03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

An Angry Woman

I wrote a book on menstruation that came out this month, and funnily enough, Serena Williams has been much on my mind. This isn't because she's the latest spokesperson for Tampax (one of the few celebrities brave enough to, errr, plug a plug); I was actually mulling over the fact that she was just fined a record $82,500 for her epic meltdown during the U.S. Open in September. What's more, she's been put on notice: one more tantrum, and she risks automatic suspension from the next Open.

To be fair, Serena is no cream puff and if she threatened to stuff a Wilson into one of my orifices, I'd probably take it personally. Menacing anyone, especially when one is an Amazon warrior/role model, is clearly something that should be nipped in the bud. But I can't help feeling that there's a subtext here, beneath the perceived threat and charges of unsportsmanlike conduct... and that has to do with women and anger. And the truth is, you can't really talk about female anger without eventually talking about menstruation. Specifically, of course, I'm talking about PMS - that strange, vaguely-defined condition held responsible for most of our unruly emotions, especially rage.

Anger has always been the least acceptable of female emotions. The word "bitch" goes back to 1400, if not earlier; and in 1811, a dictionary called it "the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of 'whore'." It's not just men who feel this way; women don't like anger in other females, and they don't much like it in themselves, either.

Hey, I'm not saying that shrieking like a harpy and smashing all the Fiestaware is the best way to deal with frustration or being done dirt. Still, I'm not alone in noting that while displays of racquet-shattering rage by male players are relatively indulged, Serena's outburst has practically sentenced her to the Dante's Inferno of tennis. A woman's anger is deemed so unacceptably unladylike, it seems to require either immediate correction or at the least, some kind of clinical explanation: a Twinkie defense of the hormones. And hence we have PMS.

PMS was first identified as "premenstrual tension" in 1931. Before that (and I'm talking thousands of years, here), cranky, weepy, and depressed women were routinely diagnosed with hysteria. The treatment ranged from the interestingly kinky (clitoral stimulation to "hysterical paroxysm" by a doctor) to the downright sick (hysterectomy and cervical cauterization). "Premenstrual syndrome", a term coined in 1953, picked up where the outdated diagnosis of hysteria left off. PMS became the go-to, catch-all female diagnosis for doctors, scientists and laypeople everywhere, the chemical reason behind any expression of female anger, unpredictability, and hostility... as many still believe today.

And yet, how common is PMS, anyway? There's virtually no agreement among experts, doctors, researchers... or women themselves. In fact, studies on PMS have varied so wildly in their findings, you could argue that anywhere from 5% to 97% of all women suffer from it at some time in their lives. What's more, studies have shown that there's no evidence of a hormonal basis for PMS, nor is there a diagnostic test that can conclusively determine whether one has it or not. In short, there is absolutely zero medical or scientific consensus on what PMS is, what causes it, or how to deal with it.

And yet, virtually all women indisputably have any number of premenstrual symptoms every month: mood swings, fatigue, anxiety. I myself have been known to sob uncontrollably at animal videos on YouTube, pick fights with strangers, and in general, feel really, really sorry for myself. But is this PMS? I'm not talking about the small percentage of women whose lives are genuinely upended by severe physical and emotional symptoms every month; I'm talking about most women, those who have a couple of days of crankiness, weepiness, anxiety. Can we really said to be "suffering" from a "syndrome", when in fact we might just be going through the same kind of emotional valley guys go through all the time, sans the blood and cramps? As Roseanne Barr once said, "Women complain about PMS, but I think of it as the only time of the month when I can be myself."

Maybe we're more prone to anger before our periods; but does that make the various reasons for our anger any less valid? It's easy to believe that emotional constancy is the norm; but I'm starting to think that cyclical moodiness might actually be truer to human nature.