is sally

Today is the day of outreach for the March for Science’s week of outreach.I was going to post something cool about physics (probably will later this week) but I was also reading about a civil rights activist who had a hysterectomy without her consent, back in the days, well within living memory, when many southern states sterilized black women without their consent. (as an aside, the woman was Fannie Lou Hamer, and she famously coined the term Mississippi appendectomy to refer to this practice).

Now, obviously this is a terrible, racist violation of bodily autonomy, but one of the details that stuck out was that Hamer was 47 at the time. 

And then I remembered a story I’ve often retold, about Sally Ride and the Hundred Tampons. 

And then, I recalled my conversation just last night with my father about the science march, and science education, and how I don’t remember learning much about anatomy before I took it as a required course for my graduate degree. 

And then I remembered: I should take my iron pill.

And then I remembered: sexism. 

So: people who were not born with a uterus, here’s a very incomplete crash course in what I (a cis woman) for the most part was expected to learn mostly on my own between the ages of 12 and 20. Consider it a scientific public service.

1. People who get periods usually get them around once a month-ish. This can change based on a huge number of factors though, including pregnancy (don’t get periods), some forms of birth control (hormonal IUDs, some of the pill options), some other medications, some health conditions (PCOS, clotting factor disorders), stress (psychological or physical), and probably a bunch of other stuff. Ask your local gynecological specialist or certified nurse midwife since they will actually know. Actually, ask them for all of these if you need more details because they are experts.

2. People usually bleed for about 1-9 days according to the statistics from the app I personally use for tracking. 2-7 is most typical, 1 or 8-9 is nothing to worry about unless there’s a change or you’re running super low on iron or something.

3. Tampons should be changed when full. That will vary by person but I think 4-5 tampons a day is a decent estimate, so anyway long story short even if Sally Ride had gone up to space during her period and had a cycle on the longest end of normal, she would need no more than 50 tampons, and if she were more towards the average we’d be looking at closer to 20.

4. Also there are options other than tampons for blood collection. Google them if you’re interested.

5. Speaking of, periods are not in fact controllable. If someone says you should be able to hold it, they have literally no idea what they are talking about. It is the process of discharging the uterine lining, and while it would be great if humans could reabsorb it or just selectively get rid of it at leisure as if we were spitting out chewing gum, biology has not deigned to work that way. 

6. If you’re a cis man grossed out by this I have to hear about your body fluids, both liquid and gaseous, all the time, so I 100% do not care. Also at work I once had to look up what an episiotomy was while simultaneously on the phone and drinking my morning coffee so actually I 110% do not care.

7. Menopause average onset is about 48-55 years old, so there is statistically little to nothing to be gained in terms of sterilization by taking out a 47 year old’s uterus, even if she does give permission. That isn’t to say that menopausal people shouldn’t ever get hysterectomies since there are actual medical indications for that, but yeah, this didn’t even do anything for the illicit sterilization goal. The only motivation was being racist as fuck.

8. Similarly if you make jokes about a cis woman politician in her late 50s or above being on her period or being unreliable emotionally as a result of her menstrual cycle, you are almost certainly incorrect and completely certainly not funny.

9. PMS does exist and is tied to medically confirmed hormonal fluctuations that can cause psychological, digestive, and pain symptoms among others. If someone is mad at you, do not assume it is PMS. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, I’m not mad at you because I’m PMS-ing. I’m mad because you’re an asshole.

10. Birth control pills, which contain hormones, can help smooth out those hormonal fluctuations and help with PMS symptoms.10. Speaking only anecdotally here but most people who menstruate do not take sick days every month either. Some do need to take time off, due to severe symptoms that the pill/a few NSAIDS and a death glare cannot alleviate. A recent study found that in some people, cramps are of equivalent pain as a heart attack. Would you go into work while feeling like you’re having a heart attack? I doubt it given further anecdotal observation of how people act when they have a mild cold or hangover.


This has been: the science of knowing pretty much the absolute minimum about what uteruses do when their owners aren’t pregnant.