den Physiologischen Schwachsinn des Weibes, 1908, p. 26.

"Auch das Gesetz sollte auf den physiologischen Schwachsinn des Weibes Rücksicht nehmen. Zu den bisher angestellten Erwagungen kommt noch das hinzu, bass das Weib während eines beträchtlichen Theiles seines Lebens als abnorm anzusehen ist. Ich brauche vor Aertzen nicht über die Bedeutung der Menstruation -- für das geistige Leben zu reden."

[11] Lombroso, The Female Offender, trans. 1896, p. 294.

[12] Engelmann, The American Girl of Today, Trans. Am. Gyn. Soc., 1900, vol. 25, p. 32.

[13] G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence, 1907, vol. I, p. 472.

[14] H. Ellis, op. cit, p. 291.

[15] Association of Collegiate Alumnæ, Health Statistics of Women College Graduates, 1885.

[16] John Dewey, Health and Sex in Higher Education, Pop. Sci. Mo., 1886.

[17] Clelia Mosher, Normal Menstruation and Some of the Factors Modifying It, Johns Hopkins Hosp. Bull., Apr., May, June, 1901.

[18] G. A. Preston, Influence of College Life on Health, Com. Mass. 1895, p. 167.

[19] Mary P. Jacobi, The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation, 1876, p. 26.

[20] Engelmann, op. cit., p. 19.

[21] A. E. Arnold, The Effect of School Work on Menstruation, Amer. Phys. Educ. Review, Feb., 1914.

[22] O. Finkelstein, On Changes in the Field of Vision During Menstruation, summarized in Opthalmic Review, 1887, pp. 323-326.

[23] N. V. Voitsechovsky, The Influence of Menstruation upon the Nervous and Psychic Apparatus of Women, 1909.

[24] H. L. Hollingworth. Influence of Caffein on Mental and Motor Efficiency, Arch. of Psych., No. 22, 1912, p. 13.