Why we should care about the menopause

A couple of months ago I was telling a younger woman about some of the problems I was experiencing with the menopause. She appeared to be listening with what has to be called grudging tolerance, at best, until I came to the bit about hot flushes. I was only mentioning them in passing, while explaining about some new medication that was helping. But when I said ‘hot flushes’ she sniggered. Yes, sniggered is the only word for it. She sniggered as if there was something really absurd and ridiculous about hot flushes. She sniggered in a conspiratorial way as if I should snigger too. I did not. For me, there is no sniggering about hot flushes.

I have discovered that there is still silence, stigma, and  taboo, about the menopause that is both widespread and, most worryingly, prevalent among women, even right-on feminists. If you broach the subject, women ten years younger – fellow lesbians, or bi or straight –  hastily do the maths to work out how long before it is their turn, and then, with anxious relief (or concern), tell you. Women two decades younger look uncomfortable, as if you’ve just broken wind. Older women seem reluctant to discuss the menopause, once over, either declaring breezily ‘Oh I sailed through mine’ (never has such a less empathic thing been said between two women, in my view) or, with a slight shudder, ‘it will pass’ as if half-remembering horrors now consigned to memory. Then there are the women who point out that in Japan there is no word for menopause, or the marvels of HRT (not mentioning its risks and that it is contra-indicated for some women, including me), or who helpfully suggest some homeopathic remedy a friend of a friend said was ‘simply marvellous.’ There is always the sense that there is something I could, and should, be doing to fix my menopausal symptoms.

There is no public space for menopause, apart from  books and magazine articles usually exhorting, ‘successful ageing’- style, women to enjoy our menopause (preferably ‘naturally’). ‘Enjoy’ is another way of saying ‘cope with it discretely and don’t complain about it’ and is a view not shared by all. Other than that it is privatised, hidden away. There is no place – apart from jokes, or self-help websites or conspiratorial chats between fellow menopausal women – for the impact of the menopause, particularly chronic sleep deprivation and effects on concentration and memory, to be recognised. Not at work, not in education, not in the provision of goods and services (beyond medicine). ‘Pregnancy and maternity’ is a protected characteristic under the UK Equality Act, because of discrimination pregnant women and mothers (especially nursing mothers) can experience. Perhaps ‘Menopause’ should be too, not simply as a gender discrimination issue.

The marginalisation is undoubtedly rooted in ageism – in mainstream society and between women – and sexism, the menopause being inextricably linked to loss of fertility and women’s (heteronormative) reproductive social value. If I hear anything more about the ‘male menopause’ I shall scream, and not because of hormonal changes. Heterosexual men going through the ‘male menopause’ often trade in their original wives for younger models, starting a family all over again. Women going through the (real) menopause are saying goodbye to their chances of ever having any (more) birth children, whether they want them or not.

In the 1970’s a man shop assistant said, when I was being mildly assertive, ‘don’t worry about her, her period’s probably due.’ And this menopause issue feels somehow similar, something very sexist, but with the added dimension of ageism. It feels like social exclusion from/by a world geared up for young, virile, things who have no limits, and don’t want anything to do with someone who reminds them that there are limits, that our bodies change, and that, in the end, we die. It feels like another aspect of the false (masculine) denial of vulnerability as part of the human condition.  All (cisgender) women go through the menopause, for now at least. While for some it is plain sailing, for others it is not. We should embrace each other in care and solidarity before, during and afterwards, not leave women to go through the menopause silently, on the margins, and alone.

2 thoughts on “Why we should care about the menopause

  1. I did my master’s thesis on the menopause when studying with the Open University in 1990/1. I decided to do this because whilst I was in my mid-thirties at the time some of my friends were experiencing the menopause and there seemed to be a conspiracy of silence. I had years of interest of involvement in women’s health and sexual politics but the menopause was not on anyone’s agenda. A new feminist dictionary had been produced and whilst all sorts of minority and obscure terms were included the menopause was nowhere to be seen. This was pre-email so I wrote to the author (a respected academic) who kindly responded, basically saying that you can’t include everything – how many exclamation marks for this response!

    There is so much to say but not enough space or time here. One issue that I think is important for us all to recognise is that when the ovaries stop producing hormones the adrenals take over, and if you are stressed the adrenals already have too much to do. So trying to de-stress ones life during menopause may help. But of course the middle years are a time when many women find their stress levels rising as they have caring responsibilities – often toward parents and children. And of course de-stressing is not often a prescription meted out by medical professionals – HRT and the like are much more likely to be prescribed.

    Unfortunately once HRT appeared on the scene the medical profession had a ‘cure’ and saw the menopause as something that they could deal with. The problem then is that the menopause is pathologised – it has symptoms, as a disease would. So rather than a natural process it is seen as something unnatural, something that we must fight against.

    My own experience of the menopause was of chronic tiredness – not one full night’s sleep for over five years. As you write Sue, no-one takes any notice of this. One of my favourite moments during the past few years of consultancy work is talking about menstruation and menopause with the Council’s Cabinet as I took them through their gender equality duty that I had led on. If we are silent about these things then no-one is going to know that there are one or two issues here.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Sue, thanks for writing this and sharing your experiences – it’s a piece of writing that has made me think. I can think of a number of occasions (and over a number of years) where older females colleagues have mentioned menopausal symptoms, and I’ve listened and sympathised. But I now wonder if I did really stop to think about the impact on things like working lives etc that this phase of life can bring. I hope to be more aware now.

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